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Pope Francis greets Slovenia's Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek during a private audience at the Vatican June 13. (CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool)
Is Pope Francis our first anticlerical pope? Technically speaking, he isn't--his two predecessors also were more or less critical of clericalism--but he is well on his way to being the most outspoken one.

Consider a widely circulated quote from a 2011 interview he gave while he was still Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. In case you haven't seen it or have forgotten it, the key passage goes like this:

"As I have said before, there is a problem: the temptation to clericalism. We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own thing. And the laity--not all but many--ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar boy than the protagonist of a lay path….

"The layman is a layman and has to live as a layman with the strength of his baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society…not from his pulpit but from his everyday life. And the priest--let the priest carry the cross of the priest, since God gave him a broad enough shoulder for this."

These are strong, bracing words. But besides the words, Francis's manner and lifestyle--unpretentious, simple, direct--constitute a kind of living repudiation of certain clericalist conventions. (Lest there be any doubt--many other good priests also speak and live this way.)

The essence of clericalism in the sense in which Pope Francis (and I) use the word is a way of thinking that takes for granted that the clerical vocation and state in life are both superior to and normative for all other Christian vocations and states. From this point of view it follows that clerics are the active agents in the Church--the ones who make the decisions, give the orders, exercise command. The laity's role is to listen and do as they're told.

Many lay people appear still to think this way at least as much as, and probably more than, their priests do. That's true even (or perhaps especially) of those who rebel against it and drop out of the Church. Deeply rooted and pervasive, it's an abuse that replaces the idea of a Church whose fundamentally equal members have diverse offices and roles with a caricature: clerics are bosses, lay people get bossed.

America isn't the only place it exists. In a talk recently in New York, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said "strong remnants of inherited clericalism" continue to plague the Church in Ireland. "The days of the dominant or at times domineering role of clergy within what people call the 'institutional Church' have changed, but part of the culture still remains," he said.

So how to proceed from here? Pope Benedict XVI more than once suggested an important dimension of what needs to be done in floating the idea of  "co-responsibility."

In a message to a meeting last August, he explained: "Co-responsibility demands a change in mindset especially concerning the role of lay people in the Church. They should not be regarded as 'collaborators' of the clergy but, rather, as people who are really 'co-responsible' for the Church's being and acting."

Here's a thought. Reforming the central administrative machinery of the Church stands high on Pope Francis's agenda. Mightn't finding ways for lay people to have a stronger presence and voice in what happens in Rome be part of it? That could be an idea whose time has come.

 
About the Author
Russell Shaw 

Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.
 
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