Rorate Caeli

Pope Francis and the "Clericalized Laity": a Confused Critique


Pope Francis has issued an attack on American Catholics, denouncing them as "backwards" and  "reactionary" in an interview released Monday. Francis has made similar comments against his perceived "conservative" critics on other occasions. This particular denunciation received much more press coverage not because it was nastier (Francis last summer accused traditionalists of having a "dead faith"), but because of his specification that the Catholics he is targeting are Americans.

This embroiled Francis-- who has spent a total of six days in the U.S. as pope-- directly in U.S. political debates. His comments will likely embolden anti-Catholic forces in the U.S. who seek to denigrate Catholics who stand up for the Church's teachings-- "see, even the Pope disagrees with you." 

Francis has now extended his criticism of the "clericalism" of traditional priests to the "clericalism" of the laity, stating "the clericalized laity are frightening" and clericalism is "worse when it creeps into the laity." But Francis has a confused conception of the "the clericalized laity" that is completely different from how this term had been used previously.

Pope John Paul II warned of "clericalizing the laity" in these terms: involvement "by the laity becomes a form of clericalism when the sacramental or liturgical roles that belong to the priest are assumed by the lay faithful, or when the latter set out to accomplish tasks of pastoral governing that properly belong to the priest."  That is, "[t]he commitment of lay persons is politicized when the laity is absorbed by the exercise of ‘power’ within the Church . . . That happens when the Church is not seen in terms of the mystery of grace that characterizes her, but rather in sociological or even political terms."

Francis, by contrast, has no qualms about casting the Church in political, sociological or worldly terms-- indeed, he does it repeatedly in this very interview. Nor does he have any special problem with the laity taking on liturgical roles. Instead, Francis defines the "clericalization of the laity" as "living one’s own calling in an elitist way, wrapped up in one’s own group and erecting walls against the outside, developing possessive bonds with regard to roles in the community, cultivating arrogant and boastful attitudes towards others," or else engaging in "complaining, negativity and chronic dissatisfaction with what is wrong." 

Of course, Francis himself routinely displays the same "complaining, negativity and chronic dissatisfaction with what is wrong" that he denounces-- as evidenced by his continued attacks on traditionalist and American Catholics. And his own initiatives-- particularly his restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass-- are, by his own definitions, the essence of clericalism, imposed in a top-down manner and meant to erect walls within the Church between those who attend the TLM and the Novus Ordo. 

In the final analysis, Francis's attacks on the "clericalization of the laity" are not tied to any conception of the proper boundaries between clerics and laity and not tied to how this term had previously been defined. Indeed, Pope Francis has made a point of blurring the boundaries between priestly roles and lay roles in his Synod on Synodality. Instead, Pope Francis's criticisms of the "clericalization of the laity" appear to be nothing more than another verbal attack on unnamed and unspecified people within the Church for their supposed negativity, elitism, and arrogance-- i.e., another way for the Pope to attack his perceived critics in personal terms, with no broader pedagogical or spiritual value.