Catholicism v. Clericalism

Are you a Catholic or a Clericalist? Many Christians believe they're Catholic, but in reality, they're just Clericalists. What's the difference?

A Catholic is a Christian who follows the universal faith, handed down by the apostles through Scripture and Tradition, as defined by the popes and bishops throughout the ages. The best way to learn this is to read and study the Catechism. Reading and studying Scripture is also very helpful. Catholics follow their priests and bishops only insofar as these follow the Catholic faith. When a priest or bishop teaches something that is not Catholic, it is the duty of Catholic laypeople to call them out on it. Just because a man is wearing a collar doesn't mean he's always right. If he's teaching something against the faith, a real Catholic will ignore it, and maybe even call it out as inaccurate.

A Clericalist is the exact opposite. A Clericalist simply follows the teachings of clerics (bishops and priests) blindly. Whatever Father So-And-So says is what he/she believes, and whatever Bishop What's-His-Name decrees is law. A Clericalist makes little effort to study the Catechism or the Scriptures. Even if he/she does make a cursory effort to read them, he/she will dismiss them whenever a cleric (priest or bishop) tells him/her to. In other words, Clericalists follow clerics. They just do whatever the priests or bishops say, without any regard to what the Catholic faith actually is, or what has always been the historic teachings of the Church.

So... Are you a Catholic or a Clericalist?

Protestants frequently level the charge of Clericalism against all Catholics. That's one of the ways they disparage Catholicism and discourage their people from ever considering conversion to the Catholic Church. They tell their people that Catholics are all just Clericalists. They say that Catholics blindly do whatever the clerics (pope, bishops and priests) tell them to. "Catholics don't study the Scriptures," Protestants explain to their congregation, "they just blindly think and do whatever the pope and bishops tell them to." They charge that if a bishop tells them that Mary is God, then Catholics will believe that Mary is God. Protestants tell their congregations that Catholics don't think for themselves at all and that Catholics have basically checked their brains at the door. They say that the clerics simply run the show, and Catholic laypeople are nothing more than little robots -- mindless lemmings who are unable to think for themselves.

So... Is this true?

If you're a Clericalist, it most certainly is.

Sadly, many Clericalists identify as Catholics. They blindly follow their bishops and priests without ever questioning them. If a priest or bishop tells them that getting divorced and remarried is okay, without an annulment, they just blindly accept it. "Well, Father So-And-So said it was okay!" They make little effort to read the Catechism and find out what the Church has always taught. Or else they just ignore the Catechism altogether, because you see, Father So-And-So can override it, because he's wearing a collar.

Clericalism has always been a problem in religion. The Catholic Church has had its fair share, but so have Protestant churches. One can even find it outside of religion, such as in academia for example. Jesus dealt with clericalism too. The Scribes and Pharisees were the clerics of his time on earth. Some of them were good. Others took advantage of the people. Jesus told his followers to respect their authority, but not to follow their example if they were hypocrites. He even contradicted their teaching from time to time, when their teaching clearly violated the intent of the Law of Moses.

Today we see the worst kind of Clericalism developing in the Catholic Church, particularly among the Left-leaning clergy, not only in dioceses around the world but now in the Vatican itself. Like all Clericalism, the clerics are asserting that their opinions (sometimes heretical opinions) trump what the Church has always taught, simply by virtue of their ordination. So in other words, they're essentially saying that their positions of authority in the Church give them the authority to override historic Catholic teaching. It gets worse when some of these clerics call those who ignore their heresy "disobedient." Of course, these clerics have the Clericalist lemmings to back them. There are all too many Clericalists (calling themselves Catholics) more than willing to chuck that Catechism out the window if Father So-And-So says it's okay to do so. Modern Clericalists have learned that the way to overthrow Catholicism is to just tell the people what they want to hear. Give them a simple, watered-down Gospel that doesn't challenge them to give up sin. Then the people will gladly embrace Clericalism over Catholicism, and the cleric (priests and bishops) will have absolute control over their minds, hearts and souls.

When I left Protestantism to become a Catholic, I never signed up for Clericalism. Though many of my Protestant friends told me I was checking my brain at the door to blindly follow the pope and bishops, I knew that what I was really signing up for was the Apostolic faith, handed down through the Traditions of the Catholic Church, as expressed in the Scriptures, Catechism and liturgy. I knew that the function of the pope and bishops, as well as the priests and deacons, was to protect that Apostolic Faith handed down through the Traditions of the Catholic Church. I also knew that if any one of these clerics within the Church were to teach something contrary to this Tradition, that cleric is wrong and maybe even heretical.

The Catholic Church has had many heretics throughout its history. Most of them have been priests and bishops. Yes, even a pope or two has preached heresy from time to time (not using the gift of infallibility of course). Usually, this stuff doesn't have any effect on the laity. But in recent times, as such heresies have bled over into the area of sexual morality, they have a more direct effect on the laity. Therefore, it's up to the laity to know what the Catholic Church teaches, what she has always taught, and that it cannot change. So when Father So-And-So says it's okay to use artificial contraception without a vital medical reason, Father So-And-So is wrong! When Bishop What's-His-Name says that it's okay for divorced and remarried people to receive communion, without an annulment, Bishop What's-His-Name is wrong! When Father So-And-So says it's okay for homosexuals to carry on in sodomy, Father So-And-So is wrong! When Bishop What's-His-Name says the Church needs to bless same-sex unions, Bishop What's-His-Name is wrong! Yes, Catholic laypeople can make these judgements, because it's up to Catholic laypeople to know their faith, especially in areas of sexual morality. A real Catholic will make these judgements, and follow the Catholic faith, in spite of whatever Father So-And-So says, and in spite of whatever Bishop What's-His-Name decrees. A real Catholic will look for bishops and priests who actually follow historic Catholic teaching, and listen to them instead. Meanwhile, the Clericalist (who masquerades as a Catholic) will just follow Father So-And-So and Bishop What's-His-Name blindly, disregarding the historic Catholic faith in the process.

So what are you? A Catholic or a Clericalist?


Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of '' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.

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