Well, of course not.

But the term needs a clear definition, as I have heard from some readers of a more progressive view of things that a photo of priests in cassocks, or of priests wearing a chasuble that doesn’t look like he pinched it off of a picnic table at Tower Grove Park, or of a priest in a biretta, smacks of “clericalism”.


When I hear this term used (which is rarely, btw) it is always in a negative sense. I looked up the definition in several online dictionaries.

The American Heritage Dictionary:

A policy of supporting the power and influence of the clergy in political or secular matters.

The Collins English Dictionary has something like it, and also this alternative definition:

The power of the clergy esp. when excessively strong.

And the provocatively-named Dictionary of ologies and isms has this one:

An undue influence of the hierarchy and clergy in public affairs and government.

It doesn’t appear to me that any of these dictionary definitions applies to the things these readers note. I don’t know why a priest wearing proper liturgical vestments or the traditional cassock would denote ‘excessively strong’ power and certainly priests of this kind don’t have ‘undue influence’ in public affairs and government. Quite the reverse.

So what do these readers mean by the term “clericalism”? As far as I can tell, they seem to be complaining that a priest is acting like a priest, or dressing like a priest, in an obvious way.

No, no!, I might hear, what we mean is that these priests think they’re better than everyone else, and that they should receive deference and an almost god-like reverence. Vatican II emphasized the priesthood of all the faithful. These priests are putting down the laity with their attire and attitude. It’s divisive!

Well, let me respond from the point of view of one Catholic layman. To begin, let me say that I really mean that– I am going to analyze this from the point of view of a lay observer, and not from inside the head or heart of a Catholic priest. Let me tell you what I see when I see a priest in public.

If a priest is out in public in the standard “I don’t want to call attention to myself” uniform of dress pants and a polo shirt, the result is usually successful in that unless I know him personally I don’t recognize that he is one. He can get in and out without incident. Just another guy, just another member of the “priesthood of all the faithful”.

A priest who ventures out in public in his clerical attire sends an unmistakable message. You cannot doubt his vocation or his employer unless perhaps you may be in some doubt about whether he is Catholic or of a mainline Protestant group. But the default position is, “That man is a Catholic priest.” He doesn’t get to walk in and out of the grocery store without being the object of attention. He is subject to the curiosity of gawkers, the scorn of the worldings or even some Catholics who hate “clericalism”, and perhaps, maybe, the grateful affection of a Catholic who sees in that “man just like the rest of us” hands that can bring the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ to us, and who speaks with the voice of Christ when he says “Te Absolvo” and we are made clean.

Clerical attire, whether the black suit or a cassock, sends the message that one is a priest. Yet, I will venture to say, the cassock is unmistakable. Though the cassock may not be strictly speaking exclusive to the Catholic priesthood, when I see one there is never any doubt in my mind that the wearer is a Catholic priest. The cassock says, “I am a priest, and moreover, this is serious business.”If a priest wears a cassock in public, he just might get hit up for a confession in the lumber aisle of Home Depot, as happened to a priest friend of mine. He is an unmistakable sign of Christ’s love in this world.

Yes, this may be “divisive”, but only in the sense that Christ Himself was a “sign of contradiction.” The priest is living proof that God has not forsaken us. He is subject to the scorn of the world but this is simply part of his lifelong and total sacrifice for the Bride of Christ. And, taking our Home Depot confession example, who knows whether that one encounter with a priest acting like a priest was the last confession this person made, or even whether they lived another day, or perhaps if this was the beginning of a conversion process that brought a stray sheep back to the fold.

The relevant norms for clerical attire for secular clerics in the United States:

…clerics are to dress in conformity with their sacred calling. In liturgical rites, clerics shall wear the vesture prescribed in the proper liturgical books. Outside liturgical functions, a black suit and Roman collar are the usual attire for priests. The use of the cassock is at the discretion of the cleric.

And, from the 1994 Directory for Life and Ministry of Priests:

66. Obligation of Ecclesiastical Attire. In a secularised and materialistic society, where the external signs of sacred and supernatural realities tend to disappear, it is particularly important that the community be able to recognise the priest, man of God and dispenser of his mysteries, by his attire as well, which is an unequivocal sign of his dedication and his identity as a public minister. The priest should be identifiable primarily through his conduct, but also by his manner of dressing, which makes visible to all the faithful, indeed and to all men, his identity and his belonging to God and the Church.

For this reason, the clergy should wear “suitable ecclesiastical dress, in accordance with the norms established by the Episcopal Conference and the legitimate local custom”. This means that the attire, when it is not the cassock, must be different from the manner in which the laity dress, and conform to the dignity and sacredness of his ministry. The style and colour should be established by the Episcopal Conference, always in agreement with the dispositions of the universal law.

Because of their incoherence with the spirit of this discipline, contrary practices cannot be considered legitimate customs; and should be removed by the competent authority.

Outside of entirely exceptional cases, a cleric’s failure to use this proper ecclesiastical attire could manifest a weak sense of his identity as one consecrated to God.

And finally, on a related note, while we are all in a sense participants in the priesthood of Christ, instead of lifting up the laity this truism has been turned on its head in practice. We have diminished the worth of the priest in our eyes and instead have created all sorts of laypeople who try to act like ministerial priests. The ordained priest is merely one member of the liturgical committee, of “extraordinary” ministers of Holy Communion schlepping about the sanctuary in denim and birkenstocks, or “proclaiming” the Word of God like they were Hal Holbrook in a one-man show about Mark Twain. Everything bland, everything immediate, a fine grey mist over all.

Then the priest is no different from the rest of us– he is not any “better”. But it isn’t that the priest is supposed to be “better”. His vocation sets him apart. He is designated for holiness like us all, but his vocation is unique because Christ in His wisdom founded a sacramental Church and instituted an ordained priesthood to distribute the fruits of the redemption He won for us, once and for all.

So, please pardon me if I think that the charge of clericalism is misplaced when levelled at priests who realize the dignity and grave responsibility of their position and who embrace that cross, with all its agony and joy. Yet in a sense, one of those definitions hints at the truth without realizing it. There is a ‘power’ to the clergy, and it can be ‘excessively strong’. It is the power of Christ working in the priest. Me, I find that comforting. Why would any Catholic want their priests to be reluctant in applying it?