That’s probably a term you’ve heard thrown around a lot in the Church. Since the first sex abuse scandals shattered the public’s faith in the creditability of the Church and crippled the Church’s faith in herself, the term “clericalism” has often come into play. Pope Francis has spoken out against clericalism and even further rejected the notion of Catholic women priests by asserting that he believed that ordaining women as priests would only escalate clericalism.
But what is clericalism?
According to Nicholas Senz of Aleteia, “Clericalism is a disordered attitude toward clergy, an excessive deference and an assumption of moral superiority.” So, to put it blankly, clericalism is when clergy consider themselves to be more important and virtuous than the laity and thus should be given absolute governing power. Clericalism is so complex because in many ways, laity (Catholics leading “secular” lifestyles) perpetuate clericalism. This attitude is characterized in phrases such as: “Father knows best”. While clergy is important to the Catholic religion, it’s to be noted that the most essential group of people within the Church is, indeed, the laity. Religion, particularly Catholicism, has enwrapped itself in clericalism to the point where clergy is synonymous with religious leadership and devotional lifestyles themselves.
Clergy, to many, is a representative of “organized religion” and some even blame clergy for the world’s spiritual slumber. But I think that it’s more complicated than that. The definition of the word “religion” is a debatable thing amongst academics who study philosophy and religion. A religion does not have to have a theistic assertion to be a religion. Buddhism, for example, is rather open-ended when it comes to asserting if there is or isn’t a God. And even some religious scholars have tried to argue that brands such as Coca-Cola could be considered religions.
How does this relate to clericalism?
Despite how many yoga mats, essential oils and crystals you buy, you’re still religious; being “spiritual” but not religious is an arbitrary assertion. Just because you don’t follow a priest doesn’t mean you aren’t religious. I say this with the most utmost love. I was once an adamant member of the “spiritual-but-not-religious” club. It’s important to understand that this equation between religion and clergy is not a coincidence. It’s the result of clericalism. The religiosity of laypeople is often delegitimized in comparison to the devotions of clergy, particularly priests.
My patroness, St. Jeanne D’Arc was an empowered laywoman. She was killed for it. St. Joan of Arc is often regarded in history as “the first witch to be burned”. Due to this unofficial title, it is not surprising that she even has a devotion among practicing witches. Before St. Joan of Arc was executed, witch burnings did happen, but were rightfully considered distasteful and were reserved to isolated communities.
Approximately 55 years after Joan of Arc’s burning, a definitive text called Malleus Maleficarum, also known as the Hammer of the Witches, was published. This text’s popularity was second only to the Bible. The publication of Malleus Maleficarum is thought to be a result of the execution of Joan of Arc, since La Pucelle (the Maid) was a very divisive and revolutionary figure who inspired women to lead outside their gender roles at the time. She captured the imaginations of her contemporaries the way she does today. St. Joan of Arc is one of the few Catholic saints that actually has “fan-bases” outside of the Catholic faith. This is for many reasons. In my opinion, St. Joan of Arc is a feminist heroine as well as a prime example for lay leaders to follow. St. Joan of Arc was tried for witchcraft, though those charges were unsuccessful. The charges that led to her murder? Relapsed heresy. The heresy in question? Wearing men’s clothes. Gender nonconformity was punishable by death.
This highlights the oppression of the period and the distrust surrounding the religiosity of lay people, particularly because all women are lay people. Sisters and nuns are not considered ordained. It’s important to remember that the hatred of women and gender deviation in general should not only be relegated to the Middle Ages. The future is not always progressive. Sometimes instead of taking steps forward, we step back.
An example of this was the publication of Malleus Maleficarum which signaled a time of great regression that began after St. Joan of Arc’s murder, a period that framed all women as witches. Even the title “Maleficarum” indicates that the author of the publication believed that witchcraft was a female crime. In Latin, the masculine plural is used when describing a mixed group, even if the majority of the group is female. The text was used to burn innocent women at the stake, many of whom were medicine women and disabled women.
We still feel the affects of Malleus Maleficarum and my patron saint’s death today.
It can still be felt in our societal superstition surrounding Friday the 13th. As we know, Friday the 13th is known as a day of bad luck and misfortune, a day when all things are destined to go wrong. I have my fair share of Friday the 13th bad luck stories. One time when I was 15, my friend and I were hanging out on Friday the 13th alone at her house… and all of her mom’s expensive wine stores shattered all over the floor in front of us without us touching them. Talk about bad luck, right?
The origins of Friday the 13th’s negative superstitions closely tie to Malleus Maleficarum. Heinrich Kramer, the clergyman who authored the Hammer of the Witches often taught that on Friday the 13th, witches would perform spells thus making the day cursed. This mistrust was based in pagan folklore which was of more common knowledge then than it is today. Friday is named after the Norse goddess, Frigg, who was the wife of Odin. Frigg was seen as an archetypal feminine energy. The goddess represented love, beauty and fertility. It was tradition that women, particularly medicine women, would celebrate the feminine energy on Friday the 13th, even Catholic women. It was a day to reflect on the maternal.
When I learned this, it made me wonder why Marian apparitions tend to often occur on the 13th of the month as we see in the Our Lady of Fatima apparitions. Then, it made sense. The 13th of the month was once a day to celebrate the feminine. Now, when a Friday the 13th comes around, we groan wondering what misfortune will befall us this time. So insidiously steeped is our society in misogyny. But the rosary offers us a way forward. In a way, Fatima was a reclaiming of the 13th of the month, a reconsecration. Our Lady’s request for us to pray the rosary at Fatima was also a call to action. The rosary by its nature is feminine and is one of the best tools a lay Catholic mystic has in her arsenal. I’ve personally witnessed the rosary do miraculous things in my life and the lives of others.
Such is the power of God. Such is the power of Our Lady.
Such is the power of our womanhood.
I’ve come to reflect that it is always dangerous doing anything while being female. Whether you conform to traditional femininity or deviate from it, if you are a woman, your life will be full of struggles rooted on the basis of sex. But St. Joan of Arc, in particular, challenged the patriarchal Church in a way that differed from the challenges mounted by other saintly women. She still challenges us and she is still silenced.
Upon choosing my patron saint for my confirmation, awkward, baby me was obsessed with Joan of Arc. She and Alexander the Great were my two favorite historical figures; I was that indeterminately weird girl in middle school who was unnaturally fixated on ancient Egypt and lived in the library. When I researched her for the paper that I had to write for my confirmation, I remember reading that St. Joan of Arc was killed because she was a political enemy of the English. The same message was reaffirmed in my catechism courses. Catholic educational sources tended to focus on St. Joan of Arc’s nationalism… which was not surprising considering that I was growing up as an American in the post-9/11 era. Her role as the protector of soldiers and the military was emphasized. I always thought she died for being a political enemy, a martyr for her country.
I did not find out the true motivations behind St. Joan of Arc’s death until I was pursuing an education in religion and philosophy in college.
St. Joan of Arc was killed for her gender non-conforming challenge against clericalism.
I don’t think that it’s accidental that the true reasons behind St. Joan of Arc’s burning were hidden. The attitude that the spirituality of women and other minorities is illegitimate comes from the patriarchal Church’s distrust of these groups. For though clergy preach that true power comes in sainthood, you only become a saint when you’re dead.
And the dead can’t speak in protest.
The revelation of the McCarrick files and the betrayal we feel as a Church that one of our most celebrated modern saints, Pope John Paul II, allowed this monster to move up in the ranks highlights why we must demand better.
The sex abuse crisis is the result of clericalism. The McCarrick report confirms this. As Sam Sawyer, S.J. writes in America Magazine: “These failures are not just tragic accidents but the predictable outcome of the incentives and attitudes that have shaped the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.”
The laity must rise up and lead armies as St. Joan of Arc once did.
We must reclaim what it means to be religious.
The laity have more power than we believe that we do. We must speak up for what’s right and get involved is social justice activism in ways that are clergy cannot. We are called to embrace this power in one of the vital teachings of the Second Vatican Council: “The Lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in ‘public life’ that is in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.” There’s a large chance that you know more about social justice issues that you’re involved with than priests do. If you’re a woman, you know more about what it’s like to live in a male dominated society than the all-male priesthood does. If you’re queer, there’s a huge chance that you know more about sexuality and gender studies than your clergy does. This is all because these groups of laity, and simply the laity in general, are more connected to the living in the world. We live outside the cathedral walls, we spread the new of the Gospels over coffee.
We know what it’s like to live in a world and a Church that hasn’t been built for us.
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Didn’t Jesus come to give the Church to the lowly, to the women and the children? He did. This truth should highlight how much of a travesty it is that the marginalized groups in society, groups the Lord embraced, are shut out by the Church, silenced and scorned for their lack of conformity.
I’ve never felt called to ordination, though I know many women who feel that they have. If the Church were to support the ordination of women, I’d support it, though truthfully I see that the ordination of women to the diaconate is a more likely scenario. I think that the discussion of ordaining women as priests is more complicated than it seems and I also believe that ordaining women alone will not save the Church. It cannot only be in the hands of the clergy.
We need empowered laity to take back the Church.
The disempowerment of laity, particularly laywomen, has led to a decline in the Church both in participation and in passion. People won’t participate if they don’t feel like they have a way to participate. This is why I think that secular Holy Orders are so special; they bestow authority upon laypeople while also embracing that they are indeed laity.
There is a reason companies such as Urban Outfitters that market to young adults have spell books, tarot cards, incense and potion ingredients at their stores. Secularization has not made young people less religious; it’s made them more religious. That religiosity just manifests in different ways. The marketing of these witchy materials are aimed particularly at women. This is not by coincidence. Whether the Church wants to embrace this or not, the Holy Spirit is on the move and God will always call us to Herself. Millennial and Gen-Z folks are not taking up witchcraft because they’re “morally bankrupt”. They’re taking up witchcraft because witchcraft allows women and LGBTQ people to participate in their own spirituality.
It provides ritual.
Lighting candles and lighting incense in prayerful meditation are rituals the Catholic Church has provided laity for centuries. Practices that are relegated only for those of us willing to do internet deep-dives and happen to stumble in the right place. The inaccessibility of mystic ritual practices further isolates lay people.
By not allowing the laity to properly participate in their Catholicism, the Church has pushed her flock out into the world. The call to mysticism is often mistaken for the call to magic. Our Church’s complicated relationship with our own mystics has damaged the Church. Many with spiritual gifts may identify with the label of ‘medium’ instead of ‘mystic’ and thus get scorn from the Church. The truth that saints like St. Teresa of Avila experienced locutions from God, angels, demons, saints and souls in purgatory is hidden. Why? For such knowledge empowers the laity to demand more from the clergy, just as St. Teresa of Avila did in her day. My scapular reminds me that I am a Carmelite, though I may not (yet) be a member of a Secular Carmelite Order. Simply by wearing the scapular you are participating in Carmelite spirituality living in the charism that teaches that your life can be a prayer and that God delights in the most simple, mundane things that come with living in the world.
I will assert that the Holy Rosary is the lay Catholic mystic’s greatest tool. The rosary has always been subversive in its accessibility; it was once given to those who were illiterate so that they could pray in a way they could understand. During times of oppression, the rosary is always attacked. I cannot unsee the images of the confiscated rosaries taken from LatinX immigrants at the U.S. border. The rosary has the power to liberate nations, beads moving smoothly through dry-skinned fingers buried in coat pockets. Yet, the rosary transcends even the chain. One could simply pray the prayers by counting on their fingers. Teach someone how to pray the rosary and meditate on what it means and they’ll have the power to humble the devil himself.
Mysticism is the antidote to clericalism.
When our laity become mystics, those who would harm us would have reason to be afraid.
On the HippieCatholic YouTube channel, I’ve received support from Catholics and non-Catholics, along with support from Catholic clergy. Subscribing to me, a laywoman, is a demonstration of a future where clergy follow lay-leadership.
A future I want to be a part of. A future we will fight to create together as Catholics.
What is “clericalism?” https://aleteia.org/2018/08/23/what-is-clericalism/
The McCarrick Report confirms it: Clericalism powered the sex abuse crisis. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/11/12/mccarrick-report-clericalism-sexual-abuse-catholic-church
Reflections on The Malleus Maleficarum in Light of the Trial of Joan of Arc
Cant, Lisa (Columbia University, USA)
Vexillum: The Undergraduate Journal of Classical and Medieval Studies, Vol 2, (2012)
A War on Women? The Malleus Maleficarum and the Witch-Hunts in Early Modern Europe
by Morgan L. Stringer