The Leadership the Church Needs: Avoiding the Two C’s of Clericalism and Cowardice

The Leadership the Church Needs: Avoiding the Two C’s of Clericalism and Cowardice

As a devout Catholic, I have immense respect for the leaders of the Church whom Christ appointed to shepherd His people. The intention of this article is not to criticize the leaders of the Church. Rather, I wish to set forth a vision of leadership that is the median between two extremes. Both of these extremes are dangerous and risk losing the sheep that Jesus wishes to save. Precisely because the task of saving souls is such a serious and imminent concern for Mother Church, now is a time for unparalleled leadership.

Church leadership can sometimes be an amorphous concept and difficult to define precisely, but it is easier to see what this leadership is if we first look at what it is not. On one extreme, leadership in the Church is not clericalism. Clericalism is an over emphasis on the prestige of the hierarchical structure of the Church which typically accompanies a disconnect and indifference from the needs and experiences of lay Catholics. [1] Clericalism is deadly to the life of the Church because it separates the shepherd from the sheep. Jesus told his Apostles and by implication their successors plainly, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt” (St. Mark 10:42, New American Bible). Well this is precisely what clericalism is; it is lording authority over the sheep without the love that comes from living with them and understanding their suffering. Jesus, therefore, exhorts his Apostles and their successors: “But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (St. Mark 10:43-45, New American Bible). In other words, Jesus proposes humility as the antidote to clericalism, a humility that is based on the life Jesus Christ actually lived. There are few passages that compare with the beauty of Christ washing His apostles’ feet. The Lord of Creation, the King of the Universe, fulfills the role of a slave [2] with the utmost humility and love, setting a standard for all leaders in His Church. It is hard to imagine a greater condemnation of clericalism than Jesus washing the Apostles’ feet. As Pope Francis has beautifully expressed and, indeed, demonstrated throughout his remarkable pontificate, priests must “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” [3]

On the other extreme, leadership in the Church is not defined by clergy who so identify with the sheep that they fail to authoritatively guide the flock in vital moral issues threatening their salvation. Such a failure of leadership is moral cowardice: a failure to correct others out of love for the Truth who is Christ. If clergy do not speak out against sinful lifestyles and objectively moral evils, being willing to risk rejection from the sheep for love of Christ and love of the sheep, then they are failing to protect the flock given to them by the Lord. Such pastors are akin to parents that do not teach and guide their children but merely become friends with their child, thus failing to give their children what they need most: loving parents. [4]  If a pastor wants to be friends with his parishioners, well and good, since this avoids clericalism, but he must never cease to speak and live the truth by choosing the friendship of his parishioners over the objective truth of God’s divine revelation.

The Scriptures point out again and again the necessity for pastors to rebuke moral error. I will cite just a few of many examples. In Titus we read that an elder (leader in the Church) must “hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrineandalso to confute those who contradict it.” [5] In Acts 20:28, St. Paul instructs pastors to “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians . . . I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock  . . . Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease to admonish every one with tears.” In 2 Timothy, we read this exhortation to pastors: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead . . . preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching . . . As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Let us be clear, the laity need priests and bishops, shepherds, who live in close proximity to them and understand their needs, thus avoiding clericalism, but they equally need the priests and bishops to be priests and bishops, which means being willing to correct their erroring ways when their salvation so requires, thus avoiding moral cowardice. When the wolf comes, a shepherd who fails to warn his sheep is useless. There are, metaphorically speaking, many wolves in our society: abortion, euthanasia, various forms of idolatry which consists in worshiping something or someone other than God, such as wealth or one’s self, the perversion and deconstruction of marriage as the natural union of a man and a woman, adultery, contraception, methods of artificial reproduction that violate the goods of the human person and marriage, and the list goes on and on. We urgently need pastors and bishops who courageously bear witness to the falsity of these demonic allurements, and who would rather die than cease to bear witness to the fulness of truth. Surely this is one of the things Jesus had in mind when he said, “Greater love than this no one hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” [6]

As laity, we must recognize that it is very difficult to be a courageous, loving leader of Christ’s flock. Without our prayers, many of our beloved shepherds will fall prey to clericalism or moral cowardice. In addition to praying for our priests and bishops, we need to affirm them when they effectively lead their flock. A priest who preaches a passionate homily about the evil of contraception or pre-marital sex should be commended by faithful Catholics. And a priest who goes out of his way to socialize with lay people and understand their needs should be equally applauded. We must not choose between the false alternatives of clericalism and moral cowardice. We must encourage our Church leaders to follow Christ who knew His sheep intimately, [7] but never ceased to challenge their devotion to the Truth. [8]


[1] Cf. Robert McClory, The New Pope’s Real Target: Clericalism (April 4 2013), visited May 4 2018).

[2] Cf. Mike Cosper, What’s The Deal with Footwashing? (November 20,2014), visited May 4 2018).

[3] Cf. Carol Glatz, Pope Francis: Priests Should be “Shepherds Living with the Smell of the Sheep,” The Catholic Telegraph (March 28 2013), visited May 4 2018). Cf. also 2 Peter 5:3.

[4] Cf. James Lehman, Your Child is Not Your “Friend,” visited May 5 2018).

[5] Titus 1:9 (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition).

[6] St. John 15:13 (Douay Rheims version).

[7] “I am the good shepherd; I know My own and My own know Me” (St. John 10:14) Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition).

[8] After many of Jesus’ disciples left Him, He turned to His Apostles and challenged them by saying, “Will you also go away.”  St. Peter, the leader of the Church, responds with devotion: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (St. John 6:67-68, Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition).

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Written by
Michael Vacca