Monasticism, Clericalism, and the Priesthood of All Believers | Abbot Nicholas Zachariadis and Benjamin Mann | CWR
The essence of monasticism is not clerical service—which is possible only for some—but a radically converted way of life, available to all.
“In the church, the [consecrated] religious are called to be prophets in particular by demonstrating how Jesus lived on this earth, and to proclaim how the kingdom of God will be in its perfection. A religious must never give up prophecy … Let us think about what so many great saints, monks, and religious men and women have done, from St. Anthony the Abbot onward. Being prophets may sometimes imply making waves.” — Pope Francis, La Civilta Cattolica interview, September 2013.
“When there is no prophecy among the people, clericalism fills the void.” — Pope Francis, daily Mass homily, December 16, 2013.
In an unusual, perhaps surprising turn of events, we now have a pope who speaks often and explicitly against clericalism: that is, against the erroneous assumption that the Catholic clergy are spiritually superior to the laity and automatically more important to the Church’s mission.
This development is not wholly novel. Past popes have also known that giving laypersons a second-class status causes paralysis, not healthy order. The opposite of clericalism is not chaos, but responsibility: it means a Church in which all believers take responsibility for learning, living, and transmitting the faith.
The backlash against clericalism has spawned false solutions, however. Some laypersons think they should oppose clericalism by taking on priest-like functions, or demanding access to ordination. But this “clericalized” behavior feeds into the very error it opposes.
To overcome clericalism, we must recover some deep truths of faith. Among these truths is the Catholic doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” or the “universal priesthood.” Different from the ordained priesthood, but no less important, this is the share in Christ’s priesthood which all the baptized possess.
Aspects of this universal priesthood are already implicit in Christian prayer and practice. But many faithful seemingly do not grasp the importance of the priesthood of all believers, or they lack models for living it.
We need not invent new spiritual models to fill this gap. Christian tradition already contains the resources for understanding and living this universal baptismal priesthood. One resource is the monastic tradition.
For cultural and historical reasons, monasticism has typically not served as a model for lay spirituality in the Christian West, at least in recent centuries. This is a significant loss—especially since monasticism originally developed among laypersons, as a means for living out their baptismal calling to its fullest.
Monasticism is fundamentally a lay movement. Its great founders, like St. Benedict and St. Anthony of Egypt, were not priests, and did not envision communities of priests. The essence of monasticism is not clerical service—which is possible only for some—but a radically converted way of life, available to all.
Many Western Christians see monasticism as remote and inaccessible, very different from ordinary Christian life. Often they associate monasticism with the ordained priesthood—as though ordination were the goal of monastic life, at least for men. Women’s monasticism, meanwhile, is almost off the radar.
All of these impressions are incorrect.