The Problem of Catholic Clerical Culture

Clerical Culture Among Roman Catholic Diocesan Clergy 

By Voice of the Faithful

For the complete paper/article go to:

“Many Catholics are unaware of the extensive consequences of the clerical culture in which priests and the hierarchy spend most of their adult lives. From specified educational paths to socialization opportunities, from living conditions to financial remuneration, in working relationships restricted by oaths of obedience and isolation enforced by celibacy, priests typically live aside and apart from the people they should serve—they are culturally and often physically far removed from the realities of the communities that surround them. Almost every profession has its own special culture, of course, and that culture supports and protects its members, provides them with useful information, and presents relevant educational opportunities.”

“As examples, think of the cultures of police, doctors, and unions. These cultures have positive benefits for the members within the culture. However, at the same time, to those outside the culture and those who depend on them for services, these specialized cultures can be opaque and sometimes threatening.”

This paper considers the culture of Roman Catholic diocesan clergy in the United States and how that culture often leads to unhappy consequences within the Catholic Church. Clearly, one of the most disastrous consequences has been the clergy sexual abuse scandal and the cover-up by the hierarchy. But there are other consequences as well, including some that are damaging to the priests isolated within the culture. 

What Is Culture? “The term “culture” applies to the interlocking forms of an organization’s life, whether that organization is a family, a corporation, a nation-state, or even a profession or trade. George Mendenhall, a noted scholar of biblical and Near Eastern cultures, describes culture as a “meaningful arrangement of technology, the means by which a people provide for material needs; society, or people’s relationships; and ideology, a people’s way of thinking.”

“This paper will describe some key elements of the clerical culture of diocesan clergy in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States—a culture where the provision of material needs, the relationships with people, and the way of thinking are controlled almost entirely via strict hierarchical structure. All diocesan priests live their lives within this culture. Our focus in the paper is on the possible unhappy consequences of this clerical culture, but we are fully aware that not every priest will succumb to the most compromising elements of the clerical culture. We all know priests who are generous servant leaders in their parishes and communities. It should also be noted that diocesan clerical culture differs from the cultures of the various Religious Orders in the Church—each of which has its own culture depending on its history and mission.”

What is the Clerical Culture? In his book, Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation, Father Michael Papesh describes the clerical culture as “precisely the constellation of relationships and the universe of ideas and material reality in which diocesan priests and bishops exercise their ministry and spend their lives.”…..

Hierarchical Structure and Patriarchy Although most organizations, especially nation-states, have hierarchical structures, most also have a balance of power, thus separating the executive, the legislative, and the judicial powers….

Ontological Change The notion that ordination confers an ontological change on the one ordained did not appear in Roman Catholic theology until the 15th century, and it was not much emphasized until modern times……

Relative Independence Although priests owe obedience to their bishop, in most of their daily activities they are relatively independent……

Clothing and Dress  The clerical collar worn by priests establishes them as different from the non-ordained. This can have many positive consequences because people will recognize priests as ones who could assist them with problems they may face, and with spiritual counseling and advice……

Special Privileges  Although the normal compensation for diocesan priests is relatively small in comparison to many of their parishioners, priests have many special advantages and privileges that others do not……


Donald B. Cozzens, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, (Liturgical Press, 2000.) 

Avery A. Dulles, S.J., A Church to Believe in: Discipleship and the Dynamics of Freedom, (Crossroad, 1982.) 

Thomas F. O’Meara, Theology of Ministry, (Paulist Press, 1999.) 

Michael L. Papesh, Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation, (Liturgical Press, 2004.) Thomas J. Reese, S.J., Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church, (Harper and Row, 1989.) 

George B. Wilson, S.J., Clericalism: the Death of Priesthood, (Liturgical Press, 2008.)

For the complete paper go to:

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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