Can we go back to how the early church had clergy, but not clericalism?


It would surely solve many issues today. For example, take the sex abuse scandals. I’m not talking about the causes of sexual abuse, but rather, the scandal aspect: The reasons why Catholics are disgusted by the Church, the world reacts with horror, etc., is because we associate the Catholic Church so much with its ordained leaders.

In the early Church, at least at first, the ordained ministry was not so separate from the rest of church life. For the first few hundred years of the church, priests didn’t even wear distinct clothing. And certainly, at first, being clergy wasn’t considered its own “job.”

But now, the clergy have been so set apart in many ways, that often, even the word “Church” often includes the ordained ministry in an exclusive sense.

Do you think the Catholic Church should strive at minimizing clericalism? And how can we do so?


This is three fold: historically being set apart from society; society setting them apart; and an ontological difference (with some rules duly imposing separation). Still, through the centuries ecclesiastic history gives many accounts of differing forms of organization, from the middle ages to the first half of the 20th century. While society itself changed incessantly.

And what will you do?


Beware of the butterfly effect, you might set off an earthquake somewhere…



The bishop was always set apart from the rest of the local Church, and they were often meeting in his house!

(The other options were: Mass at whoever had the biggest house; Mass at a public banquetroom for rent, which wasn’t a good option outside Jerusalem, because all the other clubs were worshipping pagan gods during their dinners; Mass in a field down by the river, as a lot of synagogues were accustomed to meet up in pagan areas; or Mass in a cemetery full of dead martyrs and say Mass on a martyr’s tomb.)

(Commuting was safer in times of persecution, but eventually would attract attention. Also, a fair number of bishops were arrested during their commutes.)

Also, even married bishops were generally not having any sex, because even Jewish priests didn’t have sex during periods of Temple service. Same thing for Levites, and the deacons were considered to be the Church’s Levites. So the same thing held for married deacons. Even if they just fasted from sex the night before Mass, which was considered minimal,they were certainly not having a life like everybody else.

Similarly, there were vowed widows and vowed virgins from very early on. They were laywomen choosing to live differently than everybody else.

It’s not being set apart that leads to clericalism. It’s arrogance that does it.


I was focusing more on trying to understand “being set apart” in recent history from 19th to early 20th centuries. And I’d rather not go into “clericalism” because critic of any “social power structure” will tend to touch upon some awkward issues as would be the case in politics or corporations. Not wanting to focus on any organization in particular, just the general sociology of power itself tends not to be pretty.

But nice post @Mintaka I appreciated it.

As pope Francis put it:“Corruption resides in the human heart.”


I agree that much of that doesn’t amount to clericalism…

But it’s not what I’m talking about. I don’t think anyone disagrees that there are various roles in the Body of Christ, and that there is an ordained ministry. But, again, certain things are not inherent to this ordained ministry, and many of these “extra” aspects feed to clericalism.

I brought up differences in clothing, for example. I don’t think there’s a need for priests and clerics to abandon their secular clerical dress or anything like that. But I brought up the clothing to express how the early church didn’t quite have this strict separation, just as an illustration.

I think we could all agree that if the Catholic Church was less automatically associated with its priests and hierarchy, then the sexual abuse scandal would be less of a “scandal.” Because the Church does not equate to the ordained hierarchy alone, but clericalism promotes that idea.


What is known about the status of the clergy in the early church? The last few chapters in Justin Martyr’s First Apology (link below) are regarded, I believe, as the oldest extant description of Christian worship. He was writing around the middle of the second century. The celebrant, for Justin, is “the president of the brethren” or just “the president”, while there are “deacons” who distribute Holy Communion. The last sentence in Chap. 65 reads:

And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

The terms that Paul most commonly uses in the Epistles for the clergy in his churches are “presbyteros” (elder) and “episkopos” (overseer), but neither of these words occurs, as far as I can see, in Justin’s Apology.


Perhaps make an emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. Not in the sense that we believe in anarchy, but that the life, work, and vitality of the Church is carried out primarily by its laity.


And the latest scandals go to show just how much the “Catholic Church” is synonymous with abusing priests and scandal-encouraging bishops.


I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the two are synonymous. It is deeply troubling though that such behavior was condoned for so long.


In the mind of the popular culture, secular world, and media they are much the same.


I hear you.


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