Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Archdiocesan Women’s Committee responds to the issue of clericalism

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

To read this column in Spanish, click here.

We are blessed to have a number of lay commissions and councils, which I rely on to provide advice and support. I view their collaboration as key to the kind of shared governance needed today in the church. One of the groups I depend on is the Archdiocesan Women’s Committee. This advisory body represents women from all six vicariates, and meets with me throughout the year.

As I mentioned in my July 10 column, I asked them to consult with women in the archdiocese on the topic of clericalism. They surveyed 1,500 women, asking three questions: 1. What is your understanding of clericalism? 2. Have you ever personally experienced clericalism? 3. How can the laity help end clericalism?

Their findings are important for all of us to understand.

While nearly half needed help understanding the meaning of “clericalism,” once it was explained, close to two-thirds reported having had a personal experience with clericalism.

Many associated clericalism with the abuse of minors and the cover-up in past years, as that is where the effects of clericalism and the lifelong pain it inflicted are most visible. Women were most disturbed by the historical lack of response to victims by the hierarchy, with many noting that this crisis could have been avoided if women had been included in accountability measures. This insight is doubtless true, and should remain a point of reference as we move forward with any case of abuse involving clerics, including bishops.

Beyond the abuse crisis, many women spoke of their experience of clericalism as it relates to not being listened to or ignored in the everyday life of the church. Some priests, they noted, are quite good at listening, but others are not. These priests, they said:


l want to have the last word on even the smallest details of parish life,

l pretend to be the smartest person in the room or dismiss women’s knowledge on church matters,

l opine authoritatively on subjects they know nothing about,

l use their authority to deny sacraments, or

l favor those parishioners who treat clergy as if they are always correct. 


Repeatedly, respondents expressed their view that because women have no authority within the church, at any level, their acquired wisdom and talents are not used for the benefit of the church. This marginalization is felt more acutely by women who serve on pastoral staffs, as church administrators or volunteers or have advanced degrees.

Summing up this uneven pattern of how priests treat women, one woman noted, “Though I have had some wonderfully supportive pastors who have welcomed my gifts and given me every opportunity to contribute to parish life, I have also had pastors who preferred that I be invisible.”

Ending a culture of clericalism, many have noted, begins with listening to the laity and empowering their long-ignored voices, particularly those of women and young adults. But it also means ending the treatment of clergy as a privileged caste, and instead respecting them as human beings, fallible men who share our human condition and connect with the needs of the community, to the point that we all understand that we are here to help one another grow closer to God and to each other.

Priests should be willing to talk about this in their homilies, survey respondents said, and pastors should review how they employ the talents of laypeople so that decision making is collaborative. The top-down role of the pastor must be rethought and restructured, they advised.

Institutionalizing the participation of women should be considered, many argued, noting that they followed with interest the study the pope has undertaken on women deacons. Such a step, according to many survey participants, would involve women in baptisms and preaching, as well as providing a recognized position of authority in the everyday life of the church.

The women who participated in this survey were firm about their love of the church and their hope for a better relationship with clergy. They want their priests to walk beside them and all laypeople in a way that expresses how all the baptized share the call to participate in the one priesthood of Jesus.

The Archdiocesan Women’s Committee observed how encouraged they were by Pope Francis, who has spoken frequently of the need to eradicate clericalism, whether it originates with the clergy’s self-image or with other people’s deferential behaviors toward clergy. They are heartened when the pope, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laypeople recognize clericalism as a sin that undermines the church’s mission to be a “field hospital” in the world. The committee concluded their report: “When together we reject the toxic culture of clericalism, we can do the work of that field hospital: to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful.”

I am grateful for the Archdiocesan Women’s Committee’s survey of women in the archdiocese. They have done our local church a great service, and I look forward to ongoing conversations with them as we take up the renewal of the church that Christ calls us to in our time.



  • women in the church