Friday, December 5, 2014


What do we make of 19th century clericalism? It is still with us in neo-conservative and Tradistani circles, but not in the mainstream. In previous times, the Church did not distinguish so much between the priest and the laity as much as she did between monks and everyone else. The parish priest was a familiar individual who dressed much like a common person, except perhaps for a cross and, of course, the noticeable tonsure. Deacons were often city or diocesan administrators. Bishops were accorded the same dignities as other persons of esteem in a given land. In France, much like a noble or the king himself, a bishop was called monseigneur. In England a bishop was called "your grace," as were the kings before Henry VIII discovered his supposed Roman lineage to justify his separation from the Church and styled himself "your majesty." Parish priests in England were called "sir." In France they were called "monsieur le cure," literally "mister priest." High ranking priests in the Curia were, and still are, called monsignor, "my lord." Monastic priests received the unique title of "father" and wore their habits as part of their religious order, not in virtue of their ordination. All this changed around the time of Pio Nono.

Pope Pius encouraged secular priests to wear the cassock, formerly the undergarment of choir dress, as every day clothing where the circumstances permitted it; I recall hearing of one English priest who wore his cassock in London and rejoiced that he was dispelling the people's invincible ignorance. Anti-clericalism during the French Revolution and 1848 revolutions turned the old social order and the priest's place in it upside down. Wearing the cassock and taking the esteemed title "father" put the priest on a higher religious pedestal than he previously held, compensating for his absence on the social pedestal. Devotional literature began to emphasize the priest's place as alter Christus more than previous writings and made his work during the Mass the sole component of the liturgy. In growing areas, such as the United States, priests did not wear the cassock in public, but they did gain a remarkable foothold over parishioners. "Father knows best" applied as much to one's parson as to one's progenitor. His judgments on entertainment, music, and politics were final. 

Monsieur le apostat Hans Kung
Then, of course, that pedestal crumbled in the 1950s and 1960s. Some efforts, the worker-priest movement specifically, had the noble goal of re-assimilating the priest into normal life, but failed in their coalition with liberalism. The "Spirit of Vatican II" and the loose, communitarian rubrics of the Pauline liturgy were the anti-thesis of Pian clericalism, but not its cure. Some priests and theologians—from the parish priest to Hans Kung—insisted that the priest is an assembly's president, but not in possession of any unique spirit in the Church which enables him to celebrate the Sacraments. I knew one priest who was driven from a church merely for telling his congregation that "I am necessary" for Mass!

The old clericalism survives in neo-conservative and traditionalist settings, usually in "reform of the reform" type parishes and in traditionalist fraternities. I have not seen this problem among diocesan clergy who celebrate the old rite, but my experience is also limited. In America, telling women what to wear with drive half of them out of the Church and make the other half trust the priest more than their own husbands. Wearing a cassock on the streets of Houston, aside from giving its wearer heatstroke, will raise eyebrows, but people may not associate it with the priesthood as readily as they once did. By contrast, in Istanbul only the Patriarch of "Constantinople" and, when he visits, the Pope are allowed to wear clerical dress in public, although the rule was loosely enforced until the last ten or fifteen years.

On the whole, I would have opposed clericalistic measures during Pio Nono's time, but cannot fault people for continuing them today. With low religious practice, the priest has little place in the spiritual world of the populace, as little a place as he has in the social order. Even seemingly modest things, like wearing the cassock on Church grounds or only the priest or deacon administering Communion, can tell the faithful that the priesthood—not the priest—is something important. In other countries, like France, the non-integrist clergy have shown precious little interest in clericalism. Perhaps the restoration of clerical distinction will come from the monasteries. Monasticism thrives no where in the world like it does in France. Regardless, we will not be returning to either the 19th or 12th centuries, at least not yet....


  1. Though it was not usual to wear the cassock in the street until comparatively recently, the clergy from at least the 17th century were easily distinguished by the cut or style of their clothing (black coat, bands, type of hat etc). The white bow tie worn in place of the clerical collar by old fashioned Evangelical clergymen until after the Second World War is probably the last survival of this. Today, of course, the priest or minister who choses not to wear a cassock or a dog-collar is undistinguishable from a layman.

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  3. Even seemingly modest things, like wearing the cassock on Church grounds or only the priest or deacon administering Communion, can tell the faithful that the priesthood—not the priest—is something important.

    A testament to the witness value of religious habit in public, especially in most of western society today, is evident in the story of diocesan priest Fr. Michel-Marie Zanotti-Sorkine of inner city Marseilles, as told by Marina Corradi of Avvenire, courtesy of Sandro Magister at Chiesa:

    Why the cassock? "For me" – he smiles – "It is a work uniform. It is intended to be a sign for those who meet me, and above all for those who do not believe. In this way I am recognizable as a priest, always. In this way on the streets I take advantage of every opportunity to make friends. Father, someone asks me, where is the post office? Come on, I'll go with you, I reply, and meanwhile we talk, and I discover that the children of that man are not baptized. Bring them to me, I say in the end; and I often baptize them later. I seek in every way to show with my face a good humanity.


    As for the effort to declericalize the clergy in the 20th century, it proved to be of a muchness with all liberal projects: the cure turned out to be far worse than the disease. Clergy became laicized, and laity became clericalized. There's a balance to be struck, but the worker-priest and post-conciliar models were even farther from it than Pio Nono on his worst day.

  4. Also the kings of Spain were called su Alteza ("his Highness") before becoming su Majestad ("his Majesty"). And parish clergy was always called (and in rural areas he is still called) don X ("mr. X") and señor cura ("mr. priest"). Also in Italy the priest was called don X and addressed as reverendo (see the "don Camillo" stories: he is never adressed as "father").

    While I do not think that wearing cassock otside a church is per se a clerical attitude (it is indeed quite good, from my point of view), I recognize that it is not a matter of Faith or Tradition that priests must wear it always. On this matter, it is worth noting that traddy priests must always wear cassock, but are allowed to omit tonsure...

    K. e.

  5. On this matter, it is worth noting that traddy priests must always wear cassock, but are allowed to omit tonsure...

    An interesting point.

  6. Are priests still addressed as Mister or Doctor at the English College in Rome?

    I rather thought (though may well be wrong) that Father originated amongst Franciscans and the like. Monks have 'Dom', a most distinguished style, and the Latin form of 'Sir'. Indeed, I recall seeing an inscription in Canterbury, seventeenth or eighteenth century, to a Baronet, in which he was styled 'Dom'.

    1. I do not know if they are still addressed that way, but I rather doubt it. I never met a priest in England who wanted to be addressed as anything other than Father.

      I suspect "Dom" and "Don"—like the Oxonian dons—both originate in "domnus", diminutive Latin for "mister," less formal than dominus.

    2. You are absolutely right. Dom is short for domnus. Hence the abbatial style of Reverendissimo dominus domnus, abbreviated as RR DD. A Benedictine monk I know laments, however, that when he styles himself Dom X Y in letters, his respondents invariably think Dom is his Christian name, a shortened form of Dominic, no doubt.

      Mister is a form of Master, I suppose, which would in English be a more appropriate translation of Dominus than Lord. Magister is something else all together.

  7. All very interesting and informative. I would love to read more about the shifting attitude of the laity towards the clergy (and the clergy towards themselves). Can you recommend any books?

  8. I'm thinking of the ICRSS's seminarians and faux-clerical oblates who go around, even in English speaking lands, calling themselves Abbe'. On one hand, it's helpful: who wants to call a subdeacon "Mister"? On the other hand, it's a bit silly since it isn't American (or British) custom.

  9. When (Anglican) Vicar of Portsea Cyril Garbett (later Archbishop of Canterbury) was rebuked for allowing his curates to 'commit celibacy in the streets' - because they always wore cassocks. This was in the 1920's; we still wore cassocks consistently in St Mark's Portsmouth in the 1960s