Mind the Gap

The Return of the Lay-Clerical Divide

Recent studies point to a growing gap between the way American Catholic laypeople and priests understand their roles in the church. What is the nature of this divergence, and why has it developed?

In the years before Vatican II, most laypeople understood their role as a rather passive one and tended to hold a “cultic” view of the clergy-that is, they viewed priests as a leadership group set apart both spiritually and in terms of administration and authority. The laity believed that they occupied a status lower than priests, that their own role was largely advisory, and that priests were the real decision-makers. Laypeople were called to “pray, pay, and obey.”

Those views have been changing in the past fifty years. Laypeople have gradually come to believe that they are as important a part of the church as priests are, that they too should be actively involved in all aspects of church life, and that priests should welcome their participation. In other words, the passive model has been supplanted by a more active one. At the same time, the laity’s cultic view of the priesthood has given way to a view of the priest as a “servant-leader.” These trends are documented in our book American Catholics Today (see review, page 26).

In the 1950s, it would not have occurred to most laypeople that they should play a role in selecting their parish priests. Yet a national survey we conducted of U.S. Catholics in...

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About the Author

The late Dean R. Hoge was professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America.