I hear the word “clericalism” a lot these days. Depending on which Catholic journals or blogs you read, it’s either a rampant scourge upon our church, or it’s hardly a problem at all. The term is pejorative and often directed at younger priests. It implies a pronounced haughtiness, intransigence, and the use of authority for the sake of domination. I must admit that I have met very few Catholic priests who exhibit those traits. Yet clericalism has been named by some as the “central obstacle” to the Church fulfilling her mission, as the reason why Mass attendance and vocations are down, and as the cause of sexual abuse in the Church. That strikes me as a facile explanation for some of the Church’s greatest challenges.

Recently, a Catholic journal published an essay by a priest who is also a seminary professor. In it, he likened serving as a priest today to serving in the military. As someone who is both a priest and a military officer, this analogy grabbed my attention. I have been a priest for thirty-two years, with twenty-four of those years as a military chaplain. I, too, see many overlapping traits in good priests and in good soldiers — qualities such as self-sacrifice, integrity, a desire to continually learn, humility, a strong sense of morality, self-control, and wish to pursue excellence. And all those virtues must be striven for, oftentimes, in the face of indifference or outright hostility from broader society.

As a senior priest in the Air Force, I see many successive classes of new priest-recruits entering active duty. They are younger than I and of a different generational mindset. Most of these men answered the call to priesthood in a world that had been through 9/11, been through the abuse scandal of 2002, and been through the Theodore McCarrick scandal of 2018. Rather than growing up in a culture where the Church and priesthood were held in high regard, as I did — and when priests were afforded more perks and respected more than they are today — they have grown up seeing the Church pilloried from all corners, with priests as the punchline of many debauched jokes. Nonetheless, they have boldly stepped forward to serve. Who are these men and what motivates them?

I will be the first to admit that I don’t always share their tastes in clerical or liturgical attire, many of which I believe they will moderate as they get older. Nor do I possess a sentimental nostalgia about a Church and culture (and liturgy) that existed before I was born. But I also must admit that I often don’t exhibit their sense of Catholic evangelical zeal, either. And it is that zeal that I think many people are observing and mislabeling as “clericalism.”

In my experience, younger priests are not haughty and entitled in any greater measure than their older colleagues. They do not think they are better than other people. Rather, they fully embrace the military-like sacrifice that their calling demands and try to live a counter-cultural lifestyle. They do so proudly and willingly. The thought of working long hours for low pay, of dressing distinctively, and of doing something radically different than their friends, to say nothing of the discipline of celibacy, appeals to them. The harder and more different, the better. They are proud to represent and defend the theology of an oft-beleaguered Church, just as the soldier is proud to wear the flag of his country on his uniform “behind enemy lines….”

From First Things