The term 'priestcraft' was used by Martin Luther to condemn Catholic priests' use of their sacred authority to gain political power. Co-opting the power of the saints, relics, and absolution, these priests kept their followers dependent upon their goodwill for the assurance of a happy afterlife. The threat of eternity in purgatory or hell was a powerful weapon the Catholic clergy wielded to gain unchecked political power, so the desire to disarm them became one of the founding principles of the Protestant reformation. The threat of priestcraft against Protestant England's enlightened secularization added fuel to the anti-Catholic fire of the Gothic novel's rhetoric.
Priestcraft was also a threat to the structure of patriarchal control in the British family. The Catholic practice of conducting confession in private meant that family members (including women) would be closeted alone with the priest, and have the opportunity to spill all manner of family secrets, which the priest could then use to his advantage. In the Gothic, secrets and their revelation are a common trope; priestcraft simply serves to employ that trope in the broader anti-Catholic project of the Gothic. Priestcraft can also present a problem for the British familial patriarch by subverting his authority. By receiving confessions and assigning penance, the priest has inserted himself in the family structure above the father in managing his women and children. Once again, the destruction of the family is a common enough trope, but priestcraft makes it possible for the author to use that trope for anti-Catholic purposes.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle : Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology . Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1989. Print.
Hoeveler, Diane. The Gothic Ideology: Religious Hysteria and Anti-Catholicism in British Popular Fiction, 1780-1880. University of Wales Press, 2014. Print.
The Monkish Mysteries; or, the Miraculous Escape: Containing the History and Villainies of the Monk Bertrand, the Detection of His Impious Frauds, and Subsequent Repentance and Retribution., Elizabeth Meeke