Leadership in the Church

Doug McManaman
copyright 2013
Reproduced with Permission

To exploit people in order to advance your own interests is unworthy of a leader. You will be a worthy leader if you do not distance yourself from people, but mingle with them and risk yourself for their sake. Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan

If good leadership, in very general terms, is about taking a "back seat" and allowing an order that is larger than the individual leader to emerge on its own, it is counterintuitive that Church government is monarchial in nature. How do we resolve the paradox that the Church, the best institution, adopts the worst form of government?

In order to understand leadership in the Church, it is necessary to understand something about the fundamentals of prudent leadership from the point of view of human nature; the reason is that grace perfects nature.

Behind ideological conflicts today, in politics, there lie two opposing visions of human nature and with it, two opposing visions of human intelligence. The one is rooted in Descartes and sees a clear and distinct separation between intelligence and sensation. This view sees all human knowledge as homogeneous; thus, the specialist is seen to possess an all embracing knowledge that includes within its scope everything that the common man knows. The relationship between the specialized knowledge of the intellectual elite and the mundane knowledge of everyone else is comparable to a large circle containing a number of smaller circles that represent this non specialized and common knowledge. Moreover, since knowledge is concentrated in the minds of a few, power ought also to be concentrated in the hands of a few. The result is that elites see themselves as surrogate decision makers.

The opposite view sees human intelligence as limited by its intimate connection with sense perception. All knowledge begins in sensation, even though it is more than sensation. We only know things, however, from a particular angle. Indeed, ideas are universal (they are not sensible), for the object of the intellect is the nature of things, but contrary to Plato, we only come to know the natures of things gradually, through observing their activity. Thus, all knowledge begins on the level of concrete particulars. Although some have specialized knowledge (i.e., philosophy, psychology, chemistry, etc), that knowledge is nonetheless profoundly limited; there is much the specialist does not know both within and outside his field of expertise that is nonetheless highly consequential. Contrary to the first view, the relationship between the specialized knowledge of an expert and the mundane knowledge of the non specialist majority is comparable to a large circle next to a myriad of smaller circles (that represent this non specialized and mundane knowledge). Compared per capita, this specialized knowledge might seem vast, but next to the total weight of ordinary and non-specialized knowledge among the people, an individual's specialized knowledge is very tiny.

To come to some appreciation of this, reflect upon the things we have had to learn over the years and consider the length of time it took to learn them, as well as how much more there is to learn about what it is we already know. Consider the shape of the typical learning curve that makes visual the slow and gradual ascendency towards proficiency in the skills we worked hard to master.

Every area of knowledge has its specific method and limited focus; all sciences deal in universal concepts, but the universal concepts are, despite their universality, limited. For example, the sociologist studies the family from a limited point of view, employing statistical reasoning to see what otherwise would remain hidden; the philosopher studies the family from a more abstract and normative point of view; psychology asks questions about the family that can only be answered empirically, such as whether or not the cause of anxiety neurosis originates in a certain kind of family dysfunction, etc. Each one can benefit from what the other discovers and has to offer; for each one enlarges the perspective of the other.

But, an ordinary parent has knowledge that the academic might not have, especially if the latter are not parents. A parent who has raised 5 or 6 children has a vast amount of mundane knowledge, much of it pre-conscious and unarticulated, that is highly consequential. So too, a prison guard who works with prisoners will likely know something about criminals that the rest of us do not, for we are too far removed. A teacher knows things about the young that many politicians do not know; a school administrator sees things that most teachers are not exposed to, and, young people see and know things that are no longer within reach of the adult world. Moreover, a young student raised in Central America will see things about this country and culture that young people raised in Canada tend not to see, such as the amount of food young people waste on a daily basis, etc.

The only reason science is possible in the first place is that we live in an ordered universe, and social science is possible because many aspects of human society possess an order that can be studied. Moreover, this order is not determined by any one individual person or bureaucracy. For example, human language evolves; it is not the product of a conscious effort, by any individual, to construct a means of communication, and its laws (i.e., grammar) are studied and articulated only after the fact. The same is true with regard to the laws of a country. The legislature does not construct the law, but explicitly formulates general rules that are intended to maintain an already existing order of fairness and the rules that are known by everyone generally and pre-consciously, and which have evolved over the centuries.

The free market also possesses an order that is not the result of a conscious determination by any one individual person or bureaucracy. Consider the quantity, diversity and proportion of food in a typical supermarket, and then consider what it would mean for a person to try to coordinate this for an entire city, for example, determining how many tons of meat, vegetables, fruit, dairy, etc, are to be allocated to every supermarket. The experience of the former Soviet Union revealed that such coordination cannot be carried out efficiently - to know what each person wants and in what proportion is too vast for the human intellect. In a free market, this is coordinated by prices, which in turn are determined by the law of supply and demand; the result is an order that exceeds the capacity of a single person or bureaucracy to bring about.

It is possible to disrupt that order, to intervene in an attempt to bring about specific solutions to specific problems. Such "solutions", however, are really only trade-offs. For example, in Ontario, the provincial government proposed a solution to the problem of student health; it decided what foods catering companies can and cannot sell to students. The result was a decrease in sales, loss of revenues, lay-offs, and students' eating habits had not changed, because they simply purchased junk food elsewhere, at the local convenient store or gas station across the street, etc. Judicial activism also ignores the order of law and involves judgments that are not principled, but ideologically grounded, and are thus unexpected.

For those who fail to appreciate the limitations of human knowledge and regard their own specialized knowledge as all embracing, the concentration of power makes much more sense than a wide dispersion of power. In Plato's ideal state, the philosopher king is in power, not the people, whom Plato compares to the pleasure appetite that needs to be governed by the "reason" of the state. According to Plato, democracy is the worst form of government, for the wisest man in Athens (Socrates) was executed by the leaders of the Athenian democracy.

For those who recognize the limitations of human intelligence and the relatively small weight of specialized knowledge in comparison to the sum total of non-specialized, mundane but highly consequential knowledge of ordinary human beings, democracy is the best form of government, for power is best spread out as widely as possible.

If the human person is a psychosomatic unity, and if human intelligence participates in the limitations of sense perception, then the least effective style of leadership is authoritarianism (central planning). Good leadership is not about control and surrogate decision making, but about maintaining conditions so as to free others (i.e., businesses) to do what they can do better than I, because others understand aspects of reality that I simply do not - this insight is at the root of the principle of subsidiarity. The result is an order that is not the product of any one man or small group, but the result of a systemic process that exceeds the capacity of an individual or select group of individuals to bring about through their own engineering. A good school principal, for example, who exercises authority in a non authoritarian way readily sees this: the good that results exceeds his expectations, for it is much larger than anything he could have envisioned or brought about on his own initiative or under his total control.

Leadership is about willing a common good, one that is much larger than the self, and that is why a good and effective leader willingly "takes a back seat", so to speak, like a good player who leads the league in assists, for he always passes the puck so as to maximize scoring chances, thus maximizing the chances of victory for the team. The egotist is more interested in his private scoring record than he is the common good of the whole. He stifles the emergence of that order because he misunderstands his place within the larger scheme of things, thus perverting the order of goods, for he regards the team as smaller than himself, because his record is, per capita, better than everyone else's. But relative to the entire team, his skills are weak. He fails to see this, however; others have become a means to his end, and his end is a private good (for others are merely extensions of himself), which he mistakenly regards as "the good".

But how does one reconcile this vision of leadership with the monarchial leadership within the Church? For the Church is not a democracy: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is? They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (Mt 16, 13-14). The people (Gk: demos: common people) got it wrong. It was Simon who got it right, and it was not flesh and blood that revealed to him that Jesus is the Christos, but "my Father in heaven" (Mt. 16, 18). In response, Christ makes him Peter and gives him the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

It is ironic indeed that the worst form of government exists in the Church; for human beings are a community of equals (essentially, at least), and authoritarianism stems from a misunderstanding of the relationship between specialized knowledge and the mundane knowledge of ordinary people.

The ideas of the intellectual elite have often been referred to as the vision of "the anointed". The mitigating factor in this dilemma, however, is that there really is an anointed, a Christos. With the anointed in our midst, monarchy becomes the best form of government, and democracy the worst, in his kingdom at least. The Person of the Son is not limited by matter in a way that keeps him from knowing the will of the Father: "...I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me" (Jn 6, 38); "Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father" (Jn 6, 46).

The Pope is His vicar, and although the Pope too is limited on all sides, he is given a charism, the charism that belongs to those who occupy the office of Peter: "...and the gates of the nether world shall not prevail against it [the Church]. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16, 18-19).

The people do not vote on what constitutes sound doctrine; the Apostles are the official teachers of the Church. We don't vote for our bishops or cardinals, because Christ calls them forth to their specific vocation. He could have given this role to us by dispersing a charism as widely as possible, thus requiring us to vote; but there is no Scriptural evidence that he did so; instead, he chose to call them on his own, and he made the Apostles the official teachers and foundation stones of the Church: "…you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone" (Eph 2, 19-20). The Apostles select from among themselves: "So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed, "You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen, to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place" (Acts 1, 23-25).

An individual bishop, however, is not a monarch; Christ is king. Vatican II says: "...the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility,..." (LG, 25). However, they do proclaim infallibly the teaching of Christ under certain conditions: "... when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter's successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely. This is still more clearly the case when, assembled in an ecumenical council, they are, for the universal Church, teachers of and judges in matters of faith and morals, whose decisions must be adhered to with the loyal and obedient assent of faith" (LG, 25).

But a bishop and a pastor's leadership bear upon more than matters of faith and morals, and these other matters are highly consequential, even though they do not call upon the charism of infallibility. Grace perfects nature, it does not nullify it, and knowledge, among other things, remains widely dispersed in the community of the Church, as it does in society at large. But only those pastors who are aware of the limitations of human knowledge will allow this fact to influence their style of leadership. The supernatural counterpart of this idea is in the sensus fidelium: "…the supernatural appreciation of faith on the part of the whole people, when, from the bishops to the last of the faithful, they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals". The faithful adhere to this faith and apply it more fully to their daily life, and out of this application emerges a richer penetration into the mysteries of the faith (Cf. CCC 92 & 93).

Individual bishops will have the charism necessary to discern, within that wide dispersion of gifts among the faithful, what is truly congruent with the faith of the Church. And so a good bishop or pastor is one who listens well. Authoritarian rule in a pastor amounts to a confusion between the authority proper to Christ the good shepherd (which is monarchial) and the authority of a pastor of a parish (which is not monarchial). It is reasonable for Christ to demand unquestioning loyalty, and because he communicates his authority to the Magisterium, it is not unreasonable to submit loyally to Church teaching. But the authority of a pastor is different. This is not to suggest that a parish or diocese ought to be run like a democracy; rather, it is to suggest that good leadership at this level means leading from behind, not from the front.

A controlling leader will have great difficulty freeing others to do what their own charisms enable them to do. All of us are extensions of Christ, for we are his body, but a parish is not the extension of the pastor, nor is the diocese an extension of the bishop, as if the diocese is "his body". The micromanaging pastor unwittingly stifles the order that is the network of conditions that makes possible a common good of the community as a whole. This order is especially obvious to believers through the gift of knowledge received in baptism, for it is the order of divine providence. It is true that everything is included within the order of divine providence, even our bad free choices; nevertheless, it is possible to stifle the Holy Spirit (Cf. Eph 5, 19).

Authoritarian rule takes a parish or diocese only so far, and in the end it generates a great deal of resentment among the faithful; that, however, does not stop some pastors. What this state of affairs often does is it creates incentive, for those determined not to change their style, to work to change appearances. Such people have no intention of acting on the recommendations of a parish council, for example, but they can hide their authoritarianism by very cleverly appearing to employ a democratic style of leadership and receive input from everyone. With a large enough number of people at hand, a clever authoritarian can find fragments of his own vision in some of their ideas. He simply collects those very pieces and assembles them into a vision which everyone thinks was democratically determined; but the final product in no way will have differed significantly from what he had decided originally, before consulting anyone. The democratic process, which was under his control from the beginning, only lends the appearance of collaboration.

Good leadership in the Church is especially important by virtue of the possibility of scandal, which has far more serious repercussions in the Church than in the secular world. The resentment generated by a pastor who needs to have his hand in every decision, who is not a good listener, and who regards the parish as his personal fiefdom and everyone else as his serfs, can lead a person, weak in faith, to leave the Church altogether. Cardinal Tuan writes from prison: "A person of character regards everyone in the world as a brother or sister and looks upon their work as his or her own. The selfish person regards everyone as rungs of a ladder to be used for his or her own advancement. Such a person knows only "my" work and "my" possessions" (The Road of Hope, #197).

A true leader in the Church does not pursue his private ends. Rather, he is focused primarily and exclusively on the salvation of souls; he can free others because he himself has been set free by Christ. He has not "set himself apart", rendering himself relatively inaccessible, as a result of a "Phariseeism" that never seems to die in the Church. Rather, those with a genuine missionary spirit are "set apart" (sacred) as a result of their extraordinary charity, courage, and humility, that is, their deep rooted conviction that they are no better than anyone and their willingness to enter into the sufferings of others in order to bring light and life to their darkness.