On Holding a Position of Power

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2006
Reproduced with Permission

I recall many years ago driving on the 401 with my friend, the Late Monsignor Thomas Wells of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. I was taking him out for lunch to a popular Italian buffet before dropping him off at the airport. While driving, we were discussing the various gifts required to be a good principal of a Catholic school, and I recall relating to him the surprise I was feeling that some of my colleagues thought I'd make a good principal.

Fortunately, I know myself better than my colleagues do, and so did Monsignor Wells. I've always been a contemplative, which is why I've always had a problem paying attention for extended periods of time; I usually drift off in wonder at something that was said and lose track of the rest. A good administrator, however, cannot afford to have his head in the clouds for very long, but must have his mind fixed on the details of the moment and the business at hand.

I was enjoying the ideas so much that I'd missed the exit to get to the restaurant. Monsignor Wells turned to me and said: "That's the reason you shouldn't be a principal".

But I've admired many of the administrators I've worked with over the years, for I've always been struck by the different types of minds that one finds in various people, as well as the different charisms they've been given. Fully aware that there is so much I will never know about exercising a position of power, such as Principal, Superintendent, Director of Education, Minister of Education, Member of Parliament, Premier or Prime Minister, I believe, nonetheless, that a contemplative can offer some insight into the nature of Catholic leadership and the responsibility of holding office.

Whenever human beings are shaken up by some tragic happening-such as the tsunami or 9/11-and are led to wonder where God was during the tragic ordeal, inevitably someone comes along who proffers the theologically nonsensical idea that God is grieving with us too and that had He been able to prevent the tragedy from occurring, He would have.

This position implies that God, however good and loving He may be, is not omnipotent and thus not able to bring about the best that He wills for us. The opposite position holds that God has the power to do whatever He wants, but does not necessarily will the best for us, because He is not all loving.

But unlimited power and supreme goodness cannot be separated in God. He wills the best for us, and by virtue of his total dominion over being, He is able to bring it about. It follows that whatever God allows to happen to those who love Him - however tragic it may appear at the time -, He allows ultimately for their greatest good (Rm 8, 28). This does not mean that all will achieve their greatest happiness; for not everyone chooses to love God, and He loves us so much that He will allow us to reject Him, even to our own eternal ruin.

In us, though, power and goodness can and often are separated. If we are given the gift of achieving a high position of power, our principal task is to join goodness to that power and so achieve a greater likeness of God.

Indeed, some people are called by God to exercise positions of power, and although they do not enjoy omnipotence, they are in a position to do an incalculable amount of good. To bring about good that will endure to the end and through to eternity, however, requires much more than a good will. It requires a will moved supernaturally by God, that is, a will formed by charity. In short, it requires holiness: "Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do the builders labor" (Ps 127,1).

Charity is a theological virtue, not a natural virtue that one can cultivate on one's own, like patience, temperance and the like. The object of charity exceeds the natural capacity of human nature. Charity is a grace, a supernatural friendship given by God as sheer gift. For it is not possible for human persons to be friends with God on the basis of a natural knowledge of Him. On the contrary, it is necessary that He reveal Himself and elevate the intellect and will above their natural capacity in order that one believe what He reveals, hope in His promises, and attain Him through love (faith, hope, and charity).

But charity also loves those who belong to God, and it loves them for God's sake. A person with a heart aflame with genuine charity will desire that others be given a greater share in the blessings he currently enjoys. More specifically, he desires that the joy of knowing and loving God come upon others to a greater degree than it has come upon himself. Thus, charity always seeks ways to realize that will, and in so doing it prays constantly, willingly makes all necessary sacrifices, and trusts ultimately in the providence of God.

It often happens that a person of superabundant charity and the gift of wisdom that it spawns will lack the power and position to readily bring about the conditions conducive to instantiating all the goods that he or she wills for others. That is why positions of power, such as public office, are great gifts, for they are opportunities given to us by God. (Rm 13: 1).

Experience, however, reveals that those who hold positions of power are either a) megalomaniacs, consumed by a malignant self-love, but brilliantly disguised as paragons of virtue, or b) very gifted people of a more moderate love of self who, accordingly, seek not much more than to maintain the status quo, habitually employing a kind of Epicurean calculation to determine the most pain-free course of action, or c) people who genuinely love others more than themselves and who, like the former, have to some degree all the integral parts of prudence, such as shrewdness, circumspection, memory and experience, foresight, caution, and reasoning, in order to achieve what they so desire for them.

Like the normal distribution on a bell curve, most leaders seek to use their gifts on that level more or less for their own sake, are more or less open to compromise what cannot be compromised without destroying it, namely justice, are not necessarily doing great damage, but are not doing a tremendous amount of good either. And then we find a minority at both ends of the standard deviation.

It is not always evident who are operating at both extremes. The megalomaniac will appear to be doing tremendous good, but is in fact doing tremendous harm that will eventually come to light. And very few will appreciate the good that is being achieved by a truly great leader of genuine charity, because they are shrewd and inconspicuous, and the fruits of their labor will not be evident until years after they have retired, if it becomes evident at all in this life.

But it goes without saying that a good Catholic leader is called to move into the higher percentiles of the bell curve. He or she is given power from on high to achieve what others cannot. They are called to join holiness to power.

During his wedding homilies, Monsignor Wells would invariably tell-in fact he'd beg- married couples to pray every day that God teach them how to love. If they learn love after fifty years of marriage, they will look back and realize that they had no clue what love was when they first married. I believe that's all a Catholic leader needs to do in order to allow God to accomplish incalculable good through his or her leadership position.

None of us really know for certain how much charity we have, and if the wisdom of the saints reveals anything, it is that we tend to think we have more than we really do. We need only beg God to infuse it within us, to create within us a heart that loves Him and His kingdom more than ourselves, recalling that he said, "I give you my word, if you are ready to believe that you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer, it shall be done for you" (Mk 11, 24). But it is not enough to ask once; we have to ask every day: "I tell you, even though he does not get up and take care of the man because of friendship, he will do so because of his persistence, and give him as much as he needs" (Lk 11, 8).

Two visible signs of perfect charity have been given to us, namely, the Eucharist and Mary. Her cooperation with divine grace and her consent to be the instrument of providence were without the slightest defect. We have to return to Mary and ask for her intercession and meditate daily on the mysteries of the rosary. And we have to grow to hunger for the Eucharist, adore the humility of the Son in the Eucharist, and join ourselves as frequently as possible to the sacrifice of the Mass. And finally, we have to pray for help from the communion of saints. Any Catholic leader who takes full advantage of the treasures we've inherited - from the example and wisdom of the saints and doctors to popular devotions and sacramentals - will at the end of his or her life be given some understanding of the immeasurable good that has been accomplished by God through the decision to cooperate with divine grace. Such a vision will be a source of tremendous joy and consolation that bodes a good and holy death.