Bishops and the Beached Whale: They Wait for Signal from New Pope, but Bishops Need to Let Hierarchical Style Die

By Kennedy, Eugene Cullen | National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005 | Go to article overview

Bishops and the Beached Whale: They Wait for Signal from New Pope, but Bishops Need to Let Hierarchical Style Die


Kennedy, Eugene Cullen, National Catholic Reporter


"Edgartown, Mass., Jan. 17--Performing an autopsy is probably never a pleasant chore, but when the subject is a 55-foot whale on a winter beach in a biting northeast wind, it is even less like fun."

--The New York Times, Jan. 18

"If another pope came in, who is more flexible than John Paul II, they would support this right away."

--Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, October 1996, referring to his Common Ground Initiative, which had been criticized by Cardinals Bernard Law and

James Hickey

Pope Benedict XVI's first post-election signals, especially in sacking Fr. Thomas Reese, the Jesuit editor of America magazine, bring a mixture of reassurance and uncertainty to the world's harried bishops. Comfortably huddled for a quarter of a century in the enveloping shadow of John Paul II, they still squint somewhat anxiously into this new dawn. I was sure about what John Paul wanted; does this mean that Benedict expects the same of me? This longing not to be found wanting in the appraising eyes of a new pope intensifies the bishops' chronic uneasiness about how to function in a calling that now provides little of the comfort and even less of the respect that once trimmed their days as neatly as the red piping on their cassocks.

The bishops' worn down and worn-out condition is not, however, a direct effect of their mourning for John Paul II or their worry about pleasing Benedict XVI, although it is related to the programmatic expectations of both. Their anxiety is not, therefore, the fallout from the criticism and calls for resignation and/or indictment that have rained down on them since the clergy sex abuse crisis exploded in 2002. It is not even a reaction to the specter of bankruptcy that has recently appeared in American dioceses.

The stress fractures splintering their accustomed complacency radiate out from their belief that God had given them a clear mission through Pope John Paul II, and may have extended that mission through Benedict XVI. The mission? To maintain the landmark status of hierarchical structure in the age of tear-downs and to make any sacrifice and bear any burden to protect, defend and obey the hierarchical constitution of reality: In short, to breathe life into the beached whale of hierarchy.

Convinced that carrying out papal programs is absolutely the right thing for the church and certainly the right thing for themselves, they can accept each grueling day confidently if, at its end, their fidelity to the task wins them the papal approval that is the sustaining grace in their storm-tossed lives. Implementing the late pope's hierarchical restoration was enormously reassuring to them and now it seems that Benedict, known to dislike "the church from below," may expect them to redouble their struggles. Or will he, despite the authoritarian flex in his dismissal of Reese, remember his championing of collegiality at Vatican II?

Meanwhile the bishops ache from their earnest efforts to refresh and free the whale. The leviathan of hierarchy, however, hears what neither they, Pope John Paul nor perhaps Benedict XVI have heard--a cry from within itself: "Keep your rendezvous with death on this beach and, if prevented here, seek it on another."

The dream/nightmare

"How are you doing?" I recently asked a good-natured, hard-working bishop as he patted his neck with a handkerchief after a long ceremony. "Three years, four months and 15 days," he responded, noting, in the way an old con might, the amount of hard time that would tick off slowly until he could retire. Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley's recent anguished confession that death would be a blessed deliverance from the nonstop tension of the contemporary shepherd's life reveals how many of these good men long to lay their robes down one last time on the vesting case and walk out of the sacristy for good.

If they do not condemn one of the myriad injustices of the day, they are chided for failing to speak in the public forum and are compared to bishops who remained silent under fascism. If they do speak out, as in enunciating the church's pro-life position during the election campaign, they are chastised for violating the separation of church and state, and what right do they have to impose their morals on the candidates anyway?

They deepen their plight every time they act hierarchically in a fundamentally collegial world, as in imposing top-down decisions in closing parishes; providing substitutes for the sacrament of the Eucharist; refusing to open up diocesan finances; imposing authoritarian regulations on their priests; and treating members of such groups as Voice of the Faithful as if they were nailing rebellious theses on their cathedral doors instead of helping to keep them open.

Now that the great hierarchical champion has died and they are not quite certain of how authoritarian Benedict will be, can and should these dedicated men shake off the dream that has so obsessed them? The longstanding episcopal embrace of hierarchical assumptions seeded the clerical sex abuse storm that laid waste to their moral authority. Now it leaves them in the face of a pressing contemporary challenge that they either do not under-stand or badly misinterpret: learning to relate on an equal basis with Catholic lay people who know as much, and often more, theology than they do.

Many of America's current bishops can remember when the esteem earned by the shepherds of 19th-century immigrant flocks was automatically transferred to them. Being named a bishop invited them into quiet, well-appointed places in both the secular and ecclesiastical dominions. The exclusivity of the gemutlich episcopal culture gave bishops a mellow camaraderie with peers who were on the inside of something very big and who could sit together in grand hotel suites in their shirtsleeves with their rings glowing dully in the lamplight and raise a toast to good times.

Now being a bishop means less to be filled with the Spirit than to be emptied of everything else, to experience a kenosis of Pauline proportions through which the appointed one takes on the form of a slave to the work, surely unrewarded and often undervalued, of holding the official church both aloft and together at the same time.

Being a bishop once guaranteed smiles and greetings like "Your Grace," along with invitations--"Park right here, bishop" from the cops and "Sit next to me" from the mayor. Now it delivers more blank stares than smiles. "Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" from trial lawyers and prosecutors; "Sit down there" from the presiding judge.

These bishops may drink obediently of the cup of criticism for their hesitation in identifying the sex abuse crisis and their lack of grace in managing it, but not one of them can imagine that by living the hierarchical style they are responsible for both.

Origin of hierarchy

The hierarchical dynamic shatters the wholeness of creation and human personality, dividing people into higher and lower aspects, thereby de-sacramentalizing and sexually wounding both. Those who claim to be divinely chosen higher-ups have made good people feel that there is something wrong lower down inside themselves. This hierarchical dynamic is responsible for the tension that so plagues even the healthiest of bishops.

The idea of hierarchy originated in the place we now call Iraq 4,000 years before Christ. There, priests observed the passage of planets through fixed stars, giving birth to what we now call astronomy and astrology. They beheld the heavens, where the gods hung their lanterns in the houses of the constellations, as divided from earth, and considered the earth a lower separate and lesser stage for whose inhabitants the stars danced.

This imaginative construction of heaven above and earth below was applied to the universe and all that was in it--kingdoms and people. Copernicus was disbelieved and Galileo judged a heretic for claiming otherwise and thereby threatening the hierarchically arranged cosmos in which everything was divided into higher and lower. From this mapping came the divine right of kings and the elaborately accorded privileges of royalty and its courts. It is even, God help us, the cosmic display from which monsignors arose. Indeed, so linked in this system at one time were court and king that when the king died they buried the court with him. A vestige of this practice survived in the church when, at the death of a pope, papal chamberlains, the lower class of monsignors, lost their titles as well.

From this construction of creation came an ambivalence toward the earth expressed as both an affirmation and a rejection of the world, a two-sided feeling that was frequently expressed by John Paul II, who championed life and struggled to spare it from war while viewing it as corrupt and dangerous at the same time. That is why so many churchmen, including the new pope at one time, quickly interpreted the sex abuse scandal as a sacrilege committed by an unhealthy world against an innocent church rather than a sacrilege committed by an unhealthy church against the innocents in its care.

Hierarchies collapsed in the 20th century under the enormous blow of World War I and the even more transforming impact of the information age. The latter is merciless in its leveling powers. The great foreshadowing symbol of this could be seen on a hazy July night almost 36 years ago when we looked back together by television from the moon to see, for the first time, the wonder of earthrise. In that instant we saw for ourselves that the earth is not divided from the heavens but that the earth is in the heavens.

The last century has witnessed an attempt to recapture our sense of being whole, rather than divided, persons. Fields as varied as psychology and psychosomatic medicine have rediscovered and reaffirmed the infinitely complex unity of human personality. Hierarchy has collapsed as a satisfactory map of the universe, of ourselves, of popular culture and of our church. The hierarchical dynamic of Catholicism, replaced by the council fathers with the collegiality of the early church at Vatican II, has imploded.

Hierarchical style

The distinguishing mark of the hierarchical style is that sense of a divine deputation through which bishops attempt to control the outcome rather than understand the origins of sexual abuse among the clergy and other church personnel.

Bishops are convinced that they have the right and the obligation, shared by no other Catholics in the same way, to preserve the institutional church from harm. They respond to the diocesan lawyer and the diocesan insurance agent as if following Mary's directions to the wine stewards at Cana: "Do whatever he tells you." They believe that their primary duty is to the structured church that has bills to pay, roofs to fix and good works to finance. Protecting hard assets, both the lawyer and the insurer advise, requires hard decisions or plaintiffs lawyers will sack the hierarchical church as the Hurts once did Rome.

The hierarchical style explains why these men feel obligated to use tactics they would disdain in their own personal lives. Thus at Dallas in 2002 they chose, in their anxiety to restore control, to use classic hierarchical style to force down ill-thought-out responses, such as zero tolerance, including one anonymous phone call and you're out, on their priests. They are responses from which the bishops exempted themselves.

The hierarchical style was evident in their dealing with the lay commission they established to investigate the extent and origins of the crisis. Declaring after its report was issued in 2004 that the sex abuse crisis was "history," the bishops promptly distanced themselves from the commission and debated delays in funding its further work.

It is difficult for our bishops to leave the side of the whale that holds them hostage. Only in the daylight on the shore can they observe how this hierarchical style is responsible for the origin, secret festering and ongoing public mismanagement of the sex abuse crisis itself. That hierarchical style, like the armor of crusaders, controlled the way the men inside it moved and fought. Incorporating into themselves its unverified theological presumptions gave them a sense of possessing infused knowledge about ordaining seminarians--"Psychologists can't test a vocation"--whose psychosexual immaturity predicted that they would eventually experience serious conflicts --"Pray to the Blessed Mother for purity, my son"--and infallible judgment in assigning and reassigning them when they had troubles--"He just needs a good talking-to"--and confidence that the doctors, the police and the courts would cooperate with them every step of the way "for the good of the church."

Bishops will only be awakened when the principal demon of hierarchy--the unfettered use of power over the powerless--is exorcised and the pope places a "Do Not Resuscitate" sign on the great beached whale. The final cure for the sex abuse crisis and the healing of the wounds it has caused will come only when the hierarchical carcass is buried for good.

Hierarchical syndrome

The hierarchical style is a feature of the hierarchical syndrome, the classic inability of career hierarchs to enter any human relationship that they cannot control. Many bishops are healthy enough to make such relationships, of course, but those truly afflicted by this syndrome experience great difficulty in entering and maintaining equal relationships with others. They are incapable of the give and take, the looking each other in the eye, the being undefended in each other's presence that define healthy human intimacy. Even the great Pope John Paul II, for all his capacity to electrify great crowds, related to others almost exclusively from on high, his eyes often roving beyond the person in front of him, introducing distance.

Celibacy suits the confirmed hierarch as an acceptable adjustment to the non-intimate life. No wonder most of them defend it so vigorously. This stylizes their- attitudes so that they view questions connected with sexuality at a saving distance--"Thank God I am not like the rest of men"--and speak of it in a highly abstract and distant fashion. Not even a theological acrobat can speak convincingly from the outside about the inside of human relationships.

The bishops' way of restoring hierarchy handicaps them in restoring the bond of trust with their people, the bond they shattered by their highhanded management of the sex abuse crisis. Trust can only be reconstituted by men who can author equal relationships with others.

The standard operating imperative of the hierarchical syndrome is this: "You must accept what I do to you." Without this style of relating--as someone always in a superior and never in an equal relationship with another--there would be no sex abuse crisis.

The hierarchical syndrome's sense of entitlement makes untouchable those clergy who touch so many children. The latter's phantom sense of grandeur emboldens them to place their own unsupported word against any other. Who, after all, would accept the word of a layperson over that of an ordained priest?

The demanding reciprocity of human relationships never registers on the unhealthy sexually molesting clergy who, convinced of their hierarchical standing, "move on" blandly from those they use until they use them up.

The hierarchical attitude toward sex in this rarified clerical culture is classically one of disdain and disparagement. Human sexual expression is considered a low animal action allowed solely--to propagate the race--to those not strong enough to renounce it.

Such unfortunate views are preached as an ideal to some aspiring clerics who may, at a later date, come to regret accepting such judgments on other persons. This sense of hierarchical superiority, however, is evident in those clerics who romantically characterize themselves as members of a new elite ready to save the church from Vatican II. In short, the new hierarchs are determined to reimpose a divided view of human sexuality onto those they seem to consider their straying flocks. Such clerics, who must always be distinguished from healthy priests and bishops, appear to be obsessed with sex and with a determination to preach Humanae Vitae's condemnation of birth control as their special crusade.

These bishops relate through the hierarchical persona of their flaunted ecclesiastical rank rather than through their own personalities. Everybody else must, therefore, change to be in relationship to these clerics whose hierarchical state means that they never need to change themselves.

In settling for such immature men, bishops cannot observe how they use the same hierarchical tactics that betrayed them in the sex abuse scandal. They assign men to parishes, putting the burden on the people to bear with and accept the demeaning treatment such clerics often give them.

This sense of living above sexuality in a fantasy level of super-nature leaves undeveloped clerics perplexed by or in danger of misinterpreting the faint erotic signals that rise naturally from within themselves. How often they rush to confess that they have sinned by allowing these feelings entrance to their sacred persons and how relieved they are to regain what they regard as their purity so they can say Mass without committing an even graver sin.

Married clergy and women priests

The strongest argument for allowing priests and bishops to marry is that it would smash the hierarchical template. Marriage would demand that popes and bishops change themselves. It would make them have to grow up as they give up the vain notion of the perfection of the hierarchical--life to forge a thriving if ever imperfect equal relationship with another person. The sacrifice of clerical celibacy is not that of giving up sex but that of forgoing the chance to learn how to make a profound and equal relationship with a woman who is a real person.

The reason that the church needs to examine the issues of clerical celibacy and women priests is not to satisfy ecclesiastical politics or the goals of some movement, however worthy these may be. It is essentially relational. Authentic human experience must be reclaimed in order to restore the balance of health within the church. Real women are needed in ministry to make sure that we have enough real men in ministry. That is the only way that the church can be healthy enough to overcome the unhealthy over-control that is the prime feature of the hierarchical syndrome.

Management consultant Peter Drucker once observed, "You can either go to meetings or you can work, but you cannot do both." Contemporary bishops are painfully learning that they can either function hierarchically or they can exercise healthy authority but that they cannot do both.

Hierarchies are designed for the exercise of power, that is, for authoritarian control. They depend on structures rather than human relationships.

Authority, however, depends completely on human relationships. It derives from the Latin augere--to create, to make able to grow. Parents author their children. Their authority over them is a function of that special relationship through which parents commit themselves to their children's growth, to their human fullness, to their emergence from dependence. So, too, the authority of teachers, pastors and popes is essentially relational, ordered to the growth of their students, their parishioners or their worldwide flock.

Bishops who have been trained to relate structurally through their roles and the rules of hierarchy and who have been conditioned to manage rather than expose themselves to the risks of human relationships find it almost impossible to exercise their authority effectively in an institution that insists that they exercise it as impersonal control.

This is baffling and painful for the many good men who only want to do the right thing as bishops and who find that exercising authority in a hierarchical manner regularly plunges them into controversy.

[Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago, and author of The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, published by St. Martin's Press.]

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