People readily invoke the need for leadership, especially when things are going wrong or they feel the need to apportion blame; authority has a harder time making a case for itself. Leadership implies some sort of involvement in the choice of leader, so there has to be a measure of consent to being led, even if our personal choice fell on another. That is one of the basic principles of democracy: we agree that whoever won the majority of the electors’ votes forms the government. Authority, on the other hand, is conferred rather than chosen and the degree of consent to its working can be minimal. The hereditary monarch and the bishop are alike in this. We can leave the country or the Church, but we cannot alter the scope of the monarch’s or bishop’s authority. It is beyond our power.
The savvy reader may notice the influence of Walter Ullmann in this brief analysis. In my undergraduate days I sat at his feet and have always been fascinated by his ascending and descending themes of law and government. Francis Oakley’s subsequent attack on him has not lessened my enthusiasm for using Ullmann’s theses as an interpretative tool for the events of our own day.
Ullmann’s Ascending and Descending Themes
Many of the medieval disputes Ullmann wrote about, and the rise of Fascism in the mid- twentieth century which sent millions to their death, had to do with questions of leadership and authority. Were medieval popes and emperors equal, or did they have distinct but complementary roles; and in any case, who decided the scope of each? Was Hitler’s popular mandate sufficient warrant for the crimes he subsequently committed — or were they not crimes at all, because he held a popular mandate? In Church and State today different models of leadership and authority are operative, but how do they interact? A democratically elected government derives its power and authority from the electorate, so the man or woman at the top is said to be actualising the will of the people — Ullmann’s ascending theme; but what happens when a government ceases to act within the confines of the law? Does Boris Johnson’s side-stepping of Parliament on some issues mean he has forfeited the right to be seen as a legitimate democratic authority and become a dictator?
The extraordinary events in Washington D.C. last week raise serious questions about the nature of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of President, Congress, Senate, and Judiciary. Access to social media and smartphones has transformed not only our awareness of what is happening but also our assessment of it. Each individual, by virtue of his/her choice of what to read or view, can now claim the ability to judge the rights and wrongs of highly complex situations we might never have known about in previous times. If this is a right, a freedom we claim, then it also comes with the responsibility to judge fairly and to take care how and when we exercise our right.
Religious authority, being derived from God, tends to fan out top/down, as in Ullmann’s descending theme, but very few, in the West at least, would say such authority was absolute, certainly not where Christianity is concerned. We recognize the power and (hopefully) respect the person we consider to have authority over us, but we prefer to talk about ‘leadership’ rather than give a blanket allegiance which may oblige us to an obedience we do not relish. The challenges to the authority of the pope and bishops (sometimes coming from the bishops themselves) are startling to those brought up in an older era of automatic deference. (The historian in me is not convinced the deference was ever quite as complete or automatic as some maintain, but let that pass.) There is definitely an air of ‘we the people’ when the discussion of some subjects comes up, and it has to be admitted that the official response of the Vatican or local hierarchy is often lacklustre. The abuse scandal would not be such a festering wound if the bishops, and a succession of popes, including Pope Francis, had been able to confront the reality of abuse honestly, humbly and compassionately from the beginning.
It is the same with questions of participation in the life of the Church. Many simply do not see that some of the provisions of Cor Orans, for instance, are insulting to women leading the monastic life, or that allowing religious brothers to vote at the Synod on the Family while initially refusing any like participation to women religious made nonsense of the argument that ‘rulership’ is the preserve of the priesthood. The latest change to canon law, admitting women to the ministries of acolyte and lector while denying the possibility of admission to the ordained orders of priest and deacon, probably also caused a few historians to raise their eyebrows. I shall discuss this in more detail below.
The point is, this is the situation we have and we must make the best of it. It helps, I think, that we are currently re-reading St Benedict’s first chapter on the abbot, (RB 2), and can trace there a nuanced and ultimately compelling account of what leadership can and should be, and what real authority looks like when it is placed at the service of others rather than used for personal gain. It also helps that we have four very different monastic saints to commemorate this week, and each of them can cast some light on the subject of leadership and authority. I am referring to Aelred (11 January), Benet Biscop (12 January) and Maurus and Placid (15 January). Anthony (17 January) is superseded by Sunday but would add another interesting dynamic if he were included.
Aelred of Rievaulx: the importance of example
I haven’t been able to join in the ‘Our Aelred’ webinar organized under the auspices of English Heritage and others, so it may be that the participants will come away with a much keener appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses than is common. Aelred was undoubtedly a very charismatic figure, who inspired love and devotion in others. He could write like an angel, and the themes he was particularly drawn to — love and friendship — are attractive in every age. Under him, Rievaulx became home to a very large and disparate community which numbered some quite rough characters among them. Despite his suffering considerable ill-health, community numbers steadily increased during his lifetime. His beautiful Pastoral Prayer, part of which I myself say daily, is one that anyone with responsibility for others would do well to pray.
After Aelred’s death, cracks began to show. The community was never again quite as flourishing. It is not difficult to comprehend why. Personal magnetism, like grace, is not easily ‘institutionalised’. Initial fervour is rarely sustained indefinitely and Rievaulx was no exception.
I think that Aelred’s life is not easily understood by anyone who has not lived as a Cistercian him/herself. Asceticism and self-renunciation, not self-indulgence, were part of his routine, but they are alien concepts for many of us today. Many have forgotten — if they ever knew — how disciplined his life must have been, or they have speculated about his friendships or his sexuality without recognizing that such evidence as we have is ambiguous. Aelred himself was a monk first and foremost and might have thought our concerns irrelevant to his own purpose as abbot: bringing a community of monks and conversi to holiness. The Rule of St Benedict provided a model, as did the evolving interpretations of the Cistercians themselves, but his abbacy has his own individual stamp upon it and was by no means ‘text-book’ in every respect. His authority was not absolute, either. He was subject to the scrutiny of others and the decisions of General Chapter, but there was also the daily living in community, the accommodations to individual temperaments and circumstances about which St Benedict writes so eloquently. It was his business to rule by example — and what an example he must have set!
My first set of questions
So, my first set of questions about leadership and authority is: where there is no example given, can there be leadership; and if there is no leadership, can there be authority? How would that apply to recent events in the UK or the USA?
Benet Biscop: the importance of taking advice
Benet Biscop was an unusual man. He is sometimes dismissed as a seventh-century aesthete, but that is to ignore his physical and mental toughness. He travelled to Rome five times in the course of his life (c. 628-690), not an easy or safe journey to make, but he was no mere tourist. In addition to praying at the tombs of the apostles, he collected manuscripts, masons, teachers of music, glaziers and other skilled craftsmen, so that his monastic foundations at Wearmouth and Jarrow became outstanding examples of the latest and best in architectural design and monastic practice. His work for the library laid the foundations of Bede’s scholarship; the Codex Amiatinus, deemed the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Vulgate Bible, is a product of the Jarrow scriptorium (it lacks the Book of Baruch, but that we may regard as a minor detail compared with what it does contain).
Contemporaries remarked on Benet’s patience as much as his ability, especially during the last three years of his life when he was bedridden. In his lifetime he saw the Church become more united, and the attainment of unity requires much patient listening to others. The division between Roman and Celtic forms of observance was healed; the challenge posed by paganism declined; the two years he spent in Canterbury with Theodore of Tarsus were important for the organization of the Church in this country; and as a monk, who took the name Benedict, he is recognized as someone who appreciated the wisdom of St Benedict. None of this would have been possible had he not had a gift for seeking out and taking advice. That suggests a humility leaders do not always show. He was certainly not wishy-washy. Bede describes him as being ‘full of fervour and enthusiasm . . . for the good of the English Church.’ That kind of enthusiasm demands clear thinking and a readiness to sift the evidence, taking nothing for granted. I suppose a secular equivalent would be a government minister dutifully working through his despatch boxes or attending briefings, or an employer consulting employees about proposed changes to work schedules or company activities. An ecclesiastical equivalent might be consultation of the laity or any group particularly affected by a proposed decision.
My second set of questions
So, my second set of questions about leadership and authority is: how far does the one who leads have a duty to inform him/herself before taking a decision? Is authority compromised when it is based on whim or personal preference rather than the greater good of the whole? How relevant is Catholic Social Teaching to the exercise of authority?
Maurus and Placid: the place of obedience
I’ve included Maurus and Placid because they show us another side of the leadership/authority question: that of obedience. Many a Benedictine novice has chafed at the presentation of these two saints as exemplary disciples of St Benedict. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is quickly told. Placid, the youthful disciple, runs to the lake to fetch water and falls in. Benedict, aware of what has happened, orders the older Maurus to go and rescue him, so he sets out and walks on the water in obedience to his abbot’s command. There is a little subsequent disagreement about whether it is the obedience of Maurus or the prayers of the abbot that are responsible for saving the boy’s life, but the unhesitating obedience of Maurus is a model of obedience popular in the Church, even today, when we are assured many things have changed for the better. But have they? I’d argue that the role of the laity, women especially, is still ‘problematic’.
The announcement on Monday that women may now be admitted to the ministries of acolyte and lector was greeted by some as a wonderful advance. Women may now do canonically what they have been doing informally for some time: serve at the altar and read at the ambo. The trouble is, the historical memory involved in this view of things is rather truncated. Women were serving at the altar and reading at the ambo even before these were reserved to men as minor orders, and they have been doing so for some years since Vatican II and the greater use of the vernacular. In 1972 Paul VI designated them ministries, thus freeing them from identification with clerical status. Opening them to both men and women as a function of our common baptismal consecration can therefore be seen as an advance while at the same time firmly closing the door on the (re)admission of women to the diaconate — as Pope Francis did last year. But I think many women will see the change as too little too late, because it has to be viewed alongside some recent decisions quite at odds with it. I have already drawn attention to some of the provisions of Cor Orans which make it clear that nuns are not regarded as having the capacity to make decisions for themselves and are to be closely supervised. Perhaps that helps explain why men seem to be keener on this change in canon law than many women. It formalises and limits without necessarily changing anything more than the text of canon 230 § 1. Law is important, of course, but what is lawful does not always lead to action. In this case, it has directive but not compulsive force. What woman is going be an altar server or read at Mass if the priest objects? Isn’t that the rub?
Some object that in a global Church, cultural norms are challenged by the change. I think that is to disregard the fact that many effectively priestless communities have been kept going for years by lay men and women acting as catechists and adult formators. If I may use an analogy, the excitement expressed over the election of Kamala Harris as Vice President elect of the U.S.A. must have been greeted with a sense of déja-vu in India, Pakistan, Liberia, etc. and many other countries in the so-called ‘developing world’ that have already had a woman as Prime Minister or President. My own feeling is that the change in canon law will be used as a pretext to avoid bigger questions about the role of the laity, women especially. It will be interesting to see how the laity have worked to keep faith communities alive and flourishing during this time of pandemic through the way in which many have addressed the need for fellowship and service, not just worship.
My third set of questions
So my third set of questions is this: how do leadership and authority in the Church combine, and are they reserved to men only (not necessarily priests: think about those religious brothers I mentioned earlier)? Is the obedience to be given by women fundamentally different from that to be given by men? Does this reflect the fullness of the Incarnation? Have the laity acted as leaders during the pandemic, not just supporting the clergy but acting to keep communities alive? What can we learn from this?
I am conscious of not having dealt in detail with the historical arguments for some of the views I hold but that would require a much longer post, and this is already longer than many of my readers will bear. I think it important to stress that, while recognizing the imperfect nature of the present situation in both Church and State, the alternatives do not appeal. I remain, in the non-party-political sense, a liberal and a democrat and a loyal, if sometimes sorely tried — and doubtless, trying —, Catholic. What the future holds, who can say?