What is the most misused word in the debates which surround the Church’s actions and relationships? My prime candidate is the word “authority”. With menacing inevitability it is always reduced to command and obedience. In doing so we condemn ourselves to live in a mindframe which the better elements in the secular world began to abandon by the mid 20th century, and which carries all the penal overtones of medieval autocracy. But true authority is not like that at all.
We get a glimmer of true authority by recalling that God who sustains us in existence from moment to moment by his constant omnipotence did not bear down on us: he gave us free will. When we thoroughly messed that up he did not abandon us but gave himself in total sacrifice to redeem us from our arrogant misuse of his gift, and then provided us with every means to flourish as sons rather than servants.
If that is a flavour of authority at the divine scale how would it translate on the human scale of, say, an ordinary secular, commercial organisation?
This is certainly not a democracy. The owners may, within the constraints of the law, exercise full authority – from setting the objectives, the standards, the routines, the rewards and the sanctions. But that authority may be exercised in radically different ways.
Well into the 20th century it was accepted wisdom that workers were primarily responsive to rewards and punishments. They were not of the calibre to take responsibility or to think for themselves, and thus tasks had to be set out in detail, and timed to ensure the appropriate level of outcome. In a sense the worker was a machine who happened to be human. It was called “scientific management”.
From the middle of the century onwards it began to be understood that, generally speaking, an enterprise was far more successful if the workers were treated as intelligent human beings who reacted well to responsibility. Authority became primarily a leadership activity, inspiring and co-ordinating the willing and co-operative workers – who brought their minds as well as their bodies to the task.
This change was not a result of increased virtue on the part of management but partly because more and more jobs actually required active thought, and primarily because enterprises run in this way tended to be much more successful. If you do not immediately recognise names like Maslow, Herzberg, Likert and McGregor, it is because the battle between worker as machine, and worker as human being, was won far enough in the past for it to be taken largely for granted.
Certain characteristics of these new organisations are worth noting. The first is that the leadership was clear about the ethos and objectives of the business. It had its key success factors and values: for the most part they could be summarised on a sheet of paper. But they would be communicated and applied in a variety of different ways – by example, through the questions asked or in general formal or informal discussion. Rarely, if ever, were they issued as orders, there was no need. There was greater emphasis on encouraging successful behaviour than on fault-finding.
Second, communication – upwards, downwards and sideways – was encouraged. This enhanced the sense of participation, and the organisation benefited continually from the experience of staff at different levels.
Third, the organisation tended to be very open. Naturally there will always be some confidential information but the leadership instinct was to keep everybody as well informed as possible. (Keeping quiet only when you had to, as opposed to telling people only when you had to.)
Of course, for brevity, I have painted a bad guy/good guy picture. The reality was more complex. The application of worker responsibility would differ between an accountancy office and an advertising agency, for instance. And considerable ingenuity would be required when much of the work was mechanical by necessity. Many firms claimed to promote worker responsibility while disingenuously reducing it in other ways. Other firms had bad initial experiences – a residue of past habits – and abandoned change. There were organisations who took the new thinking as an excuse for eschewing active leadership; we see this particularly in organisations where the discipline of the market does not apply. And, naturally, there were, and remain, managements who feel that the workforce cannot be trusted, and so the business remains in a constant state of tension and high personnel turnover.
The question of authority in the Church is sensitive at the present time, in view of the reports on abuse in Ireland. There can be no doubt that the misuse of authority played a large part in the sorry history. Not only was it employed to protect the strong against the weak, but it was employed in the interests of secrecy rather than openness. Even the Holy See has been accused of a culpable blind eye.
We should start off of course by considering whether this was simply an aberration of time, circumstance and place. But then we must consider to what extent it might relate to the way that the Church exercises authority. Do we see the organisation communicating its core values in an effective and inspirational way – with an emphasis on what we get right rather than what we get wrong? Are the members of the community seen as responsible, trustworthy, and focused on the same objectives? Is the Church an example to the world of openness and good communication? Do outsiders still say of us, as Tertullian claimed, “Look how they love one another.”
I do not doubt that I will one day feel motivated to answer that question with more concrete detail. But I shall be grateful if you tell us what you think.