The leading edge

I think that the Church is going through a time of great danger. This was illustrated for me by a remark made recently by a Catholic luminary. He spoke of a “major paradigm shift” through which the Church was sloughing off its medieval Catholicism and Counter-Reformation entrenchment. I suspect that he, and perhaps many others, has a limited understanding of how difficult it may be to change the culture of such an institution. Despite the refreshing breeze of Pope Francis, and his near universal acceptance by the secular world, there are big problems ahead.

While I remain concerned about the future, I am optimistic about what has happened so far. Francis understands the difference between leadership and management. He knows that not only are they different but also that the two are in some ways actually antipathetic. Indeed some aspects of his earlier career suggest that management is not his forté. But leadership undoubtedly is.

The objective of management is to preside, guide and direct complex operations. It is very practical, and focussed on the immediate situation. Leadership is concerned with the future – its eye is not on the hill in front but on the hill which lies beyond, and the hills beyond that. The Church is a pilgrim, and the leader must know its eventual destination. That is the vision he must communicate.

Within this vision he must establish the essential qualities which are absolutely required to take us on our way. We are not to be a Church of Pharisees, but a broken Church, replete with those who fail and are lifted to their feet – only to fail again. It is not a Church which finds itself in the grandeur of cathedrals or the purple of power but in the backstreets of the poor, and on the edges of society. Its members, from the highest to the lowest, do not preach, they prophesy. It does not exist to maintain itself, God has guaranteed that already: “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” Its function is to display Christ, and so offer the world what the world truly wants.

But fine words go nowhere without actions. Francis actually lives out his vision through what he does. What is a leader who does not lead the way himself? This is the secret of his impact. The practical changes he has introduced so far are few; he has largely confined himself to mandating the organs from which change may come in time. But he knows that all this will quickly falter unless his message first changes the way people think and feel.

And that is where the danger lies. Changing the structure of any well-established organisation is notoriously difficult. While inspired and charismatic leadership is the first essential, there are big obstacles to be faced. The structure has lasted for two thousand years, and it is strongly hierarchical. Moreover it has deeply grounded cultural factors such as its belief in its transcendent mission and in its fundamental immutability. And these core values are preserved by a sense of the sacred, which in a secular organisation would more properly be described as ideology. The briefest canter through its history, ancient and modern, reveals how often this ideology has led to policies antithetical to its true mission.

We have in effect had an early warning from the aftermath of Vatican II, arising from the reforms it introduced. One reaction to these was a near barmy response of extreme liberality represented by enthusiastic amateurs untouched by theological literacy. At the other, the reaction was to close down the hatches by championing extremes of triumphalism. Neither was helpful, and much remains to be resolved. But the message of Francis, consistent though it is with Vatican II, is much more threatening.

So we must expect a period of time – perhaps a generation or more – for the effects of this message to be properly digested. And over this period of unrest there will be many sincere voices which will attempt to slow down change for the good of the Church. If we assume that Francis will remain constant in his intentions, we cannot assume that his successor will do so too. Moreover, and notwithstanding the theoretical authority of a pope, there are plenty of ways in which change can be foiled without any need for overt defiance.

This is possible because, in the nature of things, the establishment of an organisation is the outcome of social evolution. That is, it attracts members who are suited to the culture which it presents, and discourages those who do not fit. The further they move up the organisation the more acculturated they become. Faced by change, the square peg, once secure in its square hole, must adapt its psychological girth to a new fit. It is unlikely to be happy. Once again we are faced by decades rather than years for an establishment suited to a new culture to be developed.

Two issues will be the instruments of success or failure. One is the question of subsidiarity: the principle that decisions should be taken at the lowest practical levels. And the second is communication which, as the word suggests, is the key to community. The Church has an appalling record in both these areas. Fortunately, Francis is already on the job. But I will on another occasion explore these in more detail, with proper attention to what we can learn from secular organisations. We will, I hope, discover that radical reform here, however difficult, will assist the Church in its pilgrimage towards living up to her own fundamental nature.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Pope Francis. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to The leading edge

  1. John Thomas says:

    “his near universal acceptance by the secular world …” – I hope he doesn’t become too accepted by the secular world, otherwise that will show he has become OF it, the last thing the Church was supposed to be; if in the end he is NOT accepted by the secular world, that will show he has not replaced Christian values with purely-this-worldly ones.

    • Vincent says:

      Yes, we may be still in a honeymoon period and I have no doubt that Pope Francis will have things to say which the world will not accept. (Indeed he has already said such things but they have been overlooked.) However the Church’s true message, when it is expressed in the right way, will attract people of good will because it is in accordance with human nature.

    • milliganp says:

      In some ways the secular world has led the church. The recognition of the individual (but not the obsession of individualism), the expectation of truth and integrity of those in positions of power, and the abandonment of dogmatism are all positive steps now taken to extreme. However the future of the church can never be the collective, intellectually and emotionally subservient structure of the 1930’s or early 1950’s. God’s primary gift to humanity is free will, it is better to make one’s own decisions and get them wrong thant to abrogate free will to an external structure.

  2. Quentin says:

    A regular correspondent of mine, who prefers not to blog directly, has sent me the following comment.

    “I am glad you are analysing the present complicated situation in the Church – it needs doing. I hope you will remember the fatal failure to teach the Truths of the Faith effectively in our schools since 1970 which has resulted in such a massive loss of souls here, in all English-speaking countries and in all Western Europe.

    Until we get that right again we will not recover.”

    • milliganp says:

      No need to guess the correspondent; she’s been banging the same drum for 30 years. Just like everybody blaming the EU for every ill of the UK the “Vatican II should never have happened”. I know several PEEP members and their contribution to the life of the church is rarely positive.

      • Truthos says:

        mulligan If that is your opinion on PEEP, then I am afraid you are severely misguided and ill-informed on the matter. If it was not for the PEEP the hares would still be chasing the hounds!

      • Quentin says:

        Does anyone know what this means?

      • milliganp says:

        For those confused my I used PEEP as an abreviation for Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (The organisation not the medal). I simply don’t understand Truthos’ post. If it refers to the same organisation, the one thing I am not is uninformed as I have read most of their newsletters, which a parishioner kindly leaves at the back of our church. Even the Catholic Herald has difficulty classifying the work of this contributor as helpful.

  3. John Candido says:

    I am not sure if the UK has seen the following program on television. It is entitled, ‘The Pope’s Revolution’, and it is produced by BBC Panorama. It is going to be broadcast on Australian television next Monday evening at 8:30 pm AEST on ACB1. This episode of ‘Four Corners’ will most likely be informative to the present discussion on SecondSight.

    • milliganp says:

      I’ve already seen it, it was not bad for the BBC. However there is obviously no practicing Catholic in the BBC editorial team as the presenter calls the Mass “holy communion” amongst other indications of a lack of detailed knowledge.

  4. John Candido says:

    Leadership is not an optional extra; it is essential. Cultures of one form or another come and go; vision, is what leadership is tasked to adumbrate for all, and on behalf of all. Every leader that is worth his/her worth in salt has been both condemned and praised for the very same reform or policy. In other words, you are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t. Real leadership takes balls. Real courage is pretty scary, both for the leader, and for the led.

    It is an article of faith that the most significant reforms of state or Church are introduced with a chorus of supporters and antagonists. When one thinks of the end of slavery in the United States, with the issuance of the Proclamation of Emancipation on the 1st January 1863 as a war measure. And the passage into law of the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, (except as a legal sanction); this was passed by the American Senate on the 8th April 1864 and by the House of Representatives on the 31st January 1865. There certainly was no plain sailing to get slavery abolished in the United States. An Amendment whose sentiment we approve today without a second’s thought, was however, a great divider of the American nation in the 19th century.

    Although the Church is not a secular state bounded by political ideologies, it is similar nonetheless. A structure built on theological considerations, faith and doctrine, is not and can never be conceptualised as immutable and unchangeable. Any reading of ecclesiastical history will quickly dispel any notion of a Church of unchanging teachings, philosophies and understandings. It is up to real leaders to enunciate a vision and to pursue it with all of their might.

  5. Geordie says:

    Just because someone sticks to a point over a long period of time (“banging on about it”) doesn’t make them wrong. Catholic education has been deplorable since the late sixties. If you don’t agree why don’t you demonstrate where the errors are, instead of insulting the person who holds opinions which are different from your own.

    • Vincent says:

      A difficulty here is that there are no single causes. Teaching only works when the student understands and internalises what is being taught. If the teachers don’t have conviction they can say all the right words, and make no impact. Equally, if the student goes back to a family which is not itself fully practising then even what has been internalised may be lost.

      I cannot see in what way Vatican II could be responsible for this. Quentin’s correspondent mentions 1970. I wonder whether anything had happened at that time which could have contributed?

      • milliganp says:

        Vincent, I think you are getting closer to the probable source of the problem. I grew up in an Irish Catholic enclave with a large extended community of friends and family to whom the practice of Sunday Mass was completely natural. I kept my faith at university, married my Catholic sweetheart and, apart from the appaling behaviour of the clerical caste, have never felt the urge or need to doubt.
        Ultimately my family kept me Catholic, not the church or my education.
        The church, as the people of God assembled, is the modern locus for making faith endure but the church has not recognised the need to change to provide this role.

    • milliganp says:

      I attended a Catholic grammar school that closed in the late 1970’s so the vast majority of the old boys, whom I meet up with most years, attended in the 1940’s-1960’s. The lack of practice of this generation is almost identical to that of the post 1960’s students.
      The “deplorability” of Catholic education since the 1960’s is an urban myth with little foundation other than opinion. The reason I am still a Catholic has nothing to do with Catholic education, which put most people off as it lacked any basis in rational thought.

  6. Geordie says:

    Quentin’s post does not mention Vatican II.

  7. milliganp says:

    Getting back to the original theme of the blog, the challenge you present is how an organisation like the church can change without the danger of real harm. The reality is that harm is inevitable and probably necessary (because in any change some collateral damage is inevitable). If we take the last few years of Benedict’s papacy, he had finally managed to get a small number of non – “magic circle” doctrinal conservatives (excuse labels) into English Episcopal Sees – but this had been a 20 year project. It will probably be 10-15 years before we have “Franciscan” bishops; this lag is a real problem. The generation of priests formed by Vatican II are now retiring and many of their successors are revisionists who are unhappy with the uncertainty of Francis’ battlefield hospital church – cassocks and birettas are not natural battlefield dress (what you do with a maniple I suspect even God does not know). The people of Syria are living with great personal uncertainty, why should we expect to have it easy in the church?

  8. Geordie says:

    I wish you were right and the “deplorability” of Catholic education since the 1960′s is an urban myth. However you are speaking about yourself and your own experience. I was trained in the sixties as a Catholic teacher and when I began teaching the syllabus for religious education in primary schools could have been used in any school, be it Catholic or nothing. It did not teach the Catholic Faith.
    Years later when I inspected schools on their RE teaching, the measuring stick was “Did the school teach to the syllabus?” By then the syllabus was barely religious at all. It certainly wouldn’t have offended a humanist. I was not allowed to comment on this. I had to say either the school taught to the syllabus or it didn’t. From a Catholic point of view, the final report wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

    • milliganp says:

      Geordie, for a number of years I administerd section 23 inspections, this is the Catholic inspection of RE. I was not a judge, I distributed the reports, but I did not get the impression that RE education was a total failure.

  9. Singalong says:

    Geordie, I am afraid that our experience with children in Catholic schools, through the 70`s, 80`s and 90`s, backs up what you say. I think changes in attitude, and to the Liturgy, were introduced so suddenly, and sometimes to such extremes, that it was very difficult for parents and teachers to keep the right balance, and to be specific and definite enough about traditional belief and practice. Children educated during that period have really suffered, but I have to trust that God in His mercy will not hold those who “lapsed” accountable for a situation which they could not control.

    I think we will continue to be in stormy seas for many years, but we have to hold on to Christ`s promise that He will be with the Church always, and that He will not allow the powers of Satan to prevail. Pope Francis has been chosen to lead us, with his special gifts of directness, and his ability to empathise with the suffering and the poor, which embodies the Sermon on the Mount.

  10. milliganp says:

    Geordie, we’ve slightly lost the flow of the blog. The reality is that current RE teaching is probably a disaster. I know a primary school “deputy head” who thinks that Jesus is a concept like santa claus to help children “feel good”. I know Secondary School RE teachers who live lives in contradiction of the Gospel. The problem is that this (in my opinion) is a symptom, it’s not the disease.We can’t fix the church by fixing RE – the problem is much deeper.

  11. Ignatius says:

    My wife is a teacher at our local Catholic primary school now, I help out from time to time. If you are looking to RE for salvation I suggest you look elsewhere.

  12. Vincent says:

    I did ask a while back whether anything had happened at that time,1970s, which could have contributed (to poor faith teaching).

    It was rhetorical because I saw that the obvious answer lay in the the response to Humanae Vitae. Rightly or wrongly, it was the occasion when the laity (as a whole) simply declined to accept an important ruling. And, since then, a large majority of married Catholics felt themselves pushed to the fringes. While this affected only one issue the outcome was to throw a doubt on the Church’s authority to teach. This has affected the whole community in a range of ways. No wonder our teachers lack enthusiasm, and children have parents who share the doubts.

    Either HV was right — in which case the Church is undergoing a martyrdom from which it will recover with glory, or it wasn’t right, in which case it won’t.

    • Singalong says:

      Vincent, don`t you think that the response to HV was itself greatly influenced by the culture change of the 60`s, with its increasing emphasis on individual rights, and pleasure seeking fed by advertising and the media, and by ultra feminism. It is rather a chicken and egg situation, complicated by different views in the Church about the desirability of blending in with current Western society, or standing against much of its ethos. How to interpret being in the world, but not of it, has always been a dilemma. Catholics under persecution and its aftermath, knew that they had to be different, and that this life is a vale of tears, but with the acceptance and indifference of our contemporaries, many of us decided that we could have it all.

      It looks as if we are beginning to realise that we have to make hard choices, and the decision made
      by Pope Francis to beatify the author of HV indicates that he is prepared to make a stand on this issue.

      • Vincent says:

        Singalong, I am sure that many influences have played a part here, but it’s hard to measure this. The reception of HV was a dramatic fact at a point in time which, as they say, really changed the game. Greeley, the late American priest sociologist, was clear that that the statistics showed that the decay in Catholicism in the US could only relate to HV — and I don’t think anyone has seriously challenged that.

  13. Geordie says:

    With regard to HV, does “Vox populi, vox dei” have any meaning?

    • Vincent says:

      You have two choices. Either the voice of the people is the howl of a self indulgent rabble looking for the easy way, or a witness from the laity that their experience of married love is inconsistent with the uncompromising prohibition of the Magisterium. Take your choice.

  14. Ignatius says:

    There is a third way. The Catechism sets a high ideal but it is an ‘ideal’ Behind all of this is the question as to what a ‘christian’ actually is. Pope Francis has been saying recently that there is no place for half heartedness in the walk of faith, its all or nothing. This takes little account of the way most of us do indeed walk a walk which is lukewarm and watered down in comparison to the walk of those who have found their way in religious life. Apart from earnest beseeching or criticism one sees little that is useful on the topic of what might be called ‘the normal Christian life’

    • milliganp says:

      I think in particular we do not have a practical theology of marriage and family life, which is much more than just about sex and dragging reluctant kids to mass. This includes the care and education of our children, which is an 18+ year project, preparing for the empty nest and the challenges of 20 years of retirement.

  15. Ignatius says:

    A friend of mine in the Evangelical church, after I had only been a church goer a year or so said to me:
    “If you want to learn about service get married! ”
    He meant of course that over the period of a marriage the process of compromise is quite capable of being a sacrament in its own right, which of course it is. Pauline theology seems much ignored in the Catholic understanding yet it was Paul somewhere in Thessalonians advising the average church goer to live a quiet life and work with their hands…in other words simply be diligent. But I think it is true that much of our lives are caught up with issues broadly related to fidelity and the challenge of family in it broadest sense rather than just how we choose to procreate. I hear little from the lectern of genuine help in the relating the kind of life we most of us live to the faith which struggles within us. This is a shame and seems to me probably the real root of discontent…the great yawning sense of alienation one feels when gazing up from the pews and the huge disconnect between our lives and those of the ones we are meant to emulate or admire. When this kind of divide exists it seems to me that open and genuine discussion of the disjunct between ‘belief’ and ‘experience’ becomes difficult, particularly when its main outlet is in the Confessional and the admission of floundering is seen as failure.

    • milliganp says:

      One of the questions this inevitably begs is, should we have married priests, either by allowing married men to become priests or allowing priest to marry and remain in ministry. The NT reasoning on celibacy was based on a belief in the immanence of the second coming;.after a 2000 year wait, a rethink might not be inappropriate.

    • Quentin says:

      No easy answers here, I think. But is it possible that the sense of alienation (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) is chosen for us by God. It’s all very well to enjoy a warm and cuddly Christianity, but the challenge comes when we have to believe and love without any of the normal human consolations. Mother Teresa, I am told, had this throughout her spiritual life.

      • Ignatius says:

        Quentin, Yes, Therese of Liseux the same, in fact most saints the same as I read them. It is my conclusion that faith is not like an AA guide from here to there. There is a desperately superficial view that turns us into robots -come along to Mass , come to confession and to eucharist…the sacraments will not fail in their appointed task. This may be true but in the Gospels it was THE NORM for the majority to give up.

  16. Ignatius says:

    “We must encourage the crucial inner movement from ‘doing the right thing because I ought to’ to “doing the right thing because I want to and understand why” {Basil Hume The Way Supplement (1992)}

    The other great hindrance , it seems to me, is that no- one wants to acknowledge the sheer gritty awfulness of the inner struggle towards sanctity or the fact that long periods of acidie are actually the norm in spiritual life. Again I see little acceptance of the bleakness of the inner terrain upon which the battle is fought or the understanding that we must cherish one another in that long skirmish of the soul against weakness, indifference, sin, and unbelief. Jesus probably knew all this well and hence his stress on human intimacy.
    Much of the emphasis on loving and caring for one another we find in the documents of the early church was partly to do with the times and the culture but it seems to be the case that where a church allows itself to become cold hearted towards its own self then the faith community will naturally suffer. It seems to me that here in Britain the great temptation is to follow what might be termed a ‘medical model’ of church which resembles more a gloomy doctors waiting room where we all queue up in silence for the medicine before shuffling off into our own individual sometimes hard-pressed lives where our ‘faith’ is become a cause of anxiety and guilt rather than exuberance and light. Our priests are scarce in number, beleaguered and for the main part live lonely private lives which are made more so by the doctrine of ‘detachment’ which means that they see the path to Godliness as a cutting off from ‘attachments’ in the form of human warmth and indifference towards the need for community.
    On the upside I was at the Catholic Society of a large Northern University last week with my daughter. There was the impressive sight of nearly a hundred young people from practically every tribe and nation freely gathered to the Mass. Their attendance was voluntary in the true sense and the fact of it being counter cultural in terms of the university environment clearly gave purpose and genuine togetherness evidenced by the fellowship afterwards.

  17. milliganp says:

    Roberto Unger, the political philosopher talks about “The illusion of false neccesity”. In politics this is the belief that each political-social system is “all or nothing”, you can’t mix capitalism and socialism. You could substitute his analysis of Feudal / Capitalist / Socialist politics with orthodox / catholic / protestant manifestations of religion. What Unger tries to point out is that certain structures we consider essential are actually accidental artifacts. In the Catholic church the entire curial structure of Rome could be an artifact as is the parish priest and having 4 masses every Sunday.
    In the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II, the intent had been to remove unecessary acretions (some of the private prayers of the priest, unecessary repetitions and the dreaded maniple). We got root and branch reform and many still haven’t got over it. The same may be about to happen to the structures of the church so we need to remember artifacts are not part of the faith.

  18. Ignatius says:

    “unnecessary accretions”….nice phrase, reminds me of barnacles…..

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