It must be approaching 50 years since my eldest son accused me of not being like other fathers. His criticism was “Other fathers answer their children’s questions, you only ask me what I think.” I would maintain that my response was not a concealment of my ignorance but a belief that people should be encouraged to do their own thinking and their own research. Nowadays that same son is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and one of our leading Romano-British historians. He knows a lot about research.
I had learnt the lesson several years before. During my two years National Service I found myself, at the age of 19, commanding a large army transport company in Austria. I simply didn’t know where to begin. My driving licence was only four months old. I had to establish myself as a leader, and the army required me to take responsibility for all the company’s activities. Added to that was the problem that I had non-commissioned officers who had worked in transport throughout their careers. I had no choice other than to rely on their knowledge and their sense of responsibility while being clear that, ultimately, I was entirely in charge.
I did not know that at that time changes were taking place in the approaches to management in business. The existing assumption was that workers only responded to reward or punishment. But the realisation was growing that workers who were given greater personal responsibility for their activities contributed more. They achieved this through the personal satisfaction and pride in what they were doing. While the application of this approach had to be tailored to the tasks in hand, it gradually became clear over the next decades that the new approach was considerably more effective.
It sometimes proved more difficult to reform well established businesses. The senior members had achieved their rank through the old system. And it had worked for them. It was difficult to accept the idea of passing increasing responsibility to their inferiors. And, arguably, the seniors had achieved their rank through their success in applying the stick and carrot approach. Sometimes their defence was to accept the idea but to introduce a facsimile version. There would be much talk of staff communication but in practice it had little influence. They might even boast about the importance of staff views and set up staff advisory committees. But in practice nothing of substance changed. Essentially it was necessary for the seniors themselves to believe in the new approach and to be enthusiastic to find ways to promote it.
If we were to review the hegemony of the Church in the light of this, we might find some interesting parallels. Historically of course the Church has operated through a hierarchical system and has found it necessary to apply its teaching and its laws as beyond question. The rôle of the laity historically has been to pray and obey. Yet, publicly and firmly, it emphasises the principle of subsidiarity: that decisions should always lie at the lowest practicable level. While there has certainly been progress towards this over the last 100 years, subsidiarity remains an ideal rather than a practical course of action. Enthusiasm to recognise the witness of the laity is not a characteristic.
Defenders of the historical Church have a strong defence. They point out that the claims of Revelation can only be known through authority and that the hierarchy alone are the guardian of its truths. Similarly, while the moral law may require the application of reason, its protection and definition remains the duty of the hierarchy. Even at the parochial level willingness to respond to the wishes of parishioners varies from place to place. Fortunately my own parish is a model of how things should be.
I raise this topic because I believe that the Church is at a vital turning point. We see the problems at the highest level where the tensions between a remarkable pope and his own officials are continually in the news. And, more dramatically, the gross nature of the handling of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions is an open scandal, and has been for decades. If you wonder about the outcome you only need to look at the recent degradation of the Church in Ireland. But if we focus on these scandals alone (although swift action is needed here) we miss the most important point. We must look at the whole way the Church approaches its mission. No, we are not a form of secular business; we are the people of God. But secular business has much to teach us about leadership and community. Strictly, I did not need to write this column. I could simply have suggested that you revisited Paul’s teaching on the interdependence of the Church (1 Cor 12). It’s all there.
(Some small changes in the published version.)