What the secular world can teach

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.)

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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11 Responses to What the secular world can teach

  1. John Nolan says:

    Over the past few weeks I have been watching an early evening TV programme called The Repair Shop, where people bring in antiques which have considerable sentimental value (but which are considerably the worse for wear) to have them painstakingly restored by a group of highly skilled craftspeople, each with his or her own speciality. As a non-practical person, I find this fascinating, not least because of the evident pleasure and pride these people take in their work; it harks back to a pre-industrial age. The medieval craftsman working on a Gothic cathedral would have felt the same, and would also be conscious of the fact that his hard-earned skills were highly prized.

    Another programme which exemplifies job satisfaction is The Yorkshire Vet. It stands in sharp contrast with any documentary about the NHS, whose employees praise it (and themselves) to the skies, and yet don’t seem to get much pleasure in working for it.

    Turning to the Church, a look at late medieval England gives the lie to the all-too-prevalent notion that the laity’s role was one of passive obedience. Men (and women) had considerable influence at parochial level through lay gilds and sodalities. The rector probably owed his living to lay patronage. Papal confirmation of local privileges was useful and sought-after, but the pope did not rule the Church in the way he does now.

    According to Merriam-Webster, the word ‘subsidiarity’ was first used in 1936. However, the principle was clearly set forth by Pius XI in his Encyclical ‘Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and reiterated by John Paul II in ‘Centesimus Annus’ (1991). It needs to be stressed that it is part of Catholic social teaching and is concerned primarily with the rights of the individual and the duties of the State. In particular, the State may not arrogate to itself responsibilities which properly belong to individuals and smaller groups.

    To apply it to the governance of the Church, particularly as regards the ’empowerment’ of the laity is to wrench it from its proper context. Neither Pius XI nor John Paul II would have accepted that the rights and duties of the individual can be in tension with those of the Church. That said, excessive centralization and ultramontanism are things that can be profitably discussed.

    • Quentin says:

      You say “To apply it to the governance of the Church, particularly as regards the ’empowerment’ of the laity is to wrench it from its proper context.” Ho Hum, Pius XII’s would not agree with you. He quoted from Quadragesimo Anno: “’This is true because all social activity by its nature is subsidiary; it should serve as a support for the members of the social body and never destroy them or absorb them.’ Pius XII goes on to say ‘These words are indeed illuminating. They apply to all levels of life in society as well as to the life of the Church, without prejudice to her hierarchical structure.’ (Address to New Cardinals 1946) I only have the Italian text, the key final sentence reads ‘Parole veramente luminose; che valgono per la vita sociale in tutti i suoi gradi, ed anche per la vita della Chiesa, senza pregiudizio della sua struttura – gerarchica.’

  2. John Candido says:

    Given the words of Pope Pius XII about the life-affirming properties of coming closer to the laity and including them in the church’s life.

    A select number of the laity that is qualified in some relevant field should be included as full and equal members in national or regional synods as well as synods in Rome.

    Membership should be open to both men and women.

    • Nektarios says:

      How very un-apostolic most of these comments are. Worldly, carnal, under the wiles of the devil.
      Is it because the institution of the Church is failing badly, not only in this generation, but for many past generations? Perhaps the present state of affairs not only in the Catholic Church, but in all the Christian Churches has Quentin forlornly asking, what the world can teach us?

      As St Augustine said, ‘ I went looking for the Church in the world, and lo I found the world in the Church. It would appear the Church has been worldy for centuries.

      When departing from the Apostolic Doctrine and Teaching and Practice, which is of God and spiritual,concerning God’s Salvation for mankind, what is left – just turning back to this world and spiritual darkness.

      Lastly, the real Church in the world is not of this world but of God and spiritual operating in this world for now. The worldly world has nothing really to teach the Church.
      But the Church is worldly and does not know or has forgotten God’s plan which the Holy Apostles all taught.

  3. John Nolan says:

    ‘Just as it is it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so is it an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help (subsidium afferre) to the members of the body social (membris corporis socialis) and never destroy and absorb them’. Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 1931.

    Pius was referring to socialism and the idea of the corporate or ‘welfare’ State. Italian Fascism furnished an example. He was emphatically not referring to the Church which no pope would describe as a ‘corpus sociale’; nor would he suggest that the Church could be guilty of ‘injustice’ or ‘grave evil’.

    Furthermore, church government is not covered by Catholic social teaching. Pius XII’s remarks in 1946, whatever they meant (and again, we would need to put them in context) surely did not suggest that authority in the Church was too centralized and needed to be devolved.

    ‘Subsidium’ originally meant a body of troops held in reserve; its meaning was tater expanded to mean support in general, aid and protection.

    • John Candido says:

      It sounds like Pius XII is contradicting all social encyclicals starting with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

      Pius XII’s support of corporations almost sounds like corporations are entitled to not pay any taxes.


      Taxation policy is an important conduit to lessen inequality in society.

      It is not doing a good job because if you really want to lessen inequality, you need to call an end to capitalism as it is currently practised.

      This will happen eventually through worker cooperatives in every sector of the economy.

  4. Quentin says:

    Yes, Pius XII, in his address to new cardinals in 1946, refers to Quadragesimo Anno when he emphasised that the Church should reflect subsidiarity. But both the Church and secular corporations have some rules and values which are not open to query.
    A pope who suggested that the Church could not be guilty of injustice or grave evil should be sent back to his history books. I’m sure you don’t need a list from me.

    • Nektarios says:


      I agree with you, Quentin.
      When does a Christian Church cease to be a Christian Church? When it becomes an Institution.
      Going back to my last sentence in my earlier posting, ‘But the Church is worldly and does not know or has forgotten God’s plan which the Holy Apostles all taught.’

      What we get nowadays from Church Institutions is not proof of the claims they make, rather, not having that life, they invent one of their own that needs constant updating, constant change.
      To accommodate such changes, they have nothing else, though they should have,
      resort to PR exercises and propaganda.

      When caught out, just like the devil, they hide, deny, meanwhile the defunct PR and propaganda machine keeps churching away, being repeated day after day in the hope of deluding the masses. Not anymore.
      Exposed are the evils on almost a daily basis, while claiming the moral high ground.
      What hypocrisy.
      Meanwhile the people of God are finally waking up to what has been done. May the Spirit of God wake us all up and may the Church be revived after the Apostolic template, in its Doctrine, Teaching and Practice.

    • John Nolan says:

      Actually, Quentin, I would very much appreciate a list of popes who suggested that the Church might be guilty of ‘grave evil’. And did Pius XII actually mean what you attribute to him? In any case, an address to cardinals hardly has the same authority as a papal Encyclical.

      But that’s not the point. I would argue that in the second half of the nineteenth century there arose an unhealthy ultramontanism which manifested itself in excessive centralism and idolization of the person of the pontiff; the idea that (in Eamon Duffy’s phrase) popes were ‘oracles of God’. This reached its zenith in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council when a pope (Paul VI) mandated the destruction of the Roman Rite which had evolved over a period of two millennia and its replacement by a new rite which had been hastily cobbled together by a committee of ‘experts’. The last hundred years do not show a move towards decentralization; in fact the erection, again post-Vatican II, of national episcopal conferences has increased bureaucracy and reduced the autonomy of individual bishops.

      This ‘hyperüberpapalism’ is enjoying a revival in the present pontificate, but from an unexpected quarter – that of the liberal-modernists. Fr Thomas Rosica, in an encomium of Pope Francis, recently claimed that he (Francis) can break Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is ‘free from disordered attachments’ and that the Church is now ‘openly ruled by an individual’ rather than by the authority of Scripture and tradition.

      I would also question if the laity as a whole are necessarily best served when parishes are effectively run by middle-class liberal elites. But since I’m not affiliated to a particular parish I am not the best person to comment on this; it would be useful to hear of others’ experiences.

      • Quentin says:

        John, thank you for this. I leave you with a reminder that I am not attacking authority but the way in which authority is used. Proper use, which includes appropriate subsidiarity, typically results in a more effective and collegial organisation. But, for what it’s worth, I have an English Mass and a Latin High Mass available to me on a Sunday. I prefer the latter – I find it much more devotional. But that may just be my age.

        Perhaps as a footnote you may enjoy checking the volte face between Nicholas V in the 15th century and Paul III in the 16th. The first encouraged slavery for enemies of the Church, the second condemned it. American bishops were still defending slavery in the 19th century. The Jesuits got rid of their slaves eventually, not by releasing them but selling them to the State. I like to remind my Jesuit friends.

  5. G.D says:

    My parish is certainly under the influence of ‘middle-class elite’ – not all liberals though by any means! – movers and shakers who, to all extensive purposes, run things in the day to day activities. (Socially catechetically liturgically et). Most others are more than happy to accept what they proffer.

    But i find a general ‘ability’ in some ‘followers’ (who are serious about having a relationship with God FIRST, and commitment to Church as a consequence of that relationship) to be secure enough in their relations with God & each other, to be who they are, and do what they can, as they see it is ‘right & just’.

    Some of these are more inclined to the ‘new liberal’ ways, some more inclined to the ‘old traditional’ ways; and are content to accept that mixture; plenty of differences of opinion of course, and no reticence to express them, but still with an acceptance of the differences in each other, without judgement or condemnation (nor manipulation!). Both knowing their ‘way’ is not what’s necessarily best for others.

    Further, they seem to be the people who don’t ASPIRE TO be leaders, although they can fulfil those roles; and, they are not SUBSERVIENT TO leadership; treating all as equals, without denying position or function.
    Maybe they embody the true meaning of ‘subsidiarity’?

    ‘You call me Lord and master, rightly so, for I am; but i call you friends’ (misquoted no doubt, but you get the meaning).

    There is a way of being ‘Church’ that fundamentalists of both extremes seem to miss out on, it seems to me. As do those who NEED to control or NEED to be controlled, to the exclusion of the opposite role.

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