Hierarchical syndrome

The hierarchical style is a feature of the hierarchical syndrome, the classic inability of career hierarchs to enter any human relationship that they cannot control. Many bishops are healthy enough to make such relationships, of course, but those truly afflicted by this syndrome experience great difficulty in entering and maintaining equal relationships with others. They are incapable of the give and take, the looking each other in the eye, the being undefended in each other’s presence that define healthy human intimacy. Even the great Pope John Paul II, for all his capacity to electrify great crowds, related to others almost exclusively from on high, his eyes often roving beyond the person in front of him, introducing distance.

Celibacy suits the confirmed hierarch as an acceptable adjustment to the non-intimate life. No wonder most of them defend it so vigorously. This stylizes their attitudes so that they view questions connected with sexuality at a saving distance -- “Thank God I am not like the rest of men” -- and speak of it in a highly abstract and distant fashion. Not even a theological acrobat can speak convincingly from the outside about the inside of human relationships.

The bishops’ way of restoring hierarchy handicaps them in restoring the bond of trust with their people, the bond they shattered by their high-handed management of the sex abuse crisis. Trust can only be reconstituted by men who can author equal relationships with others.

The standard operating imperative of the hierarchical syndrome is this: “You must accept what I do to you.” Without this style of relating -- as someone always in a superior and never in an equal relationship with another -- there would be no sex abuse crisis.

The hierarchical syndrome’s sense of entitlement makes untouchable those clergy who touch so many children. The latter’s phantom sense of grandeur emboldens them to place their own unsupported word against any other. Who, after all, would accept the word of a layperson over that of an ordained priest?

The demanding reciprocity of human relationships never registers on the unhealthy sexually molesting clergy who, convinced of their hierarchical standing, “move on” blandly from those they use until they use them up.

The hierarchical attitude toward sex in this rarified clerical culture is classically one of disdain and disparagement. Human sexual expression is considered a low animal action allowed solely -- to propagate the race -- to those not strong enough to renounce it.

Such unfortunate views are preached as an ideal to some aspiring clerics who may, at a later date, come to regret accepting such judgments on other persons. This sense of hierarchical superiority, however, is evident in those clerics who romantically characterize themselves as members of a new elite ready to save the church from Vatican II. In short, the new hierarchs are determined to reimpose a divided view of human sexuality onto those they seem to consider their straying flocks. Such clerics, who must always be distinguished from healthy priests and bishops, appear to be obsessed with sex and with a determination to preach Humanae Vitae’s condemnation of birth control as their special crusade.

These bishops relate through the hierarchical persona of their flaunted ecclesiastical rank rather than through their own personalities. Everybody else must, therefore, change to be in relationship to these clerics whose hierarchical state means that they never need to change themselves.

In settling for such immature men, bishops cannot observe how they use the same hierarchical tactics that betrayed them in the sex abuse scandal. They assign men to parishes, putting the burden on the people to bear with and accept the demeaning treatment such clerics often give them.

This sense of living above sexuality in a fantasy level of super-nature leaves undeveloped clerics perplexed by or in danger of misinterpreting the faint erotic signals that rise naturally from within themselves. How often they rush to confess that they have sinned by allowing these feelings entrance to their sacred persons and how relieved they are to regain what they regard as their purity so they can say Mass without committing an even graver sin.

Married clergy and women priests

The strongest argument for allowing priests and bishops to marry is that it would smash the hierarchical template. Marriage would demand that popes and bishops change themselves. It would make them have to grow up as they give up the vain notion of the perfection of the hierarchical life -- to forge a thriving if ever imperfect equal relationship with another person. The sacrifice of clerical celibacy is not that of giving up sex but that of forgoing the chance to learn how to make a profound and equal relationship with a woman who is a real person.

The reason that the church needs to examine the issues of clerical celibacy and women priests is not to satisfy ecclesiastical politics or the goals of some movement, however worthy these may be. It is essentially relational. Authentic human experience must be reclaimed in order to restore the balance of health within the church. Real women are needed in ministry to make sure that we have enough real men in ministry. That is the only way that the church can be healthy enough to overcome the unhealthy over-control that is the prime feature of the hierarchical syndrome.

Management consultant Peter Drucker once observed, “You can either go to meetings or you can work, but you cannot do both.” Contemporary bishops are painfully learning that they can either function hierarchically or they can exercise healthy authority but that they cannot do both.

Hierarchies are designed for the exercise of power, that is, for authoritarian control. They depend on structures rather than human relationships.

Authority, however, depends completely on human relationships. It derives from the Latin augere -- to create, to make able to grow. Parents author their children. Their authority over them is a function of that special relationship through which parents commit themselves to their children’s growth, to their human fullness, to their emergence from dependence. So, too, the authority of teachers, pastors and popes is essentially relational, ordered to the growth of their students, their parishioners or their worldwide flock.

Bishops who have been trained to relate structurally through their roles and the rules of hierarchy and who have been conditioned to manage rather than expose themselves to the risks of human relationships find it almost impossible to exercise their authority effectively in an institution that insists that they exercise it as impersonal control.

This is baffling and painful for the many good men who only want to do the right thing as bishops and who find that exercising authority in a hierarchical manner regularly plunges them into controversy.

(Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago, and author of The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, published by St. Martin’s Press.)

(From: National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005)