The Dangers of Ecclesiastical Leadership and Power

bishopsIn today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is remembered for having spoken to a group of presbyters (elders or ministers) at Miletus as he prepared to depart from them. His speech is significant, not just for its candor and concern about what might lay ahead, but for the relevance it seems to bear today. He warns of the dangers of what we might anachronistically refer to as ecclesiastical leadership and the power that can and will eventually lure some people away from the purpose and goal of their ministry and calling. He names this misuse of power in several ways: (a) through the perversion of truth so as to gain one’s own followers; (b) through the desire — in contrast to Paul’s experience — for gold and other property; and (c) through the lack of willingness to serve others and help the week.

“Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock
of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers,
in which you tend the Church of God
that he acquired with his own Blood.
I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you,
and they will not spare the flock.
And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth
to draw the disciples away after them.
So be vigilant and remember that for three years, night and day,
I unceasingly admonished each of you with tears.
And now I commend you to God
and to that gracious word of his that can build you up
and give you the inheritance among all who are consecrated.
I have never wanted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing.
You know well that these very hands
have served my needs and my companions.
In every way I have shown you that by hard work of that sort
we must help the weak,
and keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said,
‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Paul’s advice goes directly to those responsible for the community entrusted to their care and guidance. His advice is to return always to the Word of God, to the message of the Gospel or Good News of Christ, to follow in the footprints of the one whose name they will come to bear.

The pertinence of this passage is striking given another text today, this time from the Washington Post titled, “Cardinal Dolan and America’s Troubled Catholic Church.” It is clearly an unfavorable reflection on the status of the USCCB president’s tenure, offering four “strikes” against his leadership: (1) the apparent rift or division between the USCCB and the American Sisters; (2) the lack of correction to bishops and laypeople who spoke out in partisan, discriminatory, and inappropriate ways; (3) the disaster that was the ‘Fortnight for Freedom'; and (4) the “undercutting” of the USCCB’s policy on the Ryan budget by offering contradictory support after the conference came out against it.

It’s clear that these are primarily political concerns or at least disappointments regarding or critiques about the ostensible political activism of Cardinal Dolan and his confreres. The short article begins with a lede about Dolan’s new personal spokesperson, a former Palin campaign staff member.

Nevertheless, whether one agrees with Anthony Stevens-Arroyo on these points or not, the challenges he raises here offer us something of a modern echo of St. Paul’s warning to the Christian leaders of his time: be careful that you are doing the right thing for the right reasons.

At the heart of both sets of concerns stands the relationship ecclesiastical leaders have to other Christians. In other words, the concerns are centered on the exercise of power.

Power in these instances is deployed for good or ill, for personal gain or for justice and empowerment, for social change or for the perpetuation of an unbalanced status quo. Power is always and everywhere ambiguously present within these sets of relations, so it’s not really possible to say with clarity that this person or that person is exercising it in this or that exclusive way. Nevertheless, Paul’s concern and Stevens-Arroyo’s critique should both cause us to pause and reflect on what the point of ecclesiastical leadership really is.

The point is made clear in today’s Gospel from John when Jesus is remembered, according to his departing discourse, to reveal that God’s will is unity of all people. This does not mean hegemony or uniformity. Unity amid diversity is a mark of authentic catholicity and that which ecclesiastical leaders — presbyters or bishops — are called to promote and to protect.

When unity amid diversity, and the maintenance of both, is sacrificed for political power, attention, money, or the like, then what Paul had warned about comes true: savage wolves have come among us and the ministry of the Word is sacrificed for personal gain.

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6 Responses to “The Dangers of Ecclesiastical Leadership and Power”

  1. Good words, whenever we ignore the pleas of the voices of justice and the truly poor just to push our agendas we run in trouble. Walking in Port au Prince one realizes the poor go hungry day after day and ones wonders why? Deacon Bill Coffey

  2. Anthony Gittins gave quite the prophetic talk here in Albany on Monday… His words continue to hold sway, deeply in my heart. I am wondering how a talk between him and Cardinal Dolan go.

    • Gittins is wonderful — I heard him preach in Louisville a few years back and have been familiar with his writings since I was a sophomore theology major in college… prophetic indeed!

  3. After a scan of publicly posted comments on blogs and news reports of the burial of marathon bomber suspect #1 in Virginia, I’m disappointed. Prominent Catholic “leaders” are not using this “teachabe moment” very well, it seems.

    Given the volume of postings, statistically there probably are practicing Catholic among the reactors making vicious and angry comments about the Methodist lady who facilitated the burial. In Boston Cardinal Sean has taken a very visible stand today against BC’s invitation to the head of the Irish government, but as far as I can tell, he’s not talked much about the Sermon on the Mount.

    Let’s see now….what might the following mean?….Matthew 5:11 “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.”

    IMHO…Cardinals Dolan, O’Malley et al. ought to step in ASAP and set the parameters. Wouldn’t it be great if they would step forward in a news conference and tell the faithful this is an opportunity the Holy Spirit is giving the Church to demonstrate what Jesus said? Seriously.

  4. aliceny Says:

    Excellent piece, Fr. Dan
    I would hope that “Paul’s advice to those responsible to the community” that you cite in your second paragraph would extend to and include the Curia. There, in my opinion, is the source of all of the social and ecclesiastical problems in our Catholic church today.
    Everything emanates from and has its origin from that source.

    These problems, years in the making, stem from arrogance, the need for absolute power, political and personal infighting, intransigence — all are antithetical to Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings and those of other New Testament writers.

    That is where change must begin. If that does not happen, the priest shortage will become moot because the pews will become less filled with the ‘faithful’ who will have moved on to other denominations (e.g., evangelical, fundamentalist) or will have become unchurched entirely, and our beautiful church buildings (built primarily by faith-filled immigrants) will be sold for secular use.

    I continue to nurture hope because of Jesus’ promises about the Holy Spirit as continuing to guide and advocate — and because of gifted persons like yourself, Fr. Dan, who have the courage and the backbone to ‘tell it like it is” and to remind us of how it should be, consistent with the Gospel and, of course, your Father Francis’ example.

  5. Poeces of this found their way into my homily today…Thanks!

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