November 2001

Who leads the Church?

Eamon Duffy

Eamon Duffy, Cambridge historian and author of a best-selling book on the papacy, examines the present papal leadership in the light of the Church’s tradition. He also looks at the reign of Innocent III and shows how it might be helpful for the contemporary Church to see how at least three forms of leadership functioned well in his reign.

Who leads the Catholic Church? The tempting, obvious and, in an important sense, the wrong answer is the pope, of course. Catholic thinking about leadership is often dogged, even bedevilled, by the fact of hierarchy. We are an hierarchical institution: no account of the Church could be considered Catholic that did not have somewhere close to the centre the notion of order, ordination, the grades of ministry, the centrality of the episcopate, above all, of the bishop of Rome (though perhaps I should not have written here, ‘above all’, because this sort of metaphor of vertical space, the notion of ‘above’ and ‘below’, smuggles into our discussion right at the start emphases which are liable to skew our thinking). The bishop is at the heart of the local Church, the pope is at the heart of the universal Church.

And if at the heart, we say, then at the head. The bishops are our leaders, the pope in a special sense is our leader. And there is a school of thought — usually called ultramontanism — which takes it as an axiom that since he is our leader, we must always obey the pope. Loyalty and obedience are concepts often invoked in association with church discipline or teaching, as if it were a flag to which we ought to rally. My country right or wrong, my Holy Father, wise or foolish. It is worth reflecting, I think, on just how odd that conclusion is, because the relationship between obedience and leadership is by no means uncomplicated. There are, of course, leaders who expect, and have a right, always to be obeyed — obvious examples might be a general on a battlefield, or a surgeon in an operating theatre. You cannot have soldiers debating the wisdom of their orders in the face of the enemy; you cannot have three different people arguing the toss about whether or how an artery had better be tied up. But these are crisis models, and hard cases make bad law.

We are familiar with the extension of military models of leadership into other areas of life, and the application of the rules which govern the very atypical society of an army, to the ordering of society at large. We call this phenomenon Fascism, and it has nothing at all to be said for it as a model for the Church. By contrast, we have many examples of leadership — that of the head of a research team, or a schoolteacher, for example — where leadership is exercised not by issuing commands, but by suggestion, provocation, challenge, and where space for the led to propose alternatives and even make mistakes is an accepted part of the process.

Sacred, symbolic, sacramental
In practice the pope’s leadership is a curious amalgam of roles. In the first place it is sacred and symbolic, it is sacramental: the pope is the only person prayed for by name at every Catholic Eucharist, and is therefore quite evidently a special focus of our eucharistic unity. The invisible and spiritual unity of the cacophonous hotch-potch of people’s races and tongues which make up the universal Church finds its visible focus in the unity of every Catholic with their bishop, and of every bishop with this one bishop.

The symbol is of course not empty, not merely ritual. The unity of heart and head symbolised by episcopal communion is cashed in the faithfulness of the local Churches to the apostolic tradition to which the pope is the chief witness. In practice, this will sometimes mean that local preferences or convictions have rightly to be set aside or modified in deference to the pope and the tradition of which he is the custodian and ultimate spokesman. And this much has been true of the papal office as far back as records of its functioning take us. A papal primacy which was merely symbolic, which did not in the end involve a willingness on our part to accept a concrete judgement, to defer to the tradition made specific, not just as a general notion but in particular courses of action, would be empty and of no practical service to the Church.

But in the second place, the popes in modern times have functioned in a rather different and more proactive mode, as managing directors of a multi-national company, ensuring brand uniformity in all the local branches, hiring and firing middle management, dictating the nature and availability of the company product. Leadership as management is a very recent aspect of papal leadership indeed, and though it has a long pedigree in papal claims and papal theory, as a phenomenon in the real world there is nothing specially venerable or sacrosanct about it.

Filling the vacuum
Its dominance as the normative mode of papal interaction with the local Churches is largely the result of relatively recent historical happenstance — the emergence of globalising forms of government and administration in the wake of the French Revolution; bulldozing away local particularities and exemptions; the invention of rapid communications such as the railways and the telegraph (and nowadays the internet); the collapse of the monarchies of the ancient regime, who had so jealously contested with the papacy their immemorial claims to appoint bishops and regulate their Churches. Their demise, and the secularisation of the states of Europe that followed, left a vacuum which the papacy filled.

There is a case, of course, for considering all this as providential, and one may well feel it is better to have the pope appoint the bishops than Benito Mussolini or General Franco, or even Tony Blair, but it would be hard to argue that forms of papal government that took the best part of two millennia to emerge were of the essence of the institution itself. Unless one really does believe that the Holy Spirit comes out of the barrel of a gun, it is dangerous to make too close an identification between what happens in history, and the will of God.

And about the exercise of papal leadership in this more proactive sense, there is a good deal of obfuscation. In the first place, we identify with the papal office many functions which a moment’s consideration will make clear are actually or ought to be, wholly or partly, located elsewhere. Consider here, for example, the notion of the magisterium, leadership as teaching. In theory, the ordinary magisterium of the Church is exercised by every bishop (and shared indeed by many who are not bishops, from theologians and parish clergy down to the mother teaching a child to say the Lord’s Prayer). In practice, it is closely identified with papal utterances. I recently spent some months living and teaching in Rome, an experience which was for the most part profoundly inspiring and exhilarating. Less inspiring, and in the end dispiriting, was my discovery of one of the fundamental facts of life in Rome, namely, that all Roman church officials, no matter what their theological opinions or stance in ecclesiastical politics, no matter what the occasion, endlessly quote the reigning pope. Every address from every cardinal, bishop or Vatican functionary will be larded with snippets of the wit and wisdom of John Paul II, the printed version solemnly adorned with marginal references to encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, allocutions, Angelus addresses.

This is, of course, part of the etiquette of a particular sort of court, and though it is depressing to have structural toadying of this kind built into the routine business of the Church’s central machinery, it is I suppose understandable. More seriously, however, it underlines a dangerous theological error, the notion that the pope is the principal source of teaching and theological expertise in the Church, and that everything he says or writes is double-distilled wisdom, and worth repeating. This is a mischievous opinion on several counts. First, because it foolishly and idolatrously exalts the intellect of the men who get made bishops of Rome to a stature by no means all of them warrant, and secondly, because most of what the pope says or publishes is actually written by somebody else and, these days particularly, sometimes vetted only very cursorily by the pope before he delivers it. This is obviously the case with the minor papal speeches prepared for the pope’s many travels, but it is also true of most papal encyclicals, which, over the two centuries for which they have been the most authoritative form of papal utterance, have usually been ghost-written.

Great teachers
Of course the issuing of an encyclical by a pope makes the utterance in some sense his own, no matter who actually wrote it, but the fiction of his authorship should alert us to the fact that, whatever has been the case in the present pontificate, particularly in its early years, most of the hard thinking in the Church goes on elsewhere than in Rome, and papal theology is rarely at the cutting edge of authentically Catholic thought. When we list the great teachers of the Church over two millennia, only a handful of popes qualify, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the popes were more often the leaders of theological parties, than the founders of schools of thought. The twentieth-century pope who most prided himself as a teacher was Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII, and he did indeed issue momentous and influential encyclicals; but essentially even the best of them recycled other people’s thoughts, none of them would stand up as ground-breaking exercises in constructive theology, and the truly great Catholic teachers of his era, de Lubac, Congar, Rahner, the Fathers of the Council, all fell under suspicion or suspension while he reigned.

None of this is to disparage or deny the fundamental importance of the papacy in the process of Catholic teaching, merely to emphasise that the pope’s role has historically been that of an anchor, not a pioneer or trail-blazer. We should tremble at the thought of a radical pope and, thankfully, there have been very few. Inventive leadership, the sort of originality of spirit or intellect which leads to breakthrough or a rank shift in the way Christians view the gospel and the world, rarely comes from the Church’s officers, but is usually the result of a charism, which indeed an individual bishop or pope may possess as a God-given grace, but as a Christian individual and not by virtue of his office. So the intellectual leaders of the nineteenth-century Church were not the popes of that era, but social and political theorists like De Maistre and Lamennais, preachers like Rosmini, or theologians like Moehler and Newman, none of whom were bishops; nor, as that list suggests, were they by any means all leading in the same direction, or to equally beneficial effect.

Innocent III
These distinctions are perhaps easier to see in the Church of the past than the Church of the present, so it is worth considering for a moment the character of Christian leadership at the pinnacle of the so-called Ages of Faith, the start of the thirteenth century. All the ambiguities of leadership, and the delicate balance between office and charism were in evidence during the pontificate of the most remarkable pope of the Middle Ages, Innocent III (1198-1216). Innocent was a devout and intelligent Paris-trained theologian and Bologna-trained lawyer. Author — while still a cardinal — of a banal but best-selling devotional treatise which survives in more than 700 manuscripts, he was elected pope when he was only 37 years old. From the outset of his pontificate he tackled the problems of the Church with gargantuan energy, and no one had a higher understanding of papal leadership than he had. It was Innocent who made the title ‘Vicar of Christ’ current as a description of the pope, and he believed himself to be, like the prophets of Israel, set above nations, greater than men but less than God, with authority over every aspect of human life. Convinced that secular rulers held their mandate from God only so long as they ruled for the benefit of the Church, he excommunicated and deposed the German emperor Otto IV. He also placed England under interdict and excommunicated King John for refusing to accept the papal consecration of Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. Later, when John had submitted and made his kingdoms a feudal fief of the papacy, Innocent would be equally ferocious in the now tamed king’s defence, embarrassingly declaring the attempted curb on royal power we call Magna Carta to be null and void.

But most of Innocent’s energy was directed into more recognisably religious channels. The papacy of the high Middle Ages needed to coax, as well as compel, kings and bishops to throw their weight behind the programme of reform and renewal which had underlain papal strategy for the Church since the eleventh century — the renewal of monasticism, the celibacy of the parish clergy, the eradication of bribery and simony, the instruction of the laity in the fundamentals of the faith and its regular practice.

Lateran IV
To achieve episcopal solidarity behind papal reform, the popes harnessed the machinery of ‘General Councils’ (though they were in practice Councils of the Western Church only). Innocent himself presided over and masterminded the proceedings of the greatest Council of the Middle Ages, Lateran IV, convened in 1215, at which transubstantiation was defined, the obligation of the bishops to provide Christian teaching at every level emphasised, and the obligation of the faithful to receive the sacraments of penance and Eucharist at least once a year was first imposed. Lateran IV created the framework of Christian practice and instruction which was to shape and define Latin Christianity for the rest of the second millennium, and the pope’s energy and vision accounted for a large part of its programme and its success.

But his pontificate also had less happy results: Lateran IV solemnly endorsed the notion of Crusade against Islam and against Christian heretics, and it was Innocent III who first blessed and legitimated the use of force against the Cathar heretics of southern France, the so-called Albigensian Crusade: that precedent was to unleash a tidal wave of blood in the centuries ahead.

Innocent can stand, therefore, for institutional leadership at its best, encouraging lay participation, education and instruction, promoting pastoral reform, the papacy at the heart of the Church stirring others to responsible action. Equally, his leadership inaugurated or confirmed less happy trends, the use of imprisonment and slaughter to defend the gospel, the claims of the Church to authority in secular affairs. And the Church of his day was full of individuals and of movements profoundly uneasy with this whole style of leadership.

As the papacy exalted itself and the institutional Church grew richer and more powerful, there were many who looked for the recovery of the gospel in a return to simpler values, radical poverty and the repudiation of worldly power. Many of these movements tipped over into heresy, denying altogether the authority of the hierarchy, the value of the material world, and the engagement of the Church with the secular order. Despite his authoritarian understanding of the papacy and his horror of heresy, Innocent was remarkably sensitive to the positive value of such prophetic witnesses within the Church, and made strenuous efforts to retain such movements within the bounds of orthodox Catholicism.

His most spectacular success here was his legitimation of the early Franciscan movement. Francesco Bernardone and his first followers were radical laymen, whose refusal of involvement in the money economy and identification with the poorest of the poor might easily have led them into the wilderness in which other such movements had fizzled out or turned world-denying or revolutionary. When Francis sought papal approval for his followers’ way of life Innocent shrewdly annexed them to the Roman Church by tonsuring them (thus bringing them under episcopal control as members of the clergy) and giving them verbal permission (he hedged his bets by writing nothing down) to preach and exhort on matters of morals and Christian practice. Though Lateran IV subsequently forbade the founding of new religious orders, the Franciscans were able to plead this verbal approval by Innocent III as a warrant for their new rule. The movement rapidly became the fastest-growing and most important spiritual phenomenon of the Middle Ages, and its mainstream would remain ardently loyal to the papacy. Francis was in a sense the mirror image of Innocent III, an inspired and inspiring leader who repudiated altogether money and secular authority, and whose hold over his followers owed nothing to his office (he surrendered formal leadership of the movement to others) but was entirely due to his personality and charism. All the early Franciscans were groupies, won for the movement by the electric personality of its founder.

In the same years, Innocent recognised another radically new movement which would help to transform Latin Christianity. To combat the theological arguments of the Cathar heresy, he authorised the preaching of a group of priest-preachers led by the Spaniard Dominic Guzman. From this little group, who established themselves at Toulouse, would emerge the Dominican Order, the most important intellectual force in the late medieval Church, and which in Thomas Aquinas would produce the greatest Christian theologian since St Augustine. The vision behind the Dominican order was utterly different from either the hierarchic and authoritarian model embodied by Pope Innocent, or the personality cult centred on Francis. Dominic was self-effacing (we know little or nothing about him because his followers wrote down almost none of the vivid anecdotes and character sketches which dominate early Franciscan literature). His order was astonishingly democratic, the brethren taking corporate decisions, their structures of authority designed to minimise the domination of individuals, and instead to focus and facilitate their shared vocation as preachers, teachers and students of the gospel, a democracy of the intellect harnessed to the propagation of the faith.

Three forms of leadership
In Pope Innocent, Francis and Dominic, are embodied the three major forms of Christian leadership — institutional, charismatic, intellectual, or, to put it in other terms, structure, spirit, theology, the kingly, the priestly and the prophetic dimensions. The Church needs structure and order if it is to survive; it needs fire, ardour, heart, if it is not to become a prison for the spirit; it needs intellectual rigour and commitment to the truth if it is to have a gospel to preach. A Church in which one or the other of these elements dominated or was unchallenged by the others would be intolerable — rule-bound, or in retreat from ordinary life, or with no truth to proclaim. Innocent III was the unquestioned head of the Church over which he presided, and both Francis and Dominic sought papal approval for their movements. But the papacy was the means of anchoring those movements within the Church, not their initiator or inspirer: the spiritual and intellectual leadership of the Church in the age of Innocent III lay in Assisi, Toulouse, and in the University of Paris, not in Rome.

The backward glance has a good deal to tell us about the nature of leadership in the Church of our times. The ultramontane Church placed far too much weight — and far too heavy a burden — on hierarchical leadership, imagining (or pretending) that bishops and popes contained in themselves all the charisms of Christian leadership — institutional and organisational, spiritual and intellectual. In fact, hierarchical leadership is rarely initiative-taking, and its most solemn responsibility is not the setting of agendas for the Church of its time, but the recognition and fostering within the community of those less predictable energies and gifts of leadership which God showers on those outside the hierarchy. Hierarchical leadership, properly exercised, is in large part about making space for non-hierarchical leadership. At a time when the Church has been presided over for a generation by a pope who is by any measure a great man in his own right, and whose intellectual and spiritual stature has been such that it is easy to confound the merits of the man with the nature of the office, these distinctions seem worth dwelling upon.

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