Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The psychology of Ecclesiastical Incompetence

Bishop Mark Jabale at the LMS Annual Requiem in Westminster Cathedral
Guide to this series:
The Psychology of the Rigid Personality
The Psychology of Military Incompetence
The Psychology of Ecclesiastical Incompetence
The Psychology of Traditionalism

The reason I've been writing about Norman Dixon's theory of 'rigid' personalities and military incompetence, is that the Church has certain interesting parallels with the military. The Church is hierarchical and authoritarian; the Church's training institutions are places where people can enjoy the predictability of institutional life (particularly in religious communities) and the rewards of conformism. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Church, like the army, will attract conformists, and that good superiors in both cases must be on the look-out for those whose conformity to the necessary discipline of the institution hides a debilitating lack of self-confidence. Priests lacking in self-confidence will be useless in the field, so if they don't gain the necessary maturity they must be weeded out. Things will go very wrong if, on the other hand, the conformists gain the upper hand. In that scenario it is the self-confident ones who will be weeded out, and pastoral effectiveness will suffer across the board.

The tensions just described are built into the nature of things, and so the psychology of the use of authority in the Church, and especially in seminaries, could remain constant, in certain ways, through the Vatican II revolution. Institutions which had been taken over by conformists under the Old Regime could change their theology without, necessarily, changing their psychological dynamic, for the New Regime. Liberals might think that their 'let-it-all-hang-out' ideology had banished the authoritarianism/ conformism pattern of the past, but it didn't: it simply meant that instead of conformism meaning slavish adherence to late 19th century neo-scholasticism and the ruthless weeding out of liberals, it now meant slavish adherence to Hans Kung and his friends and the ruthless weeding out of conservatives. And indeed, since the products of such a system were priests who were conformists first, and conservatives or liberals second, a change of ideology would not even necessarily require a change of personnel.

I put forward these theoretical observations as a way to interpret certain historical patterns. Not all Catholic seminaries and communities were or are the same; nor were all the products of these institutions the same, with people bucking the trend in both good and bad ways. Nevertheless, I think few will dispute generalisations such as the following:

1. There was an exaggerated emphasis on conformism in many seminaries and communities before Vatican II.

2. This exaggerated conformism both fed the liberal critique of these institutions, and facilitated their flipping overnight from demanding conservative conformism to demanding liberal conformism.

3. The secular and religious clergy of the 1960s and 1970s were, let us say, more than one would wish, characterised by conformism, that is a lack of moral courage, than by rebellious, innovative, getting-the-job done, to-hell-with-others'-opinions, non-conformism.

Now what happens when weak-ego conformists are actually in charge of things? Can we find parallels in the behaviour of bishops for the patterns identified by Norman Dixon displayed by his incompetent military commanders?

What we would expect to find, on Dixon's principles, are things like the following: bishops having regard for the opinions of each other, and of their superiors, at the expense of the wisdom or indeed the suffering of their priests and people; bishops seemingly incapable of absorbing or reacting to new and unwelcome information; bishops focusing on the appearance rather than the reality of success; bishops surrounding themselves with yes-men; bishops preferring easy or impossible tasks to difficult ones.

Readers with detailed knowledge of the history of the Church since 1960 will know well enough how widespread these tendencies have been. I will limit myself to two examples.

The Congregation for Divine Worship, in allowing bishops to permit altar girls, noted the importance of male altar serving in fostering vocations to the priesthood. This point has been vindicated by the experience of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, which is almost unique in the developed world in never permitting altar girls; by the isolated parishes which have maintained male-only altar serving; by the Traditional Institutes which recruit from chaplaincies with male-only servers; and by research on the influential experiences of seminarians.

It is theoretically possible for any bishop in the world to forbid altar females in his diocese. Almost all the diocese of the Western world are desperately short of vocations. Forbidding altar girls is a proven way to boost vocations, as shown by experience and affirmed by authority. A lack of vocations is posing an existential challenge to these dioceses. And yet they have not forbidden altar girls.

It is sometimes claimed that the reason for this is that these bishops - almost all the bishops of the developed world - don't actually want vocations. This is not so, however, as can be seen by the lengths to which they are going in other ways to find priests: getting them in from overseas, for example, allowing in all kinds of new movements and religious institutes, and even giving parishes to traditionalist groups. No, nearly all of them want vocations, but they have lacked the moral courage to do the one thing proven to be effective in getting them, because there would have been a stink.

(Ok so there are other factors too: obviously. But very few of these bishops have addressed the problem in any other effective way either.)

I'm not saying that this or that bishop should be accused of wrongdoing. Bishops are under all kinds of pressure and their circumstances are particular. What I'd say is that that fact that not a single one of the hundreds and hundreds of bishops who could copy Lincoln's example, has done so, suggests that as a group there is an unhealthy degree of conformism at work in the group as a whole. If a few did it, then many others, whom we could excuse now, would be able to follow.

Here's my second case. After Vatican II Cardinal Heenan set up a teacher-training institution in his diocese called Corpus Christi College, to re-educate Catholic school teachers in the new approach to Catechetics supposedly mandated by Vatican II. It was taken over by more or less open heretics who told the teachers not to teach the Faith at all. Daphne MacLeod and Michael Davies investigated it in detail and sent the necessary information to the Cardinal. Catholic teachers were being told, for example, not to affirm the Divinity of Christ or the Real Presence: pretty basic stuff.

Heenan, however, either refused to believe the reports, or refused to act on them. In the end, after years of pressure, the prospect of public scandal forced his hand and he closed the place down, but rather than distance himself from its teaching he claimed that the reason for the closure was financial. This allowed everyone involved to continue to claim that the content of the courses was officially approved.

Now it might be claimed, again, that Heenan acted this way because he agreed with the content of the teaching at Corpus Christi. This explanation does not fit the facts, however, for Heenan was quite clearly a theological conservative. The problem was the acute embarrassment and conflict which Heenan expected if he had acted against the College, which would no doubt have been supported by all the liberal intellectuals of the country and beyond. He lacked the moral courage to do it.

The history of the Church in the West in the first decades after Vatican II provides a vast number of parallels for these two cases. Collectively and individually, with exceptions notable for being exceptional, bishops failed to do what they knew could and should be done, even while priests and religious were leaving their vocations in droves, and the number of Catholics attending Mass dropped by as much as half in one decade. This was the Passchendaele of the Church in Europe and North America, and the bishops were the generals: stubborn in their weakness, refusing to see the problem, refusing to act, safe in the knowledge that they were following the policy of everyone else.

I write this happy in the knowledge that, outside certain institutional bubbles where denial is still maintained, everyone will agree with my analysis. Not because everyone will accept my diagnosis of the post-conciliar crisis, but because what I have been saying fits in, in a very obvious way, with something I've not yet mentioned, but which was reaching its fullest extent in this very time-period: the clerical sex-abuse crisis.

It is a truism to say that the clerical sex-abuse crisis was made possible by a culture of authoritarianism / conformism, and demonstrated a lack of moral courage on the part of many in the Church, but above all of bishops and religious superiors. It follows that, in these crucial decades, before and after 1970, the Church was characterised by this kind of culture. I'm afraid, dear reader, however much you may have been resistant to my argument so far, you will now have to admit that, even if my examples are wrong, my conclusion is correct.

Furthermore, the crisis shows that, as I noted in the last post, the liberal idea that breaking down the old rules would end this culture, is false. The authoritarian / conformist culture quite evidently did not end with Vatican II. The new rules were able to form the basis of authoritarianism and conformism too.

Finally, the liberal conflation of moral courage with self-indulgent rule-breaking finds its ultimate, painful, refutation, in the tragic cases of the abuse crisis. The stories of these cases precisely show how liberal norm-violation can coexist with authoritarianism.

May God forgive those whose moral courage failed when confronting these abusers.

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  1. I think you're absolutely right. It's crystal clear really, but the liberal narrative seems to me very much in control still. I'm in Australia at the moment, where clerical sex abuse is a really hot issue. Progressives - from outside the Church as you'd expect but also, and very disappointingly, from inside - seem keen to use it as a stick to beat conservatives/traditionalists with and push for a more liberal Catholicism. Posts like this are very welcome, therefore, in that they offer the deeper analysis that is so sorely needed but so often lacking, especially (as far as I can comment knowledgeably about Australia) at the Diocesan level.

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