Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

From bureaucratic leadership, spare us, Lord

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 24, 2012

In a thought-provoking Wall Street Journal column William McGurn worries that the net result of the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State will be a multiplication of new rules and regulations rather than a recognition that leadership entails personal responsibility—and a commitment never to “look the other way.”

“At most of our modern campuses,” McGurn writes, “we’ve replaced leadership with codes, judgment with zero tolerance, and standards of right and wrong with Who Am I To Judge—and then we are shocked, shocked when scandal erupts.” He sees one noteworthy exception at Hillsdale College, where the school’s president, Larry Arnn, insists on holding administrators personally accountable:

"You can't write prudence and judgment into a code," says Mr. Arnn. "When a code tries to cover every possibility, it ends up shifting power from the college president and trustees to the compliance officers."

There’s a great deal of wisdom in the McGurn/Arnn thesis, directly attributable to the challenges that face the Catholic Church—and not only concerning the sex-abuse scandal. In the Church or on the football field, real leaders want to lead: to exercise personal authority, to mold characters, to inspire. Weaker men, on the other hand, seek the protection that comes from established policies and procedures—with following the rules.

Yes, that style can be taken to an extreme, at which leaders think they are entitled to their positions, accountable to no one, with no need to listen to suggestions or criticisms. But the pendulum can swing back too far in the other direction as well, binding effective leaders in red tape, leading them to believe that if they follow all the proper steps in the established regulations, they will have done their duty. Not so.

At their meeting in Dallas in 2002, the US bishops approved a detailed set of procedures to be put in place in every diocese, dictating the proper response to the sex-abuse scandal. Quite deliberately, the bishops removed the responsibility for handling sex-abuse complaints from themselves, and handed it over to review boards and auditors. A decade later, many accused priests are still protesting their innocence and begging for a fair hearing—while on the other hand alleged victims are charging that diocesan officials are still withholding evidence. Neither the accusers nor the accused feel that they are being treated justly. The bishops’ credibility, so badly damaged by the scandal, has not yet recovered.

True leadership requires the exercise of individual authority. It requires the willingness to say: “I made that decision.” That sort of personal power makes some people uncomfortable. Fine. They should not be placed in positions of leadership.

During the Watergate era it was popular to say that we wanted a rule "of laws not of men." True, but at some point men have to interpret and execute the laws. If instead you multiply the impersonal rules, you lose the men. People who should be imposing figures, molding the characters of their children and/or subordinates, instead realize that they can get ahead by checking off all the boxes, following all the rules.

For the Catholic Church, I repeat, this truth about leadership has implications that go beyond the sex-abuse problem. Pick out a recent statement by an American bishop on a controversial issue. Does he claim that he has no power to change existing policies? (“As a representative of the Catholic Church, I must enforce the Church teaching against contraception.”) Or does he teach with authority, making it clear to all that those policies are also his policies? (“The use of contraceptives is an offense against the integrity of marital love, and thus gravely wrong.”) Does he convey the impression that he is enforcing Church rules, or does he strive to help people understand that the Church teachings are right? After all, contraception is not wrong because the Church says so; the Church says so because contraception is wrong.

Real leadership involves personal accountability: the buck stops there. Yes, an ideal leader will also follow proper policies and procedures. But in an imperfect world, better to have a bold, inspirational leader than an effective bureaucrat.

Do you suppose St. Peter was good at shuffling paperwork? Neither do I. But he worked out OK.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 26, 2012 5:16 PM ET USA

    There is nothing wrong with either the "personal model" or the "group model" of leadership, so long as the authority ia executed with the right motive. An "individual" can be a "tyrant" even though he is a bishop..., a council could theoretically be a mob, such as what I fear that the SSPX picture "Vatican II" as... In any case I feel that ANY authority functions better when it is open to question, which is why I feel we should be patient with the SSPX.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 25, 2012 9:55 PM ET USA

    A big concern among "traditionalists" in the Church involves the concept that authority must be exercised in group form. Concerns about the "collegial principle" (diocesan boards, parish councils etc) and its effects have been criticized as unfounded. Nonetheless, "True leadership requires the exercise of individual authority." Well said. The Church has faced striking, painful administrative problems, scandals and embarassments in recent decades. Prelates please use your personal authority!

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 24, 2012 8:54 PM ET USA

    The question is, what is the best conceptual model of leadership, the Catholic "Medieval" model, or the American one (perhaps more in line with Vatican II?)