At Rome's Mercy?

How to Make the Hierarchy More Accountable

Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor, so that the more affluent can placidly support their lifestyle while others have to make do as they can.—Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

Anyone who has followed the headlines over the past year and a half knows how often Pope Francis has made news—exciting broad sympathies while raising hopes for new emphases and directions for the church and for the shaping of faith. Issued last fall, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) deploys Francis’s typically straightforward language in addressing topics that range from “The new evangelization for the transmission of the faith” to “Some challenges of today’s world.” It is here, especially in the exhortation’s call to establish just economic and political structures, that the pope has crafted what Italian theologian Massimo Faggioli calls “the manifesto of Francis”—a manifesto, Faggioli writes, whose “message on poverty sets Francis on a collision course with neoliberal Catholic thought, especially in the United States.”

The pope’s remarks on the economy in Evangelii Gaudium are part of the long tradition of Catholic social thought—including papal pronouncements on the church’s solidarity with the poor. Francis’s talk of “domination,” however, and his view of it as an impediment to virtuous fellowship in society, goes much further, and represents a broad concern with unjust relations of many forms, not merely economic ones. To make sense of Francis’s criticism of domination, we need to ask: What, exactly, is domination? Where do we find it, and what can be done to remedy it? These questions are especially pertinent in light of the forthcoming Synod on the Family to be held at the Vatican next month. Many of the initial steps taken by Francis as pope suggest that he understands that the problem of domination exists both inside the church and in the larger society.

More than a millennium-and-a-half ago, Augustine, drawing on classical Roman thought even as he criticized it, insisted that the libido dominandi—the lust for domination and the desire to bend the world’s inhabitants to one’s own will—is a feature of humanity’s fallen nature, and depicted it as the Roman Empire’s crucial vice. In society, as Augustine understood, the lust for domination must be restrained; freedom from domination depends on institutions that constrain the power that individuals and groups exercise over others.

To be dominated is to be at the mercy of arbitrary power. The paradigm case is the master-slave relationship. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, Pharaoh “made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor” (Ex 1:14). He ordered the midwives to kill the Israelites’ sons; his taskmasters beat the slaves, subjecting them to cruel and arbitrary treatment so that they groaned and cried out to God (Ex 2:23). Scripture presents slavery in Egypt as a great evil and the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, their freedom from bondage, as a great good.

The evil of slavery lies not only in the cruel treatment to which the slave is subjected, but also in the persistent insecurity of living at the mercy of another. The master can coerce and manipulate the slave at will. There are no checks on his power; he can act according to whim. In a passage of intense interest to liberation theologians, Hegel, in his 1807 treatise on The Phenomenology of Spirit, characterized this relationship as one of drastic asymmetry in the distribution of authority and accountability. The master claims authority over the slave, but no accountability for his treatment of him.  The slave, meanwhile, is accountable to the master, but has no independent authority, either in his own eyes or in the master’s. This asymmetry characterizes domination, and does so whether or not it results in cruelty and abuse. The evil lies in the very structure of the relationship.

When Francis uses the word “domination” to describe those suffering under current economic conditions, he draws on this long tradition of thought about the evil of domination—a tradition in which the church’s social teachings concerning the need for solidarity play a prominent part. But Francis recognizes that domination is not only a matter of slavery, empire, colonialism, and tyranny. Indeed, many of the central issues of modern ethics and politics, both inside and outside the church, address the meaning of domination and what should be done to secure people against it. Conflicts over the rights of workers, the treatment of prisoners, and the status of women in family, workplace, and church, for example, often hinge on whether people in these groups are being subjected to arbitrary treatment by others.

ONE QUESTION RAISED in such debates is whether hierarchical relationships and organizations are, in themselves, inevitably a source of domination. Does hierarchy necessitate domination? In my view, no. Yet it can be difficult to disentangle the two, and given the critique of domination coming from the highest office of the church, there is more to be said about the conditions under which hierarchy is compatible—or incompatible—with the ideal of non-domination.

In a 1996 essay in Commonweal, titled “A Modest Proposal: A Place for Women in the Hierarchy,” the Catholic anthropologist Mary Douglas addressed the position of women in the church. Notably, Douglas did not argue for women’s ordination or for the flattening of the church hierarchy. Instead, she proposed the inclusion of women in new decision-making structures, including a high-level Women’s Commission on Doctrine that would have veto power over certain aspects of church teaching, effectively balancing the authority of pope, bishops, and priests, who of course are all men.

In that essay and throughout her work, Douglas evinced enthusiasm for role-differentiation and hierarchy. Hierarchically ordered social groups, as she described them, typically have strong external boundaries (a clear distinction between members and non-members) and sharp internal distinctions (for example, among priests, nuns, and lay people). When such a group’s roles are clearly differentiated, and its decision-making authority divided and distributed in clear and appropriate ways, its members know both what is expected of them and what they should expect of others. The result, Douglas observed, is a welcome sense of meaning and belonging. The individual knows how she contributes to the whole. These observations informed Douglas’s positive view of the Catholic Church and led her to criticize the student protest movements of the 1960s, which had nearly the opposite structure—fuzzy external boundaries and a flat internal structure. Those movements’ embrace of leaderless egalitarianism made it difficult for anyone to make demands on behalf of the group, or for anyone to be held accountable. Douglas advised protesters to “get organized.”

Hierarchically ordered groups are inherently non-egalitarian in that they distinguish between leaders and ordinary members, and accordingly distribute authority differentially. But this is not the same as domination. In an interview in these pages (“Anthropology with a Difference,” August 17, 2001), Douglas explained that she supported “benign hierarchies,” those in which leaders are answerable to the ordinary members of the group. It needs pointing out that the phrase “benign hierarchy” means much more than having virtuous people in positions of power; the real issue is whether a hierarchy possesses structures and practices of accountability sufficient to protect everyone from arbitrarily exercised power. Who gets to influence whom before decisions are made?  Who gets to challenge those decisions once they are made? A non-dominating hierarchy must possess not only what Douglas called “movements of communication up and down,” but also, I would add, patterns of accountability.

This is a challenge for hierarchies. In her 1994 book Risk and Blame, Douglas observed that “sending commands down is easier than receiving news from below, as a truly collegial hierarchy would require,” and that this is why “the subversion of the hierarchy into tyranny is easy.” Her proposal for a Women’s Commission on Doctrine grew from these anthropological observations. It answered a question she had entertained a few years earlier, when she wondered about the “discrepancy in [Rome’s] assurances of high respect toward women in the church on one hand and the lack of formal provision for their views to be heard and heeded.” She went on to ask: “Where is the place of women in the magisterium?” The Women’s Commission proposal was her attempt to describe concretely the sort of institutional structure that the church would need if it were serious about recognizing the authority of women.

Reading Douglas’s proposal in light of Francis’s recent pronouncements reminds us that the key issue pertains to domination—and again, that it is a structural matter, not merely a signal of the need for benevolent leadership. Though the pope’s concern with domination is more theological than anthropological, his social teaching and Douglas’s anthropological account of social groups complement one another. “The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike,” Francis wrote, “but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor.” His recommendation of solidarity with the poor is not only a call for benevolence, but also for accountability and transformation in economic structures and practices. And his attention to domination extends beyond the economic sphere. In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis also criticized gender-based domination:

The configuration of the priest to Christ the head—namely, as the principal source of grace—does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others.  In the church, functions “do not favor the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others.” Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered “hierarchical,” it must be remembered that “it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members.” Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the church’s life.

If its members are to achieve virtuous fellowship, Francis suggests, the church cannot be organized in a way that places women at the mercy of arbitrary power. What this will mean for the organization of the church in the future remains an open question.

FRANCIS APPEARS TO BE a benevolent leader in a hierarchical organization. He has committed himself to realizing more fully the ideal of non-domination in society and in the church. If accomplishing this is a matter of structures and practices of accountability, rather than benevolence alone, what role might the pope play?

In her book Emergency Politics, the political theorist Bonnie Honig tells the story of Louis Post, who was assistant secretary of labor in 1919 when a series of bombings took place across the country. In what came to be known as the Red Scare, thousands of aliens were rounded up and detained as Communists, anarchists, and terrorists. Post had broad authority to decide whether or not to deport these detainees. With virtually no laws to bind him, and no formal accountability to those whom his decisions would affect, he stood in a position of domination. In this Wild West situation, however, Post chose to “bind himself by law,” developing non-arbitrary decision-making procedures that he articulated and defended in public forums. Post reviewed each deportation case personally, applying high standards of evidence and due process. According to Honig, he “used all his powers of reasoning and all of the law’s resources to find in favor of aliens marked for deportation whenever possible.”

This perspicacity resulted in the release of several thousand detainees, and when Post was called before the House Committee on Rules to explain his decisions, he articulated a compelling rationale, calling on the ideal of freedom as non-domination. In the end, both Congress and the public found his arguments persuasive. In the terms of our discussion, we can say that Post transformed his office in line with the principles of accountable hierarchy. He maintained the authority to make decisions about the detainees, but he established procedures by which others could both influence his decisions and hold him accountable for them. 

What are the implications of such an idea for the Catholic Church? First, those in positions of hierarchical authority must forge bonds of solidarity with the dominated—a solidarity that begins with listening to their experiences and working together to dismantle relationships of domination. Second, they must be answerable to the demands for justice from those below them in the hierarchical structure as well as those outside the structure altogether. Social ethicist C. Melissa Snarr calls this “preferential accountability.” Catholics reflecting on these matters turn naturally to the example of Pope John XXIII. When John XXIII confessed the church’s sin of anti-Semitism and sought reconciliation with the Jewish people, he practiced preferential accountability for those who have suffered under the domination of the church—in this case, to persons outside the church, to non-members. When he convened the Second Vatican Council, he sought (and achieved) a great transformation of church structures in the direction of greater transparency and accountability within the church.

What would preferential accountability look like today from the vantage of the highest office of the church? It would look like the conduct of Louis Post and Pope John XXIII. Like them, Pope Francis is in a position to make the structures of governance more responsive to those with little power. By combining love with prudence and justice, he can help change church structures, securing the less powerful from perpetual dependence on the benevolence of the more powerful. Francis has already shown himself open to bureaucratic changes that increase transparency and accountability in the operations of the Vatican and other church structures. He has suggested, for example, that the Italian bishops conference president be elected by the bishops rather than being appointed by the pope himself. A more radical reform would require the pope to seek the advice and consent of other bodies—perhaps from consecrated religious women—before appointing bishops, cardinals, or members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Would it be surprising if Francis went that far? Perhaps. Yet he has already demonstrated interest in working toward non-domination in the hierarchy.

How creative and far-reaching will Francis’s reforms be? He has opened a door and has begun to walk through it. Will his calls for a “culture of encounter” be actualized in a system of hierarchical accountability?

Published in the September 26, 2014 issue: 

Molly Farneth is assistant professor of religion at Haverford College. Her book Hegel’s Social Ethics will be published by Princeton University Press in summer 2017.

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