On Popes and Presidents, Curiae and CabinetsPosted: March 26, 2013
Our proclivities toward worshipping our leaders might not be genetic, but they can certainly be traced through the ages. We like our kings…for a while. We believe that if we could concentrate power in the hands of someone who understands us, the world, and maybe even the heavens above, someone who can crush the opposing tribe or -ism or evil, someone who can make things “right,” then we, too, will be all right.
I wonder how much this type of thinking sets up our popes and our presidents—our kings of today—for failure. It’s not simply that they are human and fallible, and, therefore, must disappoint our regal expectations. It’s that as chief administrators of vast bureaucracies, they fear delegating to others who, in failing, might threaten the trappings of the office. Popes and presidents must deceive us, and themselves, that they understand what’s necessary to run this bureaucracy, when in reality they comprehend a tiny fraction. So these leaders consolidate power in a few hands who manage their leaders’ aura.
It’s a losing game. In the end, our popes and presidents can only be strengthened in performing their duties once they understand how centralizing power in their curiae and White Houses weakens them.
Consider the similar paths of the Vatican and the White House over different timespans. As the world became far more complicated, and the talents and education of people more widespread and diffuse, these organs have increasingly centralized power into fewer, not more, decisionmakers. Within the Vatican, bishops, along with the people who in early church history used to help select them, must obey curial powerbrokers. Within the White House, Cabinet secretaries, sometimes unrecognized by their own president, must check their every action with White House political advisors and pundits.
If you’re a bishop today, among your chief tasks is to hide your sins and those of the priests you have ordained. The Vatican, which has never liked hearing bad news, has reinforced this tendency with the belief that ordination up the clerical hierarchy changes a person’s very nature; each higher level intercedes with God in ways not possible to those lower down the ontological chain. With that mindset, the public might be scandalized to discover that a cleric is so human that, like the rest of us, there’s nothing he does that someone else couldn’t do better.
We note with horror the depth and breadth of the child abuse cover-up, yet rest assured this is but one of the crimes and scandals that this church among others has concealed. I know personally a case where a priest with mental problems was stealing from his own parish. Marked bills were placed in the collection basket, but when the bishop was presented with this incontrovertible proof, he responded that the parish priest held all power and should be obeyed. Apparently, that priest had been sent from parish to parish each time his problems became more visible. Now, multiply that type of anecdote by the thousands.
If you’re the head of the IRS or the Social Security Administration, the White House judges your success mainly by the bad publicity you avoid, not by the number of taxpayers or beneficiaries you serve well. Heaven forbid that you confess you’re unable to administer policies so they could be reformed. Of course, presidential appointees will always avoid publicly criticizing policies their president is promoting; for better or worse, bureaucracies can’t tolerate inconsistent messaging. Today, however, those limits extend much further. Now the government enforces silence on publishing studies that reveal limitations on policies the White House simply doesn’t care about or want to tackle. Why stir up political opposition?
As the king’s protectors expand and centralize their power, they further weaken the organs of the institutions they supposedly support. White House officials brag that they, not the Treasury officials with more expertise, write tax policy. Vatican officials try to silence philosophers and theologians at Catholic institutions who for some reason believe that knowledge expands and evolves when the Vatican prefers to cast it as written on tablets only to be repeated.
There is a moral here. As education and knowledge are dispersed in advanced societies, so also must decision making. More mistakes will be made, it’s true, when more decisions are made by more people, but institutions will advance more. Both credit and blame will be more dispersed, reducing our dependence upon and criticism of a pope or president, whose human, not divine, task becomes redefined to guide a bureaucracy that helps multiply the best of what we, not he, has to offer.