The Clash of Hierarchies

Much of the conflict in the Church, I would argue, is the result of a disharmony between two different kinds of hierarchies.

One of these hierarchies is relatively obvious: it is part of the very institutional structure of the Church, with the pope and his fellow bishops at the top, then priests, and deacons. The laity is not typically reckoned as part of the “hierarchy,” but, being subordinate to the clergy, we are effectively at the bottom.

In addition to the institutional hierarchy is a hierarchy of a very different kind. It is what we might call a growth or development hierarchy.1

Here we are talking about the distribution of people in the Church across the different levels of development (including, for example, cognitive, moral, and spiritual development).

I think there has to be an isomorphism between any institutional hierarchy and it’s corresponding development hierarchy if the institution is going to function properly. The school system, for example, would not work if elementary and secondary teachers were not more developed than their students. Happily, they usually are.

For much of the history of the Church, there might well have been a similar isomorphism between the two hierarchies. For much of that history, the large majority its lay members were illiterate. From the inception of the ordained hierarchy in the post-apostolic period, right through the Middle Ages, the line between those who were educated and those who were not would have looked a lot like the line between the clergy and the laity. We can probably surmise, then, that the clergy was more cognitively, morally, and spiritually developed than the laity.2 Of course there were many exceptions on both sides of the divide – we know of many rather stupid and amoral priests and popes during that time period, as well as a number of deeply intelligent and enlightened laypeople – but generally this is likely to have been the case throughout much of the Church’s premodern history.

In the last century or so, and especially in the last few decades, a number of factors have converged to throw things quite out of whack.

One is that, at least in the developed world, Catholic lay people have become far more educated than ever before.

Another is that, not only has the number of men entering the priesthood has declined sharply, the quality of men seeking ordination has also dropped off.3

A further problem is the type of priests who have been promoted to the rank of bishop by the two most recent popes. Unhesitating conformity and excessive regard for external authority – characteristics of the relatively low Synthetic-Conventional stage – are apparently among the qualifications necessary for anyone to advance beyond being a mere priest.

All of these, as well as a number of things that could be mentioned, have put the ordained hierarchy in a very weird position relative to the laity: Many lay people are more developed than their pastors and bishops. And few if any in the hierarchy have recognised this.


[1] This is a term used by philosopher Ken Wilber to describe the more natural hierarchies (or “holarchies”) of things at different levels of development. Wilber uses the term very broadly to include, for example, the relationship between atoms, molecules, cells, and organisms. Each higher level includes the level that precedes it.

Wilber also uses the term to describe stages of human development, and I’m using it here in this sense.

[2] This is based on the belief, held by numerous researchers (such as Lawrence Kohlberg and James Fowler), that cognitive development is a necessary but not sufficient condition for moral and spiritual development.

[3] This observation has been made by more than a few people. This article by Peter Steinfels, for example, describes the findings of seminary faculty teams in the US, which found (as quoted on page 2)

Even among the academically gifted, as well as among the academically deficient, the faculty teams reported seminarians who “regardless of native abilities and educational experiences” resist “the learning enterprise” because it threatens their “preconceived ideas about theology.”

The Church is going to face an entire generation (or more) or official leaders who simply will not have the intellectual resources needed to meet, or even understand, the theological challenges facing the Church.

Here is another article about the conservatism of younger priests.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.