The Problem With Hierarchy

(This is Neil) I haven’t been posting lately. It isn’t because I’ve joined a cult or fallen into a vat of toxic chemicals. I’ve just been busy. The danger of an ever-longer hiatus is the growing desire to come back with an ill-advised “theory of everything” or a tremendously “relevant” post during election season. I’ll try to resist.


But our bishops are meeting (see John Allen’s reporting here) and it might be a good thing to briefly reflect on a very basic question: Why do we have a hierarchy? We need an answer. After all, here in the United States, we have inevitably been exposed to the rhetoric of “spirituality,” which, according to the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt, suggests that the transcendent “is immanent in each person and in nature and is not necessarily mediated through institutions, clerics, sacraments, catechesis, or rites” (see my post here). If this anti-hierarchical rhetoric of “spirituality” often sounds superficial, we can think about the more venerable rejection of hierarchy in Quaker practice. And, besides these religious critiques of hierarchy, we have heard numerous political critiques of repressive hierarchies. The historian John McGreevy writes, “Beginning in the early 1960s, leaders in all sorts of hierarchical American organizations, including police chiefs, army generals, corporate leaders, and university presidents, faced unprecedented challenges to their authority.”


We cannot say that this political critique of hierarchical power has nothing to do with the church. As Hans Urs von Balthasar said, “Power is connected subterraneously with humanity’s original sin and concupiscence and, naturally, also makes itself felt as a motive within the Church.” Surely, we cannot have forgotten the sex abuse crisis already?


I’d like to focus on these political critiques in answering the question, Why do we have a hierarchy? How would we answer someone who asks us – insistently but sincerely – why we retain a hierarchy in church life when we would not want one in our police, military, corporate or academic lives? Obviously, the easy response is to accuse our questioner of romanticizing democracy. Let us assume that he is not too romantic. (Let us also assume that he, like most questioners, is not terribly impressed by appeals to authority or threats.) I’m indebted here to an article from last year’s International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church by Brian Horne.


Dr Horne tells us that we must begin by distinguishing between a hierarchy of function and a hierarchy of order. St Paul’s discussion of the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12), with “some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11) has to do, in part, with “proper functioning” (Eph 4:16). But St Paul is more concerned about “not what the various members of the body do, but what they represent.” The importance of the body has less to do with effective functioning than its ability, in the Spirit, to refer to its source, Jesus Christ, through its ordered unity. Later, in the 2nd century, Ignatius of Antioch would counsel the church at Ephesus, “it is fitting for you to run together in harmony with the mind of your bishop, which is exactly what you are doing.” Ignatius told the Ephesians, with evident approval, that their “presbytery, which is both worthy of the name and worthy of God, is attuned to the bishop as strings to the lyre.” There is, Horne tells us, little to be learned about management practice in Ignatius’ recommendation of such a “harmonious” and “attuned” ordo ecclesiasticus. He is envisioning a hierarchy of order.


So, when we look at hierarchy, we should not see “power” or “control,” but a particular “order” – “a manifestation of God’s providential relationship with the world.”  But why does this “manifestation of God’s providential relationship” have to take the form of a hierarchy?


This should not have anything to do with aristocratic privilege, or the denial of human rights, or some sort of claim that priests are more deserving of divine favor. St Paul reminds us that “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary” (1 Cor 12:22). The form of the body is a hierarchical order so that mutual giving and taking between the different parts becomes possible in a way that would be less likely to arise in an undifferentiated mass. As Charles Williams wrote, “He who is a good master of his craft in music may do ill enough in the theatre, and the Prime Minister must be docile to an expert scullion. Degree is the inbreathing and outbreathing of joy, but with every breath the joy changes. If every living creature is unique, it must necessarily be so.” Or, as St Paul says, “If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy,” (1 Cor 12:26) in common gratitude to the Spirit from which our unique “degrees” come. Put very simply, everyone is clearly not the same so that everyone can share, giving and receiving gifts with generosity.


So, the ecclesial hierarchy of order is not meant for “control,” but so Christians with different callings can witness to God through the “harmony” of non-competitive giving and taking. Some teach, others speak in tongues, and so on. The church is not meant to be, in Balthasar’s words, “a Church of permanent conversations, organizations, advisory commissions, congresses, … parties, pressure groups, functions, structuring and restructurings, sociological experiments, statistics …” These things, I would say, might be useful, since sociological experiments are much better than convenient speculation, but they should not define the church. (It is easy to fall into the trap: I recall a prominent priest approving the forced resignation of another priest from an editorial post by noting that a lobbying group like the Sierra Club or the NRA would have fired one of their editors for similar performance.)


But why does this mutual giving and taking – this order – require hierarchy? Might not hierarchy be too dangerous, since a hierarchy of order so easily slips into becoming a hierarchy of power and control? Horne here appeals to Louis Dumont’s influential Homo Hierarchicus. There, in reference to India, Dumont distinguished between “status” and “power.” Hierarchy, he said, was not about power – not about a “chain of superimposed commands, nor even a chain of beings of decreasing dignity, nor yet a taxonomic tree.” It was instead about “encompassing the contrary.” Likewise, we might say, ecclesial hierarchy is not about any particular power, but rather the ability to “encompass the contrary”: the bishop, for instance, occupies a position that he does not deserve, but to which he is called. He is called “excellency” not because of what he is, but because of who he represents. The most important moments in a bishop’s life are when, in a way, he is not himself, but acting in persona Christi or in persona ecclesiae. This is true of the other orders in the hierarchy – perhaps theologians are most profound when they are not “expressing themselves,” but communicating the church’s experience of the Holy Spirit, or, perhaps, a “learned ignorance.” Perhaps this is most true of the pope. Through this “status,” the orders of the church are able to communicate that their source is not themselves, but Jesus Christ, more effectively than more seemingly egalitarian arrangements.


Perhaps, strange to say, the best antidote against a hierarchy of power is the ordered hierarchy of the early church.


Dr Horne ends by suggesting that, to really see what is manifested by this hierarchy of order, we might require a “sacramental imagination” – that is, we must stop reducing things to purely rational processes. But, I think, we also have to ask whether we Catholics tend to turn our hierarchy of order into a hierarchy of power. Do we believe that the point of a bishop is to accomplish an agenda, political or otherwise, and to increase the influence of the Catholic Church? Do we believe that a good bishop is one with a multitude of functions: public intellectual, administrator, spiritual director, liturgist, fund-raiser, lobbyist? Is being a bishop more about press releases than sermons?


If so, I fear that we have secularized our conception of hierarchy. Then, our question about hierarchy will either be unanswerable, or, at least, very painful.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to The Problem With Hierarchy

  1. The problem with heirarchies is that they have at least three definitions.

    The first, derived from the greek word, heirarches, means high-priest, and by extension was a later synonym for “bishop”.

    The second, which is nearer the meaning which we have, was coined by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, was heirarchia, having as its derivation both the word above, and the words heiros or “holy” and archia or “order”. Dionysius used this word primarily as a description of the orders of the holy angels, and secondarily, as the holy order of bishops, priests and deacons in the Church.

    The third meaning is that developed by armies and other bureaucratic systems of an organization of bosses and underlings. I think the central tragedy of the modern Church is that many of its so-called leaders are working with the third definition only, and have forgotten the first two.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Bernard,

    Thank you, as always, for writing. As you probably noticed, my post focused on the distinction between your second and third definitions. Brian Horne did quote from the third chapter of The Celestial Hierarchy is speaking of “order.”

    I will certainly have to think more about the first definition, particularly the relationship between the first and the second definition. With your usual insight, I think that you might have pointed out an insufficiency in my post …


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