Culture of deference turned out to be deadly

The vast crowd had been waiting for hours in the heat of the Nicaraguan afternoon on Mar. 4, 1983 when the Pope, John Paul II, finally arrived to address the crowd.

It was understandable that some in the crowd would have been restless after all that time. What would happen next, though, would prove shocking.

Nicaragua at that time was a battleground between traditional Roman Catholics and those who wanted the Church to take a more aggressive political stand on the side of Latin America’s poor and oppressed — believers in what was called “liberation theology”.

John Paul II was strongly opposed to liberation theology.

Thus, when people in the crowd began to chant “We want a Church that stands with the poor!” and “Power to the people!”, the pontiff didn’t calm the crowd with a few empathetic words.

Instead, he glared angrily out into the crowd and, three times, shouted “Silencio!” (“Silence!”)

The outburst underscored how John Paul II viewed the church of which he was chief executive. His word was final, to be accepted without question. He would tolerate no criticism or dissent within the ranks.

In some ways, the strict hierarchy and theological discipline found within the Catholic Church was beneficial in terms of maintaining order and consistency in an organization that extended around the world.

The culture of deference found within that hierarchy — the parishioners obeyed the priests, the priests obeyed the archbishops and everyone obeyed the Vatican — would turn out to be a ticking time bomb.

It would lead to unspeakable abuses being covered up, and no one knowing for sure how far the scandal would go.

This past week, concerns about how the now-Pope, then the Archbishop of Munich, handled allegations of abuse against one of his priests in 1980, suggested that the past 30 turbulent years could end up being a walk in the park compared to the years ahead.

Some have suggested that the rule of celibacy for Roman Catholic priests could have contributed to the physical and sexual abuse of young people in the church.

While it is absurd, even cruel, to expect people to lead sex-free lives, the real reason why the sex abuse scandals have been as widespread as they have been can be found in the previous pope’s words to the crowd in Nicaragua in 1983: “Silencio!”

In Organizational realities: studies of strategizing and organizing, author William H. Starbuck (discussing a Porter and Roberts 1976 study of organizations) pointed out the dangers of a hierarchical organization where the rank and file are expected to obey and not to question:

“Hierarchies amplify these tendencies [to resist change]. Top managers’ misperceptions and self-deceptions are especially potent because top managers can block the actions proposed by subordinates. Yet top managers are also especially prone to misperceive events and to resist changes: they have strong vested interests; they will be blamed if current practices, strategies, and goals prove to be wrong; reorientations threaten their dominance; their promotions and high statuses have persuaded them that they have more expertise than other people; their expertise tends to be out of date because their personal experiences with clients, customers, technologies and low-level personnel lie in the past; they get much information through channels that conceal events that might displease them; and they associate with other top managers who face similar pressures.” (p. 157)

Or, as a NASA engineer once explained the organizational culture that caused the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster to occur, despite engineers raising red flags about the dangers of proceeding with the launch as scheduled:

“You don’t override your chain of command. My boss was there; I made my position known to him; he did not choose to pursue it… at that point, it’s up to him; he doesn’t have to give me any reasons; he doesn’t work for me; it’s his prerogative.”

Subordinates frightened to override the chain of command. Senior officials unable to get a true grasp of what was going on. Now it starts to become clear why the shock waves of a worldwide scandal now threaten to slam into the Vatican at full force.

While it wouldn’t hurt to reconsider the celibacy rule, the first order of business is to dismantle the traditional culture of deference and to replace it with one where every level within the hierarchy plays devil’s advocate to every other level, above or below. A culture where people are encouraged to speak up and raise the alarm if they see things happening that shouldn’t be happening.

And by this I don’t just mean the Catholic church, which I was a nominal member of prior to defecting to agnosticism. There are likely no religions that have totally avoided the problem of power being abused for sexual gain. The same risks apply to any religion, church, culture or belief system where criticism and dissent are met with an angry glare and a shout of “silence!”


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

4 Responses to Culture of deference turned out to be deadly

  1. Fat Arse says:

    Excellent post. As you point out, the fundamental flaw inherent in the structure of the RC church is (and has always been) deference to a morally suspect authority… the hierarchical clergy. As I always say when asked what it was like to be taught by Jesuits in an all boys school – “Not bad, if you didn’t mind the ever present power-trippers or deviants!”

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Thanks, Fat Arse! Good to see that you’re back in the blogosphere — hadn’t seen any posts or comments for a while!

  3. james geddes M.D. says:

    Anyone who criticizes the Church which I love is in my opinion quite possibly a reprobate. Also, I guess they don’t defer to anyone themselves?
    Please go ahead with your useless (no offence) responses. James Geddes, Canadian citizen.

  4. theviewfromseven says:

    Well, James, you really peeled the paint off the walls with that zinger…

    I know that many rank-and-file Catholics and members of other faiths implicated in child abuse scandals feel disappointed, sickened, hurt and betrayed by what has happened; but still love their Church as much as anyone can. They are firmly on the side of truth and reconciliation, knowing that any other option would only further hurt the Church they love. I wish them all the best in their quest.

    Religious readers: Weigh in with your thoughts on what James and I have each said by submitting a comment.

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