Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Respect & the Complexity of our Social Life

eturning to our earlier conversation of the importance of character to effective leadership, what character trait or traits might we look for in those called to a leadership role in the Church? While an argument can be made for the relative primacy of any number of virtues, I increasingly come to think that a key virtue—if not the key virtue—of pastoral leadership is respect. Let me explain.

Both in administrative matters, and especially as it pertains to fostering the spiritual life of parishioners and the whole community, pastoral leadership is (to again borrow from Friedrich Hayek's essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society") a "complex of interrelated decisions about the allocation of our available resources. " Secular "economic activity" and parish leadership are a mode of "planning," that is they are concerned with the allocation of scarce resources. And, just as "in any society in which many people collaborate, this planning, whoever does it, will in some measure have to be based on knowledge which, in the first instance, is not given to the planner but to somebody else, which somehow will have to be conveyed to the planner."

While a concern for skills much be part of how we select both our clergy and lay leadership, the overemphasis on skills leads to (if I borrow again from Hayek) a governance of the parish by "authority," or by a leadership composed "of suitably chosen experts." Ironically, the approach that (tacitly and sometime explicitly) favors skills over character is one that is (in the short term) likely to prove popular and even effective. Why? Because, and again as Hayek observed, "it is today . . . widely assumed that the latter [i.e., 'the experts'] will be in a better position." The Church finds herself in a cultural context in which "one kind of knowledge, namely, scientific knowledge, occupies [a] prominent a place in public imagination."

The adulation of expert knowledge—whether scientific or theological—is possible only to the degree that we "forget that it is not the only kind that is relevant. It may be admitted that, as far as scientific [or really any expert] knowledge is concerned, a body of suitably chosen experts may be in the best position to command all the best knowledge available—though this is of course merely shifting the difficulty to the problem of selecting the experts." And so Hayek concludes, "What I wish to point out is that, even assuming that this problem can be readily solved, it is only a small part of the wider problem."

That wider problem is not one, I would argue, that can be solved since it pertains not to human ingenuity and creativity, but truth. And, as Chesterton reminds us, "truth is stranger than fiction. Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves."

But if the myriad practical problems cannot be solved—since any given solution engenders a new set of challenges—we can respond to the problems in a manner that opens us more fully to divine grace both in our own lives and the lives of those entrusted by Christ to our care. Respect is that practical virtue, I would suggest, that allows us to dwell in the midst of the complexity of life (that Hayek describes so well) with a gentle openness and trust in God.

Etymologically, the word respect literally means to look again (from L. respectus "regard," lit. "act of looking back at one," pp. of respicere "look back at, regard, consider," from re- "back" + specere "look at"). Moving from the literal to the connotative, we can think about being respectful as gazing up or looking at someone or something with appreciation, even admiration.

The respectful person than embodies what Adrian van Kaam calls a "contemplative openness" to the world of persons, events and things. At the heart of this openness is the ability and willingness to see the world not in terms of isolated pieces but as an ever expanding whole that both flows from, returns to, and is sustained by, God.

While Hayek's work might seem itself too theoretical for pastoral ministry, the problem he points to is immediately applicable. We can compare the theoretical posturing of the economist who ignores the practical wisdom of the entrepreneur to the pastoral disrespectful leader. In the latter case we see someone who elevates his own partial vision of the parish at the expense of the whole.
The disrespectful leader is disrespectful because his vision is narrow, static and sectarian rather than holistic, dynamic and catholic. Invariably, if not initially, he will seek to control the life of the parish based upon his own egoic vision of what the community "ought" to be.

Contrast this sense of respect to our typical experience of life as not an ever deepening sense of wholeness and support, but rather increasing fragmentation, isolation and competition. It is this second experience that I would characterize as disrespectful or the tendency to ignore the whole in favor of the part. (It is in this sense that we can talk about the logical priority of charity, but the practical priority of respect. Respect looks beyond itself to charity. A fuller explanation of this will have to wait for another time.)

The respectful leader, on the other hand, understand that—even if he should want to do so—he cannot control the parish in any but the smallest details and only then at the expense of committing an offense against the dignity of the person and the prompting of grace in the person's life.

I will in my next post, look in more detail at the practical virtue of respect. Until then, your comments, questions and criticism are not only welcome, they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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