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Hierarchicalism and Accountability

When I read something really good, it makes me want to write.

I recently read James Keenan, SJ’s article in Theological Studies entitled “Hierarchicalism.”

I recommend checking it out, as Keenan invites us to consider hierarchicalism as the “father” of clericalism. While clericalism is often identified as a key reason clergy sex abuse and its related coverups have persisted, the culture of hierarchicalism is why clericalism can exist. Hierarchicalism can help us understand the role accountability plays in leadership. This insight is valuable as we continue to navigate the challenges within ecclesial and ministerial leadership.


Keenan quotes John Beal in calling out the fact that

“all ecclesial accountability is unilaterally, upwardly mobile; no one is accountable to anyone below.” Keenan, p. 26.

Beal continues:

“‘Bishops, pastors, and other officeholders are accountable for their stewardship to those who appointed them, not to those they serve. The faithful may express disgruntlement about the shoddy performance, nonfeasance, and malfeasance of their pastors and even bishops to their hierarchical superiors, but superiors are free to give these complaints as much or as little weight as their discretion dictates…’” Keenan, p. 26. NB: Canonical reforms are underway as Pope Francis seeks to strengthen ecclesial accountability.

This is an eye opening insight. Beal is a canonist and helps to illuminate how hierarchicalism is systemically intertwined with canon law and ecclesial culture.

When I was a seminarian, I remember hearing a joke:

The last time the church was a democracy, we voted for Barabbas.

While I still chuckle at this one-liner, I now understand this quip as a way to minimize - if not negate - the perspective of the people. Sure, we need God’s grace and revelation to help us live out our faith. Church leadership can certainly help to create an environment for all this to happen, but by minimizing the perspective of the people, accountability is harmed. Accountability is needed in both directions - upward and downward - to keep leaders vulnerable and authentic in their responsibility. There must be a virtuous middle here.

On the flip side, I also wonder about the vocal minority of the church in the United States that is caught up in an anti-Francis, anti-USCCB, far-right interpretation of Catholicism.

This does put ecclesial leadership in a vulnerable position. Is it possible to hold oneself accountable to the lunatic fringe (right OR left) and be faithful to the Bishop of Rome & the Magisterium? I pray this type of grace is received with the sacrament of holy orders.

Not Just in the Church

Keenan helpfully quotes Thomas Plante to remind us that this is not a problem within the church alone.

Plante sees this clericalism as in evidence in other religious contexts as well as secular: “Clericalism may be found in many organizations beyond religious or spiritual ones and is the tendency to allow a small group of highly regarded and special leaders to have the power and privilege to make all or most of the important and critical decisions for the organization and those within it.” Keenan, p. 13.

This leads me to think about the implications of hierarchicalism within other church ministries, particularly health care and higher education, which are particularly susceptible to this vice. There’s probably more to think & write about on this point.

Servant Leadership

Keenan concludes his article by offering us the antidote to hierarchicalism: servant leadership.

The reform of the episcopacy will be through the recognition and excision of the vice of hierarchicalism and the recognition and promotion of the virtue of servant leadership. Keenan, p. 34.

This is a terrific reminder that any leader, be they lay or ordained, ecclesial or secular, should first understand themselves as a servant. Matthew 20:16 As Pope Francis reminds us, leaders should endeavor to “smell like sheep” - particularly this sheep.