Anger and condemnation from superiors can breed division. But better systems of accountability could help

Pope Francis has recently reminded us that bullying, “the desire to attack someone because they are weak”, is the work of the devil. Sadly, Church institutions are not always immune from this kind of thing. I studied for the priesthood in the not too distant past, and we were often given severe dressings-down by one or other of our superiors. Sometimes we heard homilies condemning us all for various unspecified misdemeanours, the chief of which was disobedience, along with lack of faithfulness to the rule, as well as murmuring against the superiors. These various sermons and talks were masterpieces of invective, terrific harangues, which involved a great deal of screaming and shouting, all delivered, of course, in Italian.

What did they achieve?

They were meant to whip us all into shape, but in that they failed. Indeed, they had the opposite effect. After hearing such harangues, the students by and large would resolve to be careful not to be found out doing whatever it was that they were accused of doing (usually something very minor). These same students (and I was one of them) also lost any vestigial respect they might have had for the integrity and intelligence of the superiors: it became apparent pretty quickly to me at least that some of them had personality disorders. At least one of them had very limited intellectual ability.

There was another effect too. When you have a load of young men living together in a closed environment (going out and “seeking the company of externs” was very much frowned upon) tensions are perhaps greater than they might be. The various harangues we were subject to divided the community into factions which were often at open war with each other: one group would accuse another group of being the ones that the superior had had in mind when he condemned one form of rule-breaking, for example. In other words, the scolding from on high brought about, deliberately perhaps, dissension in the student body. One thing is certain: it created an unpleasant atmosphere, and I have to say that parts of my time at seminary were far from happy.

But it was not unusual. Other communities I knew were very similar, and living through similar difficulties. Worse, any application, however reasonable, to the people in authority, was always a bruising experience. This struck me then as “the Italian way”, though many Italians I knew pointed out to me that this was not the Italian way per se, it was rather the clerical way. The most dispiriting thing of all was when one tried to point out something that was wrong. The answer was always the same: it was not the place of oneself to criticise, and indeed one had no right to do so, but should examine one’s own conscience and so on. That was a pity, because it meant some scandals just rumbled on.

Unfortunately these habits are all too widespread. If there is one reform the Church needs, it is an end to clerical authoritarianism.

The question is how to bring it about. We have heard for decades that those in authority must be held accountable, but to whom, and through what structures? This is surely one of the reforms envisaged by the Second Vatican Council that has become logjammed.

Perhaps the best way forward is to go back first into the history of the Church and look at the way the saints exercised authority; indeed, look at the way Jesus Himself exercised authority in the college of the apostles, and how the apostles themselves governed the early Church after the Ascension. A humble reading of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles would certainly do us no harm, as long as we committed ourselves to not instrumentalising the Scriptures first. The second step would be to look at the tried and tested Rules of saints such as Augustine, Benedict and Francis, which represent a world very different to some of the Rules that emerged with the Counter-Reformation. But as with all exercises in going back to the sources, we need to listen to what they say and abandon or at least suspend our pre-conceived notions.