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A Signpost to the Future: Bishop Kevin Dowling on Need for Servant Leadership in Catholic Church

Bishop Kevin Dowling

At Bilgrimage, I just posted about the serious problems confronting the Catholic church today, as it tries to pursue its most fundamental mission of all—being a sacramental sign of God’s salvific love in the world.  And so where do we find signposts to a future different than the dismal one to which the dismal pastoral leadership of the church at present seems to point us?

I find hope in an address Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, gave to a lay group on 1 June.  Though Bishop Dowling addressed the group, which had asked him to comment on the “current state of the church,” off the record, a reporter was present and information about Dowling’s theological analysis hit the news.

The presentation was then picked up by Independent Catholic News, and as Fr. Jim Martin reports at America’s “In All Things” blog (and here), it subsequently disappeared from the ICN site, only to reappear there again at a later point.

By then, Fr. Martin had posted substantive extracts from Bishop Dowling’s text at the America blog, and shortly after that, National Catholic Reporter published the entire text with Bishop Dowling’s consent.  In the remarks that follow, I’ll be commenting on the text as it appears in the NCR link to which I’ve just pointed.

(An aside and postscript to the story of this text’s mysterious disappearance from ICN and then its reappearance at this site: Meinrad Scherer-Emunds notes at U.S. Catholic that in May, the Austrian Catholic news service Kathpress removed from its website a report on a speech by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.  Kathpress was pressured to take this step.  Scherer-Emunds notes that when the Dowling text disappeared from ICN, he called ICN’s editor Jo Siedlecka to ask why the text had disappeared, and she replied that it was “too complicated to explain,” but that the Dowling text would be uploaded again at ICN.  Scherer-Emunds now notes that ICN is stating that the text was removed because, due to a glitch, it lacked some of Dowling’s words at the beginning.)

Bishop Dowling’s lecture is significant.   It’s also theologically rich.  In what follows, I want to note some theological high points, and then address the core argument of his text: namely, that the Catholic church cannot meet the demands of the present until it re-grounds its concept of pastoral leadership in the biblical foundation of servant leadership.

Servant Leadership

Here’s how Bishop Dowling builds towards that conclusion:

1.    The pastoral office in the church should be grounded first and foremost on “the humble, servant leadership modeled by Jesus.”  Instead, in recent events such as Bishop Slattery’s 24 April Tridentine Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (and here), we see the opposite: the reassertion of a concept of pastoral leadership grounded in the behavior of a medieval royal court.

2.    The self-conscious return to pastoral leadership modeled after medieval royal courts is part and parcel of the “restorationism” that has been taking place in the Catholic church from the papacy of John Paul II forward.

3.    At the heart of the restorationist project is the desire for control—for a “more controllable model of church through an increasingly centralized power structure; a structure which now controls everything in the life of the church through a network of Vatican congregations led by cardinals who ensure strict compliance with what is deemed by them to be ‘orthodox.’ “

4.    The restorationist model presents a serious theological problem, however.  It does so because Vatican II was an ecumenical council, and, indeed, the last ecumenical council that has been convened in the church.  What the restorationist project is seeking to implement in the church in place of the reforms mandated by Vatican II does not have the magisterial authority of an ecumenical council.

5.    In the restorationist moment, we are seeing “decrees, pronouncements and decisions” that are not infallible, but are “in reality . . . simply the theological or pastoral interpretations or opinions of those who have power at the centre of the church,” presented to Catholics as if they are quasi-infallible (my term and not Dowling’s).  We are told that these non-infallible statements of theological opinion from the church’s center are binding on all of us and that we must hold them firmly by “internal assent.”

6.    This creeping infallibilism (again, my term and not Dowling’s, but one many theologians have used to comment on the current mindset in Rome) goes hand in hand with an antagonistic attitude to the world outside the church, to secular culture.  It goes hand in hand with a fearful and inward-focused attitude on the part of the church’s leaders, in which uniformity and control are emphasized above all.

And here’s what ensues from the preceding developments in the restorationist moment of Catholicism: precisely when the church most needs strong moral authority to address the complex questions caused by a global cultural shift to postmodernity, its leaders’ restorationist project is undermining that moral authority.  The movement away from servant leadership to the imperious style of a royal court fragment’s the church’s moral witness in the world today.

Dowling notes:

I think the moral authority of the church’s leadership today has never been weaker. It is, therefore, important in my view that church leadership, instead of giving an impression of its power, privilege and prestige, should rather be experienced as a humble, searching ministry together with its people in order to discern the most appropriate or viable responses which can be made to complex ethical and moral questions — a leadership, therefore, which does not presume to have all the answers all the time.

And so one of the church’s most significant treasures, one much needed in postmodern culture—its social teaching—cannot be shared or communicated effectively to the world at large, because the behavior of the church’s own leaders fundamentally undercuts what those leaders want to proclaim to the world about social justice and respect for human rights:

However, if church leadership anywhere presumes to criticize or critique socio-political-economic policies and policy makers, or governments, it must also allow itself to be critiqued in the same way in terms of its policies, its internal life, and especially its modus operandi.

One of the overriding emphases of the church’s social teaching is the principle of subsidiarity, which insists that addressing social problems at the “lowest” level possible (at the local level) is almost always more effective than addressing those problems from the top down.  The principle of subsidiarity requires social analysis and strategies for social reform to move from the bottom (i.e., local) levels to the top (i.e., global levels).

This teaching has a strong implication for the church itself, and for the behavior of its pastoral leaders:

Applied to the church, the principle of subsidiarity requires of its leadership to actively promote and encourage participation, personal responsibility and effective engagement by everyone in terms of their particular calling and ministry in the church and world according to their opportunities and gifts.

However, I think that today we have a leadership in the church which actually undermines the very notion of subsidiarity; where the minutiae of church life and praxis “at the lower level” are subject to examination and authentication being given by the “higher level,” in fact the highest level, e.g., the approval of liturgical language and texts; where one of the key Vatican II principles, collegiality in decision-making, is virtually non-existent.

And so to what conclusion does this theological analysis point, as we seek to understand the “current state of the church,” the malaise affecting the church due to conspicuous lack of pastoral leadership from the highest levels of the church’s structure, and the siphoning off of moral authority caused by that failure of leadership?  Bishop Dowling retains hope.

And here is where that hope lies, in his view:

What we should have, in my view, is a church where the leadership recognizes and empowers decision-making at the appropriate levels in the local church; where local leadership listens to and discerns with the people of God of that area what “the Spirit is saying to the church” and then articulates that as a consensus of the believing, praying, serving community. It needs faith in God and trust in the people of God to take what may seem to some or many as a risk. The church could be enriched as a result through a diversity which truly integrates socio-cultural values and insights into a living and developing faith, together with a discernment of how such diversity can promote unity in the church — and not, therefore, require uniformity to be truly authentic.

The answer to the problems affecting the church today lies in a return to the concept of servant leadership on the part of the church’s pastoral leaders.  Integral to the concept of servant leadership is the notion—well-grounded in Catholic social teaching—that the leaders of the church do not have in their hands all the answers to the challenges to the problems the church confronts in contemporary culture.

Pastoral leadership grounded in the servant-leadership model consults with the people of God.  It empowers local leaders—e.g., bishops chosen for pastoral acumen in their local community, and not for their unthinking fidelity to the latest opinion of Rome.  Those local pastoral leaders work hand in hand with the people of God to discern what the Spirit is saying to the churches today.  The role of Rome is to listen to the Spirit as this discernment flows from all local churches, with their rich diversity, and to serve the unity of the church by keeping in balance the many different forms of authentic catholicity that emerge when one breaks with the top-down control that seeks to force all local churches into a single mold.

There’s the answer—a richly biblical one, and one grounded firmly in the last ecumenical council of the Catholic church.  Whether those now leading the church can hear that answer, and whether those bent on defending these leaders to the bitter end can do so is, however, anybody’s guess.

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9 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, Bill. As you will appreciate, I have a particular interest in this fellow South African, and have been wanting to write on this address myself. Your address is helpful.

    I offer one snippet of background that may offer insight to non-South Africans who are unfamiliar with the man. Dowling has never been afraid to rock the boat, and to put service ahead of doctrinal rules. He has a rural diocese where, like the rest of South Africa, HIV/AIDS has been of nightmare proportions for decades. (And until recently, government denial meant that effective treatment was virtually unavaiable to the poor, which means most of his flock.)

    He hit the headlines years ago for suggesting publicly that the use of condoms to protect the spouses of infected people could be more important than the dreaded dangers of contraception.

    This did not endear him to the establishment – but made him a hero to the people for his honesty, and placing concern for human welfare ahead of doctrinal rules.

    • Terry, thanks. I did think of your South African background as I wrote this, and am glad you’ve filled us in on some significant biographical information about Bishop Dowling. I hope you’ll consider doing a posting that may contain more of that information, since to many of us, Bishop Dowling isn’t that well known–as well known as he would be to you with your background.

      What an admirable bishop he is–doing what all bishops ought to be doing all the time. I’m glad he’s receiving attention now.

  2. […] extensive commentary on the main substance of Bishop Dowling’s  remarks, see Bill Lindsey’s post, and follow his links to further  analysis […]

  3. Kevin Dowling and I were at school together in Pretoria, South Africa for ten years in the ‘fifties. We matriculated at Christian Brothers College in 1960. We were both members of the Redemptorist Monastery parish which produced several vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Kevin’s second cousin was the internationally acclaimed Archbishop Denis E. Hurley OMI of Durban (a magnificent biography of whom, Guardian of the Light, was written by Paddy Kearney and published in August 2009). Kevin also had an uncle, Br Barry, who was one of the first South Africans to join the Irish Christian Brothers. Kevin’s own brother, Terrence, is also a Christian Brother. While studying for the priesthood in England in the ‘sixties Kevin underwent surgery for a stomach ulcer that initiated an adult life of much ill health. Without a doubt Kevin, like his Redeemer, is a man “acquainted with suffering” which, I suspect, has made him more sensitive to human suffering than most. Kevin is a quietly spoken, very gentle person who certainly does not go out of his way to rock the boat but is rather a person of such Christian convinction that when he senses the need to speak out he does so irrespective of the cost to himself. It is only a blessing to know Kevin and to be inspired by his deep Christ-like faith.

  4. Fr. Reynolds, thank you for this moving personal account. The South African church has produced some distinguished and holy people. Kevin Dowling’s voice is, I think, one that the whole church would do well to hear, as we seek healing from our current ills.

  5. Significantly, at the close of its plenary session in Mariannhil, KwaZulu-Natal this week, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a response to Bishop Kevin Dowling’s Cape Town talk. I could send it to you but have no e-mail address for you. Owing to his recovering from damaged ribs from a fall, Bishop Dowling did not attend the plenary session. Fr Kevin Reynolds.

    • Thanks for the tip about the response of the Southern African Bishops’ Conference to Bishop Dowling’s talk, Fr. Reynolds. You are very generous to offer to email me a copy. My email address is wdlindsy@swbell.net. I appreciate your kindness!

    • Fr. Kevin Reynolds,
      Having read Bishop Dowling’s Cape Town talk and agreed with the overall sentiment. I would like to read a copy of what the response from the SA Catholic Bishops’ conference was.

  6. Dear Clive.
    You can find the SACBC’s response to Bishop Dowling’s talk on http://www.ncronline.org website along with many interesting and enlightened comments.

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