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Spirituality of leadership: inspiration, empowerment, intuition and discernment

30 November, 1999

Addressing primarily those called to exercise leadership in voluntary or non-governmental agencies and in religious organisations of all kinds, Donal Dorr SPS shows they can provide a model of leadership that is both humane and effective.

pp. 176. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie



  1. Biblical aspects
  2. The Christian tradition
  3. Authority and leadership since Vatican II
  4. Political and psychological thinking
  5. The limits of democracy
  6. Leadership in management theory
  7. Four kinds of leader
  8. Styles of leadership
  9. Vision and call
  10. Some practical aspects of leadership
  11. Personal discernment and decision-making
  12. Intuition as a basis for discernment
  13. Communal discernment and decision-making

Appendix: ‘Consolation without cause’


Starting from the biblical passages which provide a basis for a spirituality of leadership and then looking at significant spiritualities in the history of the church, the author finds, surprisingly, that there has been a strong and consistent democratic tradition in Christianity and even in the Catholic Church that urges the dialogue of the Spirit with individuals and whole communities.

He then looks at key elements in the thinking of political philosophers and management theorists and goes on to describe four different kinds of leader, which he labels – lone, emergent, classic, and power-hungry. Next, he outlines five styles or manners in which good leadership is exercised, ranging from empowerment to inspiring and visionary.

The final three chapters and the appendix are devoted to techniques for individual and communal discernment and the use of intuition in making decisions.

Donal Dorr is a missionary who has worked for many years in leadership training and in running spirituality workshops. His previous books – Spirituality and Justice, Integral Spirituality: Resources for Community, Justice, Peace and the Earth, Option for the Poor – have been widely acclaimed.  His more recent works, Mission in Today’s World, and Time for a Change, both published by The Columba Press, are also proving popular.

A timely and respectful book that integrates personal, social and global perspectives.  Chapter 2 especially is seminal in suggesting directions in which the Spirit may be leading the Church and society.


My aim in this book is to explore the nature of leadership and to outline a spirituality which can support authentic leadership. I am particularly concerned with how leadership is exercised in religious organisations of all kinds and in voluntary or non-governmental agencies. However, I believe that much of the spirituality of leadership which I outline here would also be relevant in the business world as well as in the public services and in politics, if those in leadership roles there were willing to take it on.

I write out of my own background as a Catholic and a member of a missionary society. But the views I express here are also based on my experience of working with the leadership of many different religious congregations and agencies of my own church and other Christian churches, as well as with the management of voluntary groups and with management consultants. So I am confident that what I am saying is not just unrealistic theory but is based on practical experience.

The wider context in which I write is one where the issue of leadership has recently become a matter of considerable concern in the Christian churches, in other religions, and in the political world. In the Catholic Church a crisis of leadership has been developing over the past generation. It has become more urgent with the election of Pope Benedict XVI who, prior to his election, was widely seen as somebody who exercised a quite authoritarian style of leadership. The Anglican Church is going through a different kind of crisis of leadership. There are unresolved disagreements on moral and doctrinal issues between its different branches; and it seems that its leadership may not have sufficient authority to safeguard its unity. Meanwhile the leadership formerly exercised by the World Council of Churches is called in question by the growing power of Pentecostalism and of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant churches. In Islam, the new dominance of Shia Muslims in Iraq and the emergence of Shia Iran as a major power gives rise to serious issues about the political role of religious leaders.

In the political field, the West has been seeking to promote the development of democratic governments in the Middle East, and in the European and Asian countries which were formerly part of the Soviet bloc, as well as in many of the so-called developing countries in Africa and Latin America. This has given rise to much scepticism since many people hold that the word ‘democracy’ has been devalued. They believe it has come to be equated with a form of government which is pro-Western in a political sense, and is also committed to economic policies which leave these countries at the mercy of a process of globalisation which benefits Western-based transnational companies. Furthermore, the increasing incidence of terrorism has led even the leaders of democratic governments to adopt repressive measures which threaten people’s fundamental human rights. The question arises whether countries everywhere can find leaders who will have both the vision and the support to find an alternative. What is required is a model of governance which will ensure an adequate measure of security, while respecting fundamental human rights and finding a way to ensure that alienated minorities play a constructive role in society.

In this book I am not directly addressing these global issues of authority and leadership. I am writing primarily for those who are called to exercise leadership in much smaller arenas. Nevertheless, the material also has a relevance for the wider global issues. This is because part of the challenge for leaders of relatively small-scale voluntary agencies and religious organisations today is to provide a model of how leadership should be exercised.

The book begins with a short chapter in which I pick out certain key passages in the bible which provide a basis for a Christian spirituality of leadership. In the following two chapters I look at various spiritualities which have been significant in the history of the Christian church. These provide the background against which we can develop a spirituality of leadership which is appropriate for our time. My account of these different spiritualities of leadership and authority brings out the fact that there is a strong and consistent democratic tradition within Christianity – and even in the Catholic Church, which is often seen as having a quite authoritarian structure.

This ancient and enduring democratic spirituality is far more profound than the simplistic version of democracy which is being used – and frequently misused – in the Western world at present and which the US government is attempting to export to other parts of the world. Rather it is one which takes freedom of personal choice very seriously and respects the sacredness of conscience.

The understanding of authority and leadership which permeates the spirituality of the major religious orders in the Catholic Church and some strands in the Protestant tradition is one which takes it for granted that the Holy Spirit speaks to each individual, providing guidance to anybody who is prepared to listen. Furthermore, it assumes that the Spirit provides guidance to whole communities and congregations, leading them into a deeper understanding of their faith and inviting them to relinquish out-of-date attitudes and practices and to step bravely into challenging new ministries.

This understanding of personal and corporate guidance has obvious implications for what is involved in leadership. It puts the emphasis on the dialogue of the Spirit with individuals and whole communities, rather than on the kind of maintenance tasks which tend to occupy most of the time and energy of many of those who were elected or appointed to give leadership. Of course the task of leaders includes maintaining order, filling the existing job-vacancies, and ensuring that all the members of the group do their work and are reasonably content in doing so. But something more is required. Leadership is fully authentic only when it is exercised by those who are inspired and inspiring. But they must at the same time be willing to recognise the wisdom and inspiration of others. And they must be able to work with others towards a common vision which unites and inspires a whole community.

Within this ancient Christian democratic and Spirit-inspired tradition there are different approaches, giving a wide variety in the manner in which leadership is exercised in practice. For instance, the Dominican tradition in the Catholic Church, and the Congregational tradition among Protestants, value a decentralised approach. The Ignatian tradition, on the other hand, uses a highly centralised model of authority, combined with an emphasis on personal and corporate discernment. But such differences should not distract us from what all these spiritualities of authority and leadership have in common. Nor should they allow us to overlook the challenge they pose to the way authority is exercised at present in the Catholic Church by Rome, by most bishops, and by many of our pastors ‘on the ground’. The contrast between the two styles of leadership has been growing wider in recent centuries and is particularly evident at the present time.

The leaders and members of religious orders and churches where the traditional democratic models of governance are practised have much to teach the sectors of the church where a more authoritarian style of leadership is practised. They also have a mission to the wider society which is in sore need of more effective, more sophisticated, and more respectful models of leadership than we find in the global and local political world of today.

However, the leaders of these congregations, societies and churches do not have all the answers. They themselves have much to learn from political philosophers and management consultants who may have little or no connection with the church. In chapters 4, 5 and 6 of this book I have drawn on the thinking and accumulated wisdom of some of these scholars and practitioners to suggest approaches which may be of benefit to those who are in a leadership role in church and voluntary organisations.

The heart of this book comes in chapters 7, 8 and 9 where, drawing on all that has gone before, I put forward my own views. In chapter 7, I outline some key elements of authentic leadership. Then I describe different kinds of leader – which I call ‘the lone leader’, ‘the emergent leader’, ‘the classic leader’, and ‘the power-hungry leader’. In the eighth chapter I go on to outline five styles or manners in which good leadership is exercised, ranging from ‘the empowerment style’ to ‘the inspiring style’. I believe that each of these styles is appropriate in different situations and that all of them are necessary if leaders today are to be both respectful and effective. Chapter 9 looks closely at the role of vision in the exercise of leadership.

In the final four chapters I spell out in more detail some of the ways in which leadership is exercised in practice. Chapter 10 offers some practical guidelines and suggestions which those in leadership roles may find helpful. In chapters 11, 12 and 13, I look closely at one of the key issues for leadership, namely, techniques of individual and communal discernment. Starting with the Ignatian approach to discernment, I go on to explore the role of intuition in discernment and decision-making. The appendix deals with a rather technical issue which has practical implications: the nature of ‘consolation without cause’ and how it may relate to intuition.

In writing this book I have drawn both on written materials and on my own experience. Thirty years ago I became involved in leadership training, and it has taken up a sizeable portion of my life ever since then. For over twenty years my work was mainly in what is called ‘capacity-building’. This means that I was involved in facilitating training workshops for community activists and would-be leaders. In more recent years my focus has switched mainly to facilitating workshops for the leadership teams of religious congregations and of non-governmental organisations. In these workshops I have been concerned not so much with the day-to-day practical issues of management but rather with helping the participants to develop their creativity, their intuitive powers, and their relationships with each other.

All during this period I was also engaged in research and writing about issues of social justice, mission, and spirituality. This provided a background for the leadership workshops in which I was involved. It is only very recently that it occurred to me that I might write a book about the spirituality of leadership. Early in 2005 I was invited by the staff of ‘The Religious Formation Ministry Programme’ (Loreto House) in Dublin to take a seminar-workshop module on leadership as part of their yearlong programme. Shortly afterwards I was invited to give ‘input’ on the same topic to the central leadership team of my own missionary Society, St Patrick’s Missionaries (Kiltegan).  These requests provided a stimulus for me to begin writing on the topic, drawing on my experience and doing some further research. Almost before I knew it, what I was writing had grown into the size of a book. So I decided to revise and further expand it, and to have it published in the hope that it may be of some benefit to a wider audience.

My hope is that this book will be of interest first of all to Christians who hold leadership roles in various kinds of organisations – religious congregations, missionary societies, and programmes or institutions related to health, community organising, social action, and informal or formal education. I would like to think that it may also have something to say to bishops, priests, pastors, and even to the top authorities of the Christian churches; perhaps also to those who exercise authority in business enterprises, in governmental agencies, and in the strictly political world. I have adopted an explicitly Christian approach to the topic. But I believe that those who are interested in spirituality, even if they do not share my Christian faith, should find that most of the material is also relevant to their situation.

This book is not intended to cover the day-to-day management issues which arise in running any organisation. There are plenty of books about management. What I think is needed is material on leadership – and particularly on the spirituality of leadership. That is what I have tried to offer here.

I am grateful to those who shared insights with me or put me in touch with resources on various traditions of spirituality: Geraldine Smyth, Tom Jordan, and Bernard Treacy on the Dominican approach, Barbara Linen and Claire Murphy in relation to Cornelia Connelly, Cecelia Goodman and Pat Murray on Mary Ward’s understanding of authority, Brian O’Leary SJ and Noel Bradley on the Ignatian tradition, and Seán Collins for providing me with material, which I have used almost verbatim, on Francis of Assisi. I am particularly grateful to my brother Frank and my sister-in-law Eileen Lynch for enlightenment and many hours of dialogue about discernment, and to my friend and colleague Pádraig Ó Máille for his rigorous reading of earlier drafts and his very helpful suggestions, particularly in relation to the concept of inspiring leadership and to my treatment of discernment.

Danal Dorr
September 2005


For the first three hundred years of its existence, the church remained on the margins of society and at times the Christians were severely persecuted. Things changed dramatically when Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Before long, church leaders began to take on some of the imperial trappings of honour and power. This created serious problems in regard to both the exercise and the spirituality of authority and leadership – problems which have endured right up to the present time. From a fairly early stage, however, the religious orders provided an alternative way of looking at authority – one which is much closer to what we find in the scriptures and especially in the example of Jesus. For this reason I shall focus mainly, in this chapter, on the contribution of the founding figures of some of the great religious orders.

The Benedictine Model
We can begin by looking at the Benedictine model of leadership, worked out by St Benedict who lived in the years from 480 to 543. At its core is the idea that the abbot is a father-figure as one who can serve the community (and presumably the Abbess is mother). In his Rule, St Benedict says of the abbot: ‘His goal must be profit for the monks, not pre-eminence for himself’ (ch. 64 cited in Bowman 2004, 77). There is a vow of obedience to the abbot, but this does not mean that the members of the community are seen as children. In fact there is communal ownership of the property, the abbot is elected for a fixed period by the professed members of the community, and major decisions are taken not by the abbot but collectively by the professed members of the community; on less major issues the abbot has to work with his council (Bowman, 65-78).

Anthony Marett-Crosby (in Dollard 2002, 48-58) notes that Benedict uses four images for the role of the abbot. Firstly, he is to be close to Christ and to inspire others to come close to Christ; so in some sense he takes the role of Christ, above all in his role of service. Secondly, he is the shepherd, adapting with understanding to the needs of each member of the community, rather than imposing the same demands on everybody; and he must have a particular concern for ‘the lost sheep’. Thirdly, he has the role of healer, one who knows how to heal his own wounds and those of others; and he is to recognise the healing gifts which others in the community have and to share his healing role with them. Finally, he is also the steward, that is, one who has a responsibility for the property of the monastery and community. However, he is to exercise this stewardship mainly by delegating it to others. Benedict wants the abbot to leave the management of the practical and material side of the monastery to other functionaries, allowing the abbot to focus on the spiritual welfare of the community and its members.

The Franciscan Model
St Francis and St Claire provided inspiration and a focus for numerous men and women who opted to follow them in living a life of radical poverty and simplicity. Francis founded his order in 1209. In the Franciscan tradition the leader is a minister, that is, the servant of the community. At the heart of the ideal of Francis was his desire that his brothers be minores, little people, and fratres, brothers to all. He wrote in the first rule, ‘Let none of them be called prior, but let all be called simply lesser brothers. And let them wash one another’s feet’ (Earlier Rule 6:3 quoted in Collins 2005).

Authority for Francis is the authority of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the brothers to embrace the life of the gospel. He built his order on the belief that each individual brother is led by the Spirit; and that the fraternity as a whole is collectively guided by the Spirit in living the gospel. In fact, Francis wanted to put in the Rule that the true Minister General of the Order is the Holy Spirit.

Francis took the notion of authority as service very literally. He insisted that friars who come to their ministers (i.e. the local leaders) because they were having difficulty in keeping the rule according to the Spirit, are to be welcomed with great love and kindness. The Final Rule went on to say that the ministers must be so approachable that the other members of the community treat them as if they were servants – ‘for this is how it should be, that the ministers be the servants of all the brothers’ (Final Rule 10:6-7, Collins).

The biggest fear which Francis had in regard to the exercise of authority was that the ministers might give in to the temptation to inject their own agenda between the Holy Spirit and the brothers. In one of his surviving letters he urged a minister never ‘to demand that they [the brothers] be better Christians, just to suit your convenience, than the Lord gives them grace to be’ (Letter to a Certain Minister 6-7, Collins).

The strongest criticism of Francis was for the minister who wants to cling to office: ‘if he gets more upset at having his office taken away than he would at being removed from the task of washing feet, then he is surely laying up treasure for himself and imperilling his soul’ (Admonition 4:3, Collins).

The views of Francis about authority were worked out partly in dialogue with Claire; and the women in the Franciscan tradition live according to the same ideals as the men. There is, however, one further point that is significant in Claire’s approach. It is resistance to undue interference by those who hold high office in the church. Claire resisted the determined attempt of the church authorities to force her Sisters to follow the existing practice in relation to ownership of property; she insisted on a more radical approach to the practice of poverty.

In the years and decades after the time of Francis, there were many different understandings of his inspiration and charism, particularly on the issues of poverty and authority. Some of those who claimed to be Franciscans adopted such anarchic views that they were perceived as a threat to the authority of both church and State. This led to a condemnation of the more extreme views and practices, and to a tightening up of the authority and leadership structures of the Franciscan order.

The Dominican Model
Just nine years after the foundation of the Franciscan order St Dominic founded his Order of Preachers. His approach to leadership was similar in some respects to that of Francis. But where the original Franciscan style was quite charismatic and unstructured, Dominic deliberately designed a structure – one that is quite radically democratic. For him wisdom resides in the community rather than mainly in its leader. In the Dominican way of thinking the prior or prioress is seen as ‘first among equals’ rather than as a father-figure or mother-figure.

In 1220 Dominic convened the first General Chapter of his order. It was composed of the representatives of the dozen priories which were in existence at that time. There he deliberately submitted himself to the judgement of the group and allowed them to reject his view on some important issues. As Malachy O’Dwyer says, Dominic shared his vision and his inspiration with others but allowed them ‘to make it their own and give it a shape that is to their own liking’ (O’Dwyer 2003, 217, d. 222).

Ever since the time of Dominic there have been regular and frequent general chapters of the order where the leadership is held accountable to the delegates. Furthermore, there is a whole variety of provincial or regional chapters or gatherings where policy is decided. This democratic approach extends right down to the level of the local community. It is the community as a whole which makes policy decisions; and the prior or leader of the community is not appointed by a higher authority but is elected by the members of that community. This means that what we find in the Dominican tradition is democracy from the ground up. There are quite severe limits to the authority of the Master General; he does not have day-to-day executive power, apart from some special situations (Mills 1983,187).

The basic principle behind this democratic approach was, and still is, a conviction that each member of the community is to be respected and valued. The former Master General, Timothy Radcliffe, maintained that the best part of being in a leadership role was not the imposition of one’s own ideas but discovering ‘the richness of the brethren’ (O’Dwyer 2003,223). In the Dominican tradition a diversity of views is not merely allowed for but is really valued. The resulting pluralism is a source of tension – especially since at times it arises from the imperfections and shortcomings of some of the members. Nevertheless, it is seen as an enrichment and a blessing (O’Dwyer 227). To respect others is to respect their freedom.

Freedom is our birthright. To deny it to others is to deny them their vocation. Nor should we be tempted in times of stress or crisis to sacrifice or curtail this freedom for the sake of expediency or efficiency (O’Dwyer 229).

The genius of Dominic was that he devised a structure which respected the value of individual freedom, while at the same time safeguarding the survival and flourishing of both the local communities and the order as a whole. A very large part of the Dominican constitutions is concerned with the governance of the order. The constitutions, as John Orme Mills points out, are full of checks and balances (Mills 1983, 185). Time and again, Dominicans emphasise the importance of their constitutions and their overall legal structure and tradition.

At the present time when many people see structures as opposed to freedom, it is interesting and thought-provoking to have a group who value their legal structure as a protection for the freedom of the individual. However, it must be added at once that those in the Dominican tradition do not imagine that what they have inherited is a legal blueprint, valid for all times and circumstances. It is rather ‘a complex organisation requiring constant attention, re-evaluation and adjustment’ (O’Dwyer 226).

One of the most radical innovations of Dominic was that he broke with tradition by insisting that those in leadership roles should hold office only for a fixed time-period rather than for life. By doing so he established a truly important precedent. The electing of leaders for a fixed period is one of the most important ways in which authority and leadership are exercised in religious congregations and societies in contrast to the practice in the hierarchical church; and it helps to account for the wide gap that exists at present between the two.

The Reformation
One of the key factors in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was a rejection of what was seen as the undue power of priests, bishops, and the pope. In the different Protestant churches and sects there emerged a wide variety of authority structures and conceptions of leadership. What all of them had in common was a deliberate commitment to put limits to clerical power.

The Society of Friends, popularly called The Quakers, have virtually no authority structures at all; they are, however, very loyal to certain traditional practices and values through which they retain their identity. Quite a number of the churches of the Reformation have ‘congregational’ structures where authority is very decentralised at every level from local to international. The Church of England has worked out a carefully balanced structure in which authority at the national level is shared out between the bishops and representatives of the clergy and of the laity. Most of the larger Protestant churches have somewhat similar structures. The Anglicans and the Protestants also endeavour to keep a balance between the desire for a fair measure of local autonomy and the need for some central authority which can speak and act on behalf of the church as a whole – at least at the national level, and sometimes at the international level as well.

The effect of these less hierarchical authority structures is that leadership is more diffuse than in the Catholic Church. The higher authority roles in these churches may be largely nominal and ceremonial. Those who hold these roles may have little actual power to get things done. Indeed they often see themselves as conciliators who have no wish to impose their own views on others – and they may have been chosen for this very reason.

This has significant implications in relation to the exercise of leadership. It means that quite frequently the really effective leaders in these churches are strong, committed, charismatic people who occupy places lower down the line in the formal authority structures. There is quite a contrast in this regard between the Anglican and Protestant churches on the one hand and the Catholic Church on the other. Those who occupy authority roles in the Catholic Church have access to real power. At times some of those who have such ecclesiastical power have used it to stifle leadership which may be emerging ‘from below’.

The Ignatian Model of Leadership
Three hundred years after the time of Francis and Dominic the situation in the church in Europe had changed radically. The new situation was mainly a result of the Protestant Reformation, but it was also partly due to colonial expansion. In response to the challenge of the times, Ignatius Loyola devised a radically new type of religious order. The Jesuits were founded in 1539 and approved by the pope in the following year. A different conception of authority and leadership was central to this new approach.

Prior to the time of Ignatius the church had three main models of authority. The bishop and the pope saw themselves as princes of the church. The Benedictine abbot was intended to be a kindly spiritual father-figure. The leaders of the Franciscan and Dominican friars set out not to be above the members of their communities but to take a service role and to be, at most, first among equals. The Ignatian concept of authority differs significantly from all three of these. It combines two key elements: a highly centralised (almost military) authority structure and a strong emphasis on personal discernment.

Ignatius wanted the leader of his order to be a general in the literal sense, somebody who had authority to move his members anywhere in the world at short notice. This approach is encapsulated in the oft-quoted telegram allegedly sent to a Jesuit: ‘Go Jamaica Monday.’ The purpose behind this military-style discipline was not, of course, to glorify the General. One view of the aim of Ignatius was that it was to provide ‘new athletes to combat God’s enemies’, and that this involved putting a halt to the progress of the Reformation (Wright 2005,13). A less tendentious description of the purpose of the Jesuits was that it was to propagate the gospel and serve the church by responding quickly and effectively to the needs of the time as perceived by the leader in consultation with his close associates.

From this point of view the members of the order could be seen as commandos in the army of Jesus, ready to go anywhere and do anything that would serve the cause. But, though there is a certain validity in this commando image, it can also be quite misleading. For the followers of Ignatius were not trained to do just one task. The different members could take on very different ministries; and many of them were qualified for a variety of different kinds of work. In this situation the task of the overall leader was not just to fit all of the members into one single mould. On the contrary, it was to discern the gifts of the very different individuals in the order and to ensure that these talents were developed, honed, and used in the ways that would best serve the mission.

The military-style discipline of the Ignatian approach to leadership was balanced by a strong commitment to personal discernment. In the Ignatian model of discernment the issue that is to be decided is explored not just in a purely rational-discursive manner. Prayer is brought very explicitly into the process of personal decision-making; and a prominent role is given to feelings of ‘consolation’ or ‘desolation’ in the whole process of discernment.

On at least two important occasions Ignatius and his first companions used a process of communal discernment (Futrell 1970a, 122-3). There are fairly good indications of the kind of process they used. However, Ignatius did not lay down a detailed set of rules for a formal process of communal discernment, analogous to his rules for personal discernment. It was only from 1970 onwards, with the renewal of Ignatian spirituality, that serious attempts were made to work out the details of a structured form of communal discernment. I shall give a much fuller account of the Ignatian approach to discernment in Chapters 11 and 13 and in the appendix to this book.

The approach of Ignatius has been hugely influential. Very many of the religious congregations and societies founded after his time adopted his model of mission, spirituality and leadership. But it is interesting to note that, right up to the time of Vatican II, most of them ‘bought into’ the Ignatian style of quasimilitary discipline, while failing to take very seriously the concept of discernment.

The undervaluing of the key element in Ignatian discernment had already begun shortly after the death of Ignatius. The Jesuits’ Official Directory of 1599 made a significant shift: its authors played down the importance of discernment on the basis of feelings, giving priority instead to a more rational style which Ignatius had seen as a kind of ‘fall-back’ approach when the other one failed.

The playing down of the importance of spiritual feelings was linked not only to an excessive emphasis on the power of reason, but more particularly to an emphasis on the role of authority. This change of emphasis is understandable in the light of the situation of the church at the time, when the church leaders felt threatened both by Protestantism and by a kind of illuminism where some people claimed to be led by the Spirit with no reference to external authority. Nevertheless it had unfortunate consequences. It gave rise to a situation where, in the period between the Council of Trent four hundred years ago and Vatican II forty years ago, most religious congregations developed a very authoritarian model of leadership; and the associated spirituality emphasised that the will of the superior is the voice of God.

This insistence on obedience at the expense of personal discernment and conviction came despite the witness of several of the great founding figures of these religious congregations. Take for instance Mary Ward who in 1609 founded a religious institute to which both the Loreto Sisters and the Congregation of Jesus (until recently called the IBVM) trace their origin. She was quite sure that she was led by God in making key decisions. Even when she met the pope she did not ask him to tell her what she should do. In a letter describing that meeting, she said that she begged him ‘to confirm on earth that which had been confirmed in heaven from all eternity’. She added: ‘The confirmation of our course was what we did require’ (Orchard 1985, 72; cf. Chambers II 1885,135).

Pat Murray maintains that ‘as a leader Mary Ward was the first among equals.’ In support of this view she points to the well-known ‘Open Circle’ picture which she sees as ‘an icon of leadership and authority in the Institute’:

For someone greatly inspired by Ignatius of Loyola and desiring to take the same way of life as the Society of Jesus, the circle speaks of a different type of organisation, to that of the hierarchical structure conjured up by Ignatius’ military model of religious life. The seating arrangement conveys a clear sense of equality, mutuality and respect among this group of women, but it is also clear that all eyes are turned towards Mary Ward who is seated at the edge of the Open Circle (Murray 2005).

More than two hundred years later, Cornelia Connelly, foundress of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, was another strong leader who had to face much opposition. Like Mary Ward, she too adopted the Ignatian approach to discernment and leadership. Judith Lancaster makes an interesting comparison between two different accounts of her life and spirituality. She documents how the biography written by Bisgood during the period 1958 to 1961 ‘suggests that Cornelia’s fundamental attitude to ecclesiastical authority was one of obedience; and the assumption in convent culture is that obedience is a certain road to finding the will of God’ (Lancaster 2004,168).

In sharp contrast to this, the account of Cornelia’s life and virtues submitted in 1989 to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints has a rather different emphasis. It does not play down her very difficult relationships with various ecclesiastical authorities (Lancaster 203) and it acknowledges her independence of mind and force of character (p. 207). Lancaster’s point is that the latter document not only represents a post-Vatican II outlook but was prepared by Sisters and Jesuits who were enthusiastic about the new approaches in Ignatian studies (p. 215). For them, what was important was not blind obedience but personal and communal discernment.

All this raises the question of why, during the four hundred years prior to Vatican II, most of the religious congregations took on this very rigid style of leadership, while practically ignoring the discernment aspect of Ignatian thinking. The most obvious reason was that from the time of the philosopher Descartes in the seventeenth century – and even more so with the emergence in the eighteenth century of the movement called ‘The Enlightenment’ – there was a great stress on being rational. This led to a serious questioning of the authority of the church. In reaction to this, the Vatican adopted a very authoritarian stance and condemned as a threat to church authority anything that seemed to put the emphasis on personal decision-making.

Closely related to this was the fact that the Enlightenment valued thinking and rationality, over against feelings or religious experience. Even though the church leadership was quite hostile to much of what was represented by the Enlightenment, its theologians and leaders were nevertheless influenced by this current of thought. Consequently, they adopted an unduly rational, or rationalistic, style of thinking. There was a growing suspicion, especially in the Vatican, of spiritual feelings. This reached a high-point a hundred years ago with the condemnation by Pope Pius X of ‘modernism’. It involved rejection of what was thought to be an undue reliance on affectivity and the feelings of the heart. The condemnation of modernism was seen as a defence against excessive subjectivity, which the pope experienced as a threat to the ‘objective’ authority of the church.

Furthermore, during the centuries between the Council of Trent and Vatican II, the church authorities generally identified with the ruling classes in European civil society, and modelled themselves on the highly authoritarian governments which they favoured. This was despite the fact that on several occasions in different European countries the church found itself at odds with governments, and at times persecuted by them. Even in these situations it did not occur to the church authorities to identify with the poorer classes, the ordinary people.

In fact, at the time of the French revolution, and during the various subsequent revolutions and attempted revolutions over the following hundred years, the church leadership took the side of the conservative ancien regime and condemned the revolutionary movements in the strongest terms. It is not surprising, then, that leadership within the church itself became more and more authoritarian and centralised. It could even be argued that the Catholic Church, having adopted a mirror-image of the concept of ‘the divine right of kings’, applied it to the pope and continued to hold on to it – and even to enlarge it – long after it had been abandoned in civil society.

Things might have been quite different. If the church leadership, in Rome and at the national level, had made a real option for the poor it is quite likely that this would have led to a quite different theology of authority. Since God is transcendent, divine authority is always mediated through human agents; and in principle there is no reason why these human agents should be the wealthy and the powerful.

Suppose the church authorities had come into real solidarity with the common people and taken the side of the poor against oppressive authorities. This would have had a feedback effect on the exercise of authority within the church itself. The church might then have developed a more democratic understanding of authority and a more collaborative approach to leadership.  Instead of an insistence that rulers must be obeyed at all costs, the dominant idea would probably have been that the voice of the people is the voice of God (vox populi vox Dei).

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