Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Distrust, but Value
The only way to protect an institution from harm is to protect its deepest and truest values. Last year I participated in a press conference for the National Religious Coalition Against Torture, urging President Obama to establish a formal commission of inquiry into the use of torture by the United States over recent years. One of the participants, a retired Air Force officer who served as an interrogator in Iraq and Afghanistan, startled me by telling us that he always began his interrogations in the post Guantanamo, post Abu Ghraib era, saying to his prisoner:
Before we begin, I want to apologize for the abuse of prisoners by officers of the United States, and for the policies of our administration that allowed it to happen. Torture and prisoner abuse does not represent the highest ideals and values of my nation, nor of our military. I am sorry for what has been done in my country’s name and I promise you that I will not engage in any abusive treatment of you during my interrogation.
Invariably, he said, this changed the relationship dramatically. Not only was it the right thing to do, it usually led to more useful information. Sadly, the Obama administration appears determined to avoid calling anyone along the chain of command to account for this sorry chapter in our history, whether from the war zone, the Pentagon, the Justice Department, or the Oval Office.
Let me say it again: The only real way to defend an institution is to defend its deepest and truest values. Unfortunately, the church has its own abuse scandal to confront and its own aversion to real accountability. If there is one lesson the clergy abuse scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church over the past few years ought to have taught us, it is this simple truth. What Catholics and non Catholics alike yearn to hear are not protective assertions of authority or technical explanations demonstrating a lack of personal culpability, but repentance couched in vulnerable expressions of pastoral responsibility. It appears, however, to be a lesson not easily learned.
As a former church leader who understands the critical value of institutions and who watched more than one attack launched at the United Church of Christ by those who could scarcely describe themselves as loving or informed critics, I know the temptation for secular and sacred organizations alike to circle the wagons, point the accusing finger at the accusers, and minimize crimes by demonizing “a few bad actors.” However, I also tried to remember the difference between what author Hugh Heclo calls “institutional thinking or loyalty,” and “organizational loyalty.”
Institutional thinking has to do with living committed to the ends for which organization occurs, rather than to an organization as such. To the institutionalist inside it, the organization has a surplus of meaning insofar as it is seen to serve a valued cause in some important way. Bureaucratic organizations in particular are tools that need to be held to their right use in light of their larger purpose. Thus institutional loyalty is not necessarily the same thing as organizational loyalty, and in practice the two can be in profound conflict, (Hugh Heclo, On Thinking Institutionally, 2008, p. 90).
In our modern world of aggressive media investigation and legal or insurance risk management, protecting an institution’s deepest and truest values can seem to make that very institution frighteningly vulnerable. But opting for organizational defense alone is ultimately to betray that institution, damaging it even further. United Church of Christ Nationwide Special Counsel and Chicago Theological Seminary Board Chair, Don Clark, was my best teacher on this point. (Forget the silly jokes; a wise attorney is often the best friend of an institution’s mission.) In the specific situation of abuse, an institution’s interests are generally best served when the institution puts the interests of victims first. Right now the core public text should not be “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” but “let the children come to me, do not hinder them, for to such belongs the realm of heaven.”
Pope Benedict is being subjected to the familiar questions, “What did he know and when did he know it?” Quite apart from the details of these older cases, Pope Benedict in more recent years appears to have taken an aggressive stance against clergy abuse, particularly pedophilia, though his counsel to handle these cases internally rather than involving civil authorities certainly encouraged a damaging code of silence among the bishops with drastic consequences for the innocent. Public apologies, meetings with victims, and zero tolerance policies have been important steps. But now as the scandal spreads across his beloved Europe to touch the Vatican itself, a petulant, protectionist attitude on the part of the Pope and his defenders reinforces the public suspicion that the defense of the hierarchy and the Vatican is more important than the defense of children. Trying to make the so-called “petty gossip” of The New York Times the issue will likely be as successful as Bernard Cardinal Law’s attempt to make The Boston Globe the issue some years ago in Massachusetts. That strategy damaged the church’s credibility and, according to news reports this week, helped cost the US Catholic Church nearly $3 billion dollars.
Protestants can learn much from this sad saga. First of all, we’re hardly pure. Clergy abuse and the failure to address it is by no means limited to priests or bishops. Policies to protect have been in place for some time in our churches, a model for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted in 2002. But there is ample cause for repentance, and continued need for vigilance. We do, however, have a kind of ecclesiological advantage, for we don’t view distrust of the institution – the church – as fatal to that very institution’s life. For us, the church’s flaws are a disappointment – devastating at times – but ultimately not a contradiction. So we affirm the classic phrase, the church is reformed, yet always reforming, holding our church institutions to “their right use in light of their larger purpose.” The hermeneutic of suspicion can be and certainly has been taken to extremes. But it is an important safeguard against corporate hubris and arrogant leaders. Whether we lead congregations, denominations, or seminaries, the stewardship of our precious institutions is well served by Heclo’s core counsel: “Distrust, but value,” (p. 183).
None of this is easy. When balancing institutional and organizational loyalties, says Heclo,
there are difficult situations where there is no obvious answer. Thinking institutionally means being mindful of one’s duty. And that means accepting that there can be anguishing choices to be made in matters of personal duty and organizational loyalty. To deny the tragic quality of such situations will simply throw us into worse errors, (p. 91).
As ecumenically minded Christians we pray that the Roman Catholic Church can lean toward the defense of its larger purpose rather than an organizational defense of its structures. And let us do so as friends with sufficient compassion to recognize how difficult some of those anguishing choices can be. Hopefully we can be reminded as well about the nature of our own duty as leaders who must never cease valuing, even when a certain distrust can also be our friend.