A Modest Proposal: Treat Priests Like Officers, Not Like Corporate CEO’s

“Soldier, shut up and soldier!”

That’s one of my favorite lines from Robert Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers. You might remember that it was made into a campy, sci-fi cult movie back in the late 1990′s.

I remember it as a novel I read and enjoyed in high school (you know, instead of doing my homework) before I entered the Marines. Later, I would be amazed that it made the Marine Corps’ Professional Reading List.

Click on the link above and you’ll see Heinlein’s novel listed right there under the Captain / Chief Warrant Officer 4 heading along with a host of other great reads:

• First to Fight: An Inside View of the US Marine Corps by
LtGen Victor H. Krulak, USMC (Ret) (CMC 359.96)
• The Arab Mind by Raphael Patai (CMC 305.892)
• The Defense of Hill 781 by James McDonough (CMC 355.4)
• The General – by C.S. Forrester (CMC F)
• The Lions of Iwo Jima by Fred Haynes (CMC 940.54)
• Lost Victories by Erich Von Manstein (CMC 940.54)
• The Mask of Command by John Keegan (CMC 355.3)
• Passion of Command by Bryan McCoy (CMC 355)
• Sources of Power – by Gary Klein (CMC 658.4)
Starship Troopers – by Robert Heinlein (CMC F)
• The Tipping Point – by Malcom Gladwell (CMC 302)
• Victory at High Tide by Robert D. Heinl (CMC 951.9)
• We Were Soldiers Once and Young – by Harold G.Moore & Joseph L. Galloway (CMC 959.704)

Military thoughts, fact and fictional, from every clime and place. Guess what else? You’ll also find it listed under the lowly Lance Corporal rank heading too. The Marine Corps, see, doesn’t subscribe to the “master-slave” model of leadership development. Instead, she goes for what’s known as the “teacher-scholar” school of thought, sharing the wealth of knowledge across the entire rank spectrum. Both the officer and enlisted ranks are encouraged to further their professional knowledge for the good of the Corps.

Oh, that’s right. You thought Marines don’t read. Well evidently a number of priests don’t read either. Or at the very least, they don’t understand some basic leadership / followership traits that are just rudimentary stuff to anyone who has ever served in the military. It’s a funny thing, I know, to hear the Church referred to as the Church Militant, what with visions of military-like prowess and efficiency paraded before your mind’s eye.  And then you see that often the war for the salvation of souls seems to be run instead like a loose confederation lead by tribal chieftains rather than as a tight military operation with a clear focus and even clearer chain of command. By “tight” I mean “taut” as in “run like a taut ship.”

Lately it seems that there have been plenty of loose cannons rolling around the top decks, calling attention to themselves, putting themselves ahead of the mission of the Church, and generally wreaking havoc among the ships company, er, I mean the faithful. Blame this upset of good order and discipline on whatever you want. Everything from the “Smoke of Satan” to problems of “evil, corrupt bishops” and other excuses that run the gamut from A to Z show up in comboxes routinely these days.  But Joe Six-Pack, USMC has another suggestion for an explanation and it’s a very simple one: lack of discipline coupled with short-sightedness on how priests are assigned to roles within the Church.

Let’s discuss the latter of these reasons in detail, because the former one seems to be answered succinctly by the sentence that leads off this post. Keep in mind that I am a newbie Catholic who doesn’t know diddly-squat about how the Church actually runs her Officer Corps, er, I mean her “priestly assignment system.” But I can tell you that they don’t seem to run it in any way that makes sense from a military personnel development / mission accomplishment point of view. By that I mean priests (and I am probably wrong on this front, so those with Holy Orders feel free to correct me in the combox) don’t seem to be assigned like they generally are in the military where folks rotate into and out of line and staff positions routinely throughout the course of their careers. It’s an approach like climbing a staircase, or going up the rungs of a career ladder, where officers move in and out of line and staff positions throughout their career. Nobody stays in one place for too long.

Take the latest example of what is in the news now with Fr. Frank Pavone, the head of an organization called Priests for Life. The news of his recall back to the Amarillo Diocese is all over the wires. His bishop’s leaked letter to all his brother bishops, Fr. Pavone’s own statements, etc., etc., all played out in the court of public opinion for all us arm-chair generals and barristers to see. (Head over to New Advent for all the latest).

Wiser folks than I have been commenting on this latest example of “priests gone wild” and I haven’t up till now because I figured those involved would handle their differences quietly and professionally. Fat chance of that, or so it seems. So instead I got to thinking “what kind of rag-tag outfit is this anyway?” Staff officers on special assignment think they can call their own shots and do whatever they please while the line-officers prosecute the war and are flat out forgotten? And these priests circumvent their chains-of-command and chafe at the orders from their bishops too? That’s weird and dangerous. And it’s no way to run an army. I think the folks over at Global Security.Org have noticed this downward slide.

Within the last 12 months, we have witnessed the fall of Fr. Euteneuer, Fr. Corapi, and now this latest dustup with Fr. Pavone is unfolding right before our eyes. In each of these cases, the priest in charge of the (insert name of your favorite indispensable sloop of war here) was long at the helm of a staff command in an organization with an ancillary, nay, secondary (if not tertiary) mission in support of the specific mission of the Church. As a whole, what is that grand mission? Winning souls to Christ and His Church, and nourishing them sacramentally on their pilgrimage here on earth so that they move from the Church Militant into the arms of the Church Triumphant.

Over at Dr. Gerard Nadel’s blog, where he has lead the charge with sensible commentary on this latest cause célèbre, I commented that I’ve always wondered why our priests aren’t moved around more often among these high profile ministries, like officers in the military are. See, it helps them become well-rounded to be exposed and developed in new ways by these types of assignments. But in the military, they are never left there long enough to become homesteaded and then ensconced in them. The normal tenure is 3-4 years max, then they move on to another assignment or command, richer for the experience (in theory, anyway) and able to bring more to bear to the organization as a result.

A priest receives orders to head over to EWTN for an assignment in the limelight? Hey that’s grand. But slap a time limit on it, and it would be even better. Doesn’t that make sense? In that way, see, the heads of any of these organizations, be it Priests for Life, Human Life International, or a priest occupying a position in the the media spotlight , and heck I don’t know, even the heads of the various religious orders, would have clear career paths so that when it lands them in one of these assignments, it does so as stewards of an “office” and not like religious versions of Chief Executive Officers, with all the attendant cults of personality and troubles that this secular title implies. Lately the CEO/Media Superstar model of priestly leadership is showing it’s weaknesses.

If what I am suggesting seems impossible to change, perhaps that is because you don’t realize that this problem has been faced, and conquered, in various ways in the military since the time when Julius Caesar was conquering Gaul. But you don’t have to go back that far. Just look at the American experience of moving from a loose confederation of militias during the Revolutionary War to the transformation of a military that is a professional organization, with personnel policies that, though not perfect, have moved a long way from having, say, enough money and prestige to buy the rank of Colonel,  to actually earning that title by way of promotion via a selection board that has assessed your fitness to handle that rank and the responsibilities of command at that level. A difference, you must admit, that is like night is to day.

One of my favorite professors at UCLA wrote the definitive history about the modernization of the U.S. Navy’s officer personnel system from it’s roots in prize-money taking captaincies to a professional system of advancement. The book is expensive ($135!), and the subject (officer promotion and assignment policies…yawn!) esoteric, but given the seemingly non-stop episodes of priests being set up in positions that then lead to trouble, perhaps folks at the Vatican might want to pick up a few copies of this book. Think of it as “outside-the-box” reading of books written by laymen whose provenance is the study, and solving of, organizational problems of this nature.

The book’s title goes a long way to understanding the problems of homesteading and cronyism that faced the Navy before the system was fixed. It’s called Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes: Origins and Development of the U.S. Navy’s Officer Personnel System, 1793-1941. Don’t take Joe Six-Pack’s word for it though, let the experts sing it’s praises:

“An excellent source of lessons to be learned.”—Naval History

“This lengthy, important, and almost unique book addresses U.S. Navy officer policy for the first two-thirds of the service’s history.”—The Journal of Military History

“Donald Chisholm has provided us with an important book. It is the first comprehensive history of the development of the U.S. Navy’s officer personnel system.”—Naval War College Review

“Extensively researched in primary sources and thoroughly documented, [Chisholm’s] book is a major contribution to organizational theory.”—Naval War College Review

“Chisholm has achieved what he set out to do in fine style. He has provided a comprehensive history of naval officer personnel management and at the same time has shed light on the creation, structure, and problem solving that resulted in the organization we see today. From now on it will be impossible to write usefully about the history of personnel management without reference to this book. It promises to be a standard authority.”—Naval War College Review

Waiting for Dead Men’s Shoes contains a wealth of descriptive detail on the general environment in which the personnel system developed and on the large cast of naval and political players involved. It is clearly organized, reads well, contains extensive citations, and includes an exhaustive bibliography. . . . it will stand as a definitive reference on the subject and will be used by many naval, administrative, and political historians for the rich material that it contains.”—The Journal of American History

And that’s about all I have to say about this issue. Until the way these, I don’t know if this is the right phrase to use, “plum assignments” are managed, the Church will most likely continue to be faced with embarrassing, mud flinging, headline grabbing turf battles between the well known heads of these ancillary organizations, and their bishops. Unchanged, this problem will continue to feed individual cults of personality with these individuals placed on pedestals by their admirers, facing all manner of temptations as a result.

It’s time to professionalize this approach. But that’s just this simple layman’s $.02.

UPDATE: How did the young Fr. Fulton Sheen handle this same situation? Take a look. (H/T Michelle Arnold of Catholic Answers).

  • http://www.blessedisthekingdom.com Fr. Christian Mathis

    Frank, Typically speaking, what you describe is close to how priest assignments are handled. When you are first ordained it is typical to have an assignment that lasts for two to three years. Then you might end up with what I would consider an assignment in some sort of specialized ministry and only upon becoming a pastor have a somewhat longer assignment. But even those assignments are not usually for more than say 12 years. Let's take myself as an example. My first assignment was as associate at Sacred Heart Cathderal. I stayed two years. Next was St. Mary's in Johnson City with an additional assignment as chaplain at the student center at ETSU and work at the migrant farms in Unicoi County. Then the bishop asked me to serve as the Diocesan Director of Youth Ministry as well as teaching at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga. That would have likely been a three year assignment, but I cut it short myself by asking for a personal leave of absence to get my head together. When I returned, I spent a year at St. Thomas as Associate and am now beginning year three as pastor here. My hope is to be here at least six years and possibly more, but to be here too long would ultimately be bad for me as I think it could become too much like a kingdom (perhaps even a blessed one) rather than a parish where ministry is at the center. The problem I see with "celebrity priests", the most current in the news being Fr. Pavone, is that they often seem to lose track of the basics. I have no doubt that Fr. Pavone is a holy man and dedicated to the great work he has done in the support of life. He was in our diocese last year and I have plans to invite a priest from their organization back to our parish this year. But it does seem that he doesn't have a full grasp of the chain of command, so to speak. We as priests should not forget that we are to be about the basics first, and then we can move into other areas. Just my two cents.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Fr. Christian, Thanks for your thoughts and insights. Yes, the same development of priests that goes on within a diocese needs to be applied to assignments outside of them as well. Especially in these high profile assignments. My $.02 plus yours equals $.04 so far. ;)

  • http://www.blessedisthekingdom.com Fr. Christian Mathis

    And if we find the right penny stock to invest in we could make a fortune!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    Beware of picking up pennies in front of steamrollers. —Ancient Confucian stock-picker proverb

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06334203937303147489 ThereseRita

    Frank, I usually agree with your posts and I don't have a military bone in my body…so I might've missed your whole point here…It just seems like the military model doesn't translate 100% into the clerical model (but don't the Jesuits I said that :-) While i agree that anyone can get too comfortable in their leadership position (are you old enough to remember The Peter Principle?), it also takes awhile (read: >3-4 yrs) to build a sound base of ministry. Our pastor said he can't really effect any true change in a parish for at least 8 years, for example. I also take exception to your use of "plum" jobs. I doubt very much that Fr Pavone fight for the unborn should fairly be characterized that way. That said, I have wondered about the "EWTN Factor" in all this. I know the MFVA priests who minister in Irondale have to contend with their media exposure as part of their charism and there are probably other priests (Fr Groeschel comes to mind) who are mature enough in the Lord to not begin to equate their fame with God's will etc. So your words re: the need for their Ordinary to keep an eye on their limelight time are probably wise. I was praying for Fr Robt Barron the other night when he was on The World Over in this regard. It breaks my heart to see good priests roasted.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    ThereseRita: I'm addressing the assignments of those priests thrust into these high profile positions, not necessarily at the diocesan level, where priests are working in line positions. I might be losing folks with the "line" and "staff" jargon, but here is a business example of the same concept.The line officers, in my mind, are the parish priests up through the bishop engaged in Winning souls to Christ and His Church, and nourishing them sacramentally on their pilgrimage here on earth so that they move from the Church Militant into the arms of the Church Triumphant.The "EWTN/Limelight" and "CEO of your favorite ministry" positions I see as needing the same oversight and development that Fr. Christian mentions the diocesan priests receive, and I am arguing for markedly shorter tenures (3-4 years), than say the pastor of a parish would have. That's because these positions are more like a specialized tour of duty, as opposed to the priests sacramental function. And any particular ministry/organization is larger than the individual tasked to head it. Just ask the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and (dare I say it) the Pope. There…I said it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    "I am arguing for markedly shorter tenures (3-4 years)"Now I'm curious how long ++Sheen was in the limelight…"For 20 years he hosted the night-time radio program The Catholic Hour (1930–1950) before moving to television and presenting Life Is Worth Living (1951–1957). Sheen's final presenting role was on the syndicated The Fulton Sheen Program (1961–1968)" [from Wiki]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17691145638703824456 kkollwitz

    That reading list was terrific. Turns out I own 8 on the list and have read probably another dozen of them, or other books by the authors.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01819831282677092730 Frank

    The exception proves the rule, especially back in the day of 3 television channels. ;)


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