Foxes and Lions
Sociological Analysis of Leadership in the American Catholic Hierarchy

By Msgr. George A. Kelly
Catholic World News
February 1, 2003

Throwing stones at bishops for tolerating the public sexual sins of a handful of priests is fun these days, for many pundits. Some bishops compound the problems by pelting stones at their own predecessors, and the bishops do not help matters when they hold conventions at which the agenda is dominated by their critics. If Christ walked among us in the flesh today, he might again raise his question about whether sinners are qualified to sit in righteous judgment of others' evil deeds. (Jn 8)

Hypocrites often cast stones at the Church, while rejecting the Sixth Commandant as a necessary determinant of proper civic conduct. And they are ready to spurn the other nine, too, if it is alleged that society's peace and good order depend on their observance. The same molders of public opinion have a fundamentally anti-Christian world view, and they seek to enforce their secular laws vigorously--the laws which embolden citizens, if they so choose, to be godless, disobedient, lustful; killers, thieves, and scandal-mongers. Unquestionably the present American culture is given over to sexual license, as the inevitable result of the godlessness of the opinion-making elite.

Now for the first time in American history, a handful of priests--by succumbing to the world's blandishments--have given aid and comfort to Christ's enemies, have violated their sacred promises to Jesus Christ and to their bishops, have committed crimes against the state, and have shamefully gone unpunished. As a result, serious doubts are being raised about the worthiness of the priestly ministry and, more seriously, about the truth of Christ's teaching.

The widely publicized misconduct of a minority of priests is likely to have long-lasting and highly negative effects on the good name of Catholicity, on the faith and piety of those who believe in Jesus Christ and his Church. This crisis is very serious.

Personally, I woke up to the festering problem more than 30 years ago--before the cultural revolution of the 1960s had deeply eaten into the Church body--while writing The Battle for the American Church. Even then, contempt for law was becoming an epidemic, in the nation and in the Church; it was even coming to be considered a sort of modernist virtue.

Observance of the law had always previously been recognized as a characteristic of civility, a duty not only of saints but of good citizens. Yet now, for half a century or so authority figures in Church and State have been demythologized, when not actually ridiculed. The authority of Christ himself has been questioned. Freedom--even the freedom of children of God--has been redefined into license. People are encouraged to break the established law--and God's law--at will.

Why do we have law at all? It is because wherever crowds gather, disorder reigns without law. Without the civility that law engenders, public crime and even chaos will follow. Without law, evil-doers set the tone of society, and their leadership shapes the behavior of otherwise good people. Today things have grown so bad outside the Church that we now have a burgeoning movement to allow legal "marriage" between homosexuals--as if men were not created for women exclusively, and vice versa! As if pundits and politicians could disorder nature without damaging humanity!

St. Thomas Aquinas said it well in the Summa Theologica (I, II, 95, ad1): People must be protected from evil-doers

Men who are well disposed are led willingly to virtue by being admonished better than by coercion; but men who are evilly disposed are not led to virtue unless they are coerced.


It is easy enough to state the general proposition that law is necessary. But how do we achieve a proper way of living together? Good government occurs only when rulers know how to make their citizens law-abiding, and how to keep them civilized. We reach this desired end through the practice of good politics--which is the second-highest public virtue for any society (the highest being the worship of God).

During the writing of The Battle for the American Church (1977)--when the Church was three times as healthy as she is today, but already declining--the question arose in my mind: Why did the leaders of that day look more like lambs than the leonine characters we saw in our youth? Franklin D. Roosevelt had been succeeded by Jimmy Carter, Francis J. Spellman by Terence J. Cooke. During a pensive moment, as I mused on that question, I thought of Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian social scientist who wrote more sensibly about government than most academic theorists. There is no sure recipe for the renewal of declining institutions, but Pareto's understanding of the problem has the ring of plausibility.

According to Pareto, every society is governed by elites of one kind or another. These are the bright, ambitious men, who tend to cycle through the control of political power--much as Democrats and Republicans cycle through their respective periods of control in the US Congress and the American presidency. But Pareto said that the members of these elite groups fit into two basic types, which he termed the lions and the foxes.

The lions are the builders of society: the bold, forceful, daring, resolute, strong men of character. Yet their virtues come with certain characteristic drawbacks. In time the lions are prone to becoming overbearing, hide-bound, authoritarian, remote, and unable to adapt to new situations. The society they control becomes stagnant, because the lions fail to develop the new skills demanded by change.

At this point the foxes take the center of the public stage. Foxes are shrewd, inventive, and flexible. They favor progress and prosperity. They are not only adept at undermining a corrupt establishment, but also good at manipulating public opinion. Their eventual victory over the lions, who once appeared invincible, makes them attractive rulers.

Once in power, however, the foxes, like the lions, reveal their own weaknesses. Like the lions, they tend to reproduce, bringing more of their own kind into the power elite. But the foxes tend to forget that government demands the use of a certain amount of force. Civic-minded people may be ruled by good sense and law, but the weak and recalcitrant conform to neither. (Here Pareto agrees with St. Thomas.) Having come to power by cunning, foxes live under the illusion that guile can overcome all obstacles. Faced by enemies, they prefer to turn them aside rather than openly resist them. They hope to undermine the opposition by rewards or by blackmail, rather than engage in open confrontation. Because they are not long-range planners, foxes will pay any price to keep the peace. But they will not recognize the virtues of the lions.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a society managed by foxes is ultimately reduced to a shambles. To restore order, eventually, a new revolution is needed--led this time by a new generation of lions. So the "circulation of elites"--Pareto's term--begins another turn.

In one paragraph Pareto sums up how revolution and counter-revolution occur:

A small group of citizens, if prepared to use violence, can impose its will on governing circles which are unwilling to meet violence with equal violence. If humanitarian sentiments are mainly at the root of governing authorities' abstention from force, the violent majority easily achieves success.


Although Catholic lions and foxes are not always totally distinguishable, it is clear that power shifts have already occurred in the Church, brought about by force rather than planning or rational discussion. Bishops in America and officials in Rome occasionally use force: an editor dropped from his position with a diocesan newspaper, a priest suspended, a professor dismissed. (Rarely is there an instance of disciplinary sanction against a rebellious nun.) In the post-Vatican II period such timid stabs at the enforcement of Church law brought cries of "purge" from those who grew accustomed to having bishops play the role of lambs, and bishops who ceased enforcing the observance of Church law, doctrine, and discipline.

Orchestrated cries of outrage from the would-be foxes became one form of force employed against the hierarchy. Ridicule, threats, and public pressure applied to a vulnerable area of episcopal jurisdiction--such as the strike at Catholic University in 1968--are some of the means that have been used to intimidate bishops. These tactics have been so successful that the roles played by different actors in Church affairs have changed, and new styles of "normal" behavior are now in the making.

Once upon a time the priest worried about a rebuke from his bishop. Now the bishop frets about how best to handle a recalcitrant priest. Priests sometimes refuse to see the bishop without a legal witness in the room; some priests tell stories about chastising their bishops and stomping out of their presence in high dudgeon. These role reversals are now leading to a new order, and new definitions. The bishop is now the man who must justify himself to someone who is planning to leave the priesthood. Defending the teaching office, obeying law or a legal superior, wearing religious garb, saying the Rosary--these are no longer considered representative or even "normal" behavior. The behavior that was regarded as normative for an earlier generation now seems to require explanation and justification.

Years ago Archbishop John Quinn keynoted a symposium at the University of San Francisco, calling the teaching magisterium "essential to the very being of the Church." A reporter for the Religious News Service, apparently not intending to be unfriendly, looked upon the event as an abnormality. The opening lines of his 1997 news story were:

It was as if 15 years of Church history (1962-1977) had been erased and all the words of change never spoken. The symposium on magisterium and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church was an opportunity for Catholics with conservative views to be heard.

So it seems that public defense of Church teaching authority could already be viewed as an oddity in 1977. By then, to tell the truth, the Church had become the victim of the same domination by adversarial forces that had made lawlessness a staple of civil government. Pastors began to act as if change were a good per se--as if conformity were bad because it represents the dominance of yesterday, and experimentation was good because it was not final. Changes in moral laws were also seen as good, because they meant greater freedom for individuals. The same attitude permeated public life. Campaigning for public office--even for the White House--came to mean running against the office itself. The successful candidate would be to one who was most persuasive in demonstrating his ability to dismantle the office that he sought to hold.

Little attention has been paid, in this era of upheaval, to the social costs of eternal change: the broken homes, high tax rates, crime, and so forth. The only institutions that have prospered through these circumstances have been the authoritarian governments that have enforced whatever changes their ideology required--even if their ideology involved replacing the wisdom of the ages and the wisdom of the Christian tradition.

In these circumstances, why are bishops timid about face-to-face confrontations? Hard-pressed bishops, who do not normally enjoy playing the role of lambs in the dens of lions, sometimes point the finger at Rome, blaming the Vatican for their difficulties.

Pope Paul VI once reminded bishops that they have their own responsibilities. His most forceful exhortation was given to bishops on December 8, 1970, as he marked the 5th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II, in a document called Five Years after the Council. Paul Pope Paul said that some bishops might be surprised that the Pope was raising this issue--"Some might even protest"--but he wanted them to know that bishops themselves were chiefly responsible for clearing up "the accumulation of ambiguities, uncertainties, and doubts" about the essentials of the faith. The essentials he discussed were dogmas concerning Christ and the Trinity, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church as an instrument of salvation, the priestly ministry, moral requirements, the indissolubility of marriage, and respect for human life. He took note of the fact that not even the divine authority of the Scriptures had escaped the process of demythologization. He wanted each bishop to take care that he did not betray the truth and continuity of the doctrine of the faith." He did not want public-opinion surveys to "constitute a determining criterion of truth," nor academics to be looked upon as authentic interpreters of the Catholic faith. This teaching authority, the Pope reminded his audience, was the bishop's "personal and absolutely inalienable responsibility." Pope Paul returned to this duty once again at the canonization of the American Bishop John Neumann. "Venerable brothers, we beseech you to guard the content of the Catholic and apostolic faith," he said.

But then, beleaguered bishops point out, Pope Paul VI was not too successful in governing the Rome diocese itself--in restraining the likes of the Redemptorist Bernard Häring, for example. Lower down the hierarchy, priests began to take notice of similar failures of leadership, and asked: Why is the Pope choosing the wrong bishops? In effect: Why are there more foxes than lions?


Are the wrong men in episcopal office today? Were they chosen for a warlike role that they did not wish to play, but could not avoid? To be sure there is a war going on, started in 1968 and continued by those who took the places of Charles Curran, Sister Anita Caspary, and disobedient Jesuits like Richard McCormick. It is here that the Church's long-range problem lies--in disobedience, not in sex scandals.

Look back over 60 years in the priesthood, and on all the bishops who have come my way, I find a marked difference between the bishops who came earlier and those who arrived later, running into ecclesiastical Pearl Harbors everywhere. Memory conjures up names, and personal experience from those peaceful early years makes me aware that the Church was strictly governed in those days, when "obedience of faith" was the rule. The men in charge of the Church then were a different breed from those chosen to deal with the bombing of the citadels a generation later. Let me list some names, and dates of installation, to illustrate the trend:

Baltimore: from Michael Curley (1921) to Francis Keogh (1947) Boston: from William O'Connell (1906) to Richard Cushing (1944) Chicago: from Samuel Strich (1939) to Albert Meyer (1958) Cincinnati: from John McNicholas (1925) to Karl Alter (1950) Hartford: from Henry O'Brien (1945) to John Whealon (1968) Los Angeles: from J. Francis McIntyre (1948) to Timothy Manning (1970) Milwaukee: from William Cousins (1959) to Rembert Weakland (1977) New Orleans: from Joseph Rummel (1935) to John Cody (1964) Philadelphia: from Dennis Dougherty (1918) to John O'Hara (1951) St. Louis: from Joseph Ritter (1946) to John May (1980) San Antonio: from Robert Lucey (1935) to Joseph McGucken (1962) Washington, DC: from Patrick O'Boyle (1948) to William Baum (1973)

Not all the lions were good bishops, nor were the foxes uniformly bad. Cardinal James Gibbons was known to his friends as "Slippery Jim," but his Third Council of Baltimore (1884), his Catholic school system, and his Faith of our Fathers helped make the 20th-century Church what it became. On the other hand, Cardinal William O'Connell, during his 30-year reign, helped to make Boston the home of the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys more than that of the Cabots and the Lodges; but he also became a symbol of Catholic arrogance.

In the real world, competent officials usually know how to protect their communities. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the military a set of new generals and admirals: men better suited to leadership during the hostilities that were thrust upon them in December 1941. John Pershing convinced Roosevelt of the merits of John Marshall, who in turn brought in Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. The President himself talked Douglas MacArthur out of retirement. We were at war; the best generals were absolutely necessary.

The Vatican and the American episcopal leadership did not think in such terms after Vatican II. Church wars may not be the same as international wars, of course; comparisons are always imperfect. Yet continuing to appoint good "second-string" men to governing offices--a tactic that is never productive in periods of prosperity--or by allowing sitting bishops to name their own successors, or by opting for "safe" nominees rather than potentially strong characters like Spellman or Dougherty--all these proved to be unfortunate practices. The Church at her best knows better.

In 1838 when the Church in New York was in a mess, Rome found the rambunctious John Hughes, probably the best bishop the city ever had, to take on the anti-Catholic bigots. In 1850, when the Irish Church was wracked by public priestly sins and Gaelic bishops who were warring with Rome, Pope Pius IX chose a tough Irish college president, Paul Cullen, and made him an archbishop and apostolic delegate; he cleaned up the Irish hierarchy in short order. By the time Cardinal Cullen died, 30 years later, more than 90 percent of his Irish countrymen were attending Sunday Mass on a regular basis.

In 1934 Philadelphia's Cardinal Dennis Daugherty brought Hollywood film makers to their knees--frightening even the legendary Sam Goldwyn--when he asked the million people of his archdiocese to stay away from theaters that violated the Legion of Decency norms. At least for a time, his orders were obeyed. Ten years earlier Cardinal Patrick Hayes (who was hardly a lion) summoned Mayor James J. Walker to his residence to chastise the mayor for his scandalous public behavior. Can anyone imagine a public official accepting such an invitation to meet with an unhappy bishop today? Can anyone imagine an American bishop calling a politician to account in that fashion?


Throwing stones at bishops is crude conduct, and always has been--even when it was done by other bishops, as it was during the Arian controversies of the 4th century. One would think that by the 21st century the Catholic bishops of the US should have been able to command as much public respect as the American Civil Liberties Union or the AFL-CIO. But would the leaders of these institutions assemble their in-house enemies and public critics at a public conference, providing them with the time and opportunity and "air time" to impugn the competence and integrity of the very people who were sponsoring the discussion? Would the leaders of those institutions then profusely apologize for their shortcomings?

If anyone brought a priest-pederast to the young Cardinal Spellman, one thing is certain: the offender would not merely have been sent off for psychological counseling. The idea that the US bishops could conclude a conference on sex scandals without proclaiming unabashedly that homosexual behavior is disorders and sinful, always and everywhere, shows how the times have changed.

Clearly the days of the virile Archbishop John Hughes--or Archbishop John Mitty or Cardinal Dennis Dougherty--are long gone. Those Church lions managed to withstand the foxes of their day, no matter how often the enemies of Catholicism attacked them. And in the process, those lions made Catholics ever more loyal to them and to the Church.

If the Church allows enemies--inside and outside--to prevail over her vicars, the likely result will be a weak, disordered Church, such as America saw in the early 19th century. We could see the American Catholic scene dominated once again by the types that historian Peter Gilday identified: the "priests who knew not how to obey" and the laity who "lived by non-Catholic norms." That is not exactly what Jesus Christ has in mind.

[AUTHOR ID] Msgr. George A. Kelly is the president emeritus of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and author of numerous books including The Battle for the American Church.

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