charisma and structure: a reflection

We live in a material universe.  Human individuals are biological organisms.  They live and then they die.  When they die their visions, their energy, their projects end.  The only way to insure that their aspirations will continue on past their lifetimes is through the institutionalization of their intentions in the form of social structures.  Society is potentially immortal; its members are not.

Society is a virtual reality.  Virtual reality is what we construct with our minds; it has the reality that we give it.  Even though these mental projections are invisible and have no mass or velocity, they are very real, for other socialized individuals are formed by them and  translate them into visible tangible realities:  work, buildings, machines, rituals, armies, cemeteries.  The declarations, constitutions, laws and the decisions made by social entities, are the only way that the élan of any individual or group of individuals can live on through multiple generations.  This is what it means to be human: we are what we think we are, and what we think we are is embedded in the virtualities of our social structures.

Even though they are only virtual reality, social structures obey laws that are not entirely unlike biological organisms.  Evolution is one of those laws.  The ongoing conversation between what our ancestors thought and what we now think, inevitably entails modulation — change.  This is  universal; it applies as much to the Catholic Church as to any other social institution.  Who Catholics think they are — how they perceive the world around them and how they think they should behave — cannot be determined solely by the decisions of generations past.  It evolves under pressure from new emergent realities, and from new knowledge about old realities.  Modern Catholics are finding it increasingly difficult to understand themselves and the universe that spawned them in the terms inherited from ancient times which the Catholic “teaching authority” insists continue in force today.  This intelligibility gap is threatening the ability of Catholics to identify themselves as Catholic.  Many have left, and many others who continue with the Church find they are only able to do so with a host of mental reservations.

The recent efforts of the current Pope, Francis the First, illustrate the problem.  His world-astoun­ding interview, published on September 18, calling on the Church to return to gospel values and to stop “obsessing” over sexual issues, was met with near universal enthusiasm.  But many question what effect such sentiments will have on the Church institution past the excitement of the moment or, assuming the Pope sustains the spirit of his remarks by personal charisma, past his lifetime.

During the last 50 years the conservative reversal of the directions laid out by Vatican II were more than a matter of the personality preferences of the popes who ruled in those years.  They not only insisted on the validity of structures forged in ancient times by people whose historical mindset and cultural assumptions no longer exist, but those popes were also successful in appointing so many like-minded bishops and Cardinals (who alone elect the pope) that the entire “teaching authority,” the magisterium, now reflects those values.  The personal vision, energies and projects of Francis, the current pope, even if they run deeper than a mere personal style, are necessarily confined to the limitations of his individual human organism.  When he dies, the spirit he represents dies with him unless it is institutionalized in the modification of social structures.  We must be honest.  At this point there is no indication that Francis has any intention of doing that.

We Catholics understand this phenomenon quite well; we’ve been through it before.  We are living in an era when the ultra-sacred and, we were taught, “infallible” recommendations of an ecumenical council have been thoroughly disregarded and often eviscerated by the very authorities entrusted with their implementation.  Our disillusionment  quickly turned to cynicism when, on re-reading the texts more attentively, we realized that the Council itself had been very careful not to challenge the continuing validity of the structures of traditional Church teaching going back to ancient times.  In other words, the Council, prestigious as it was, like Pope Francis today, confined itself to recommendations that had no effect on doctrine.  We all know the result of that policy.  Despite the buck-stopping claim that the Council was the “voice of the Holy Spirit,” its recommendations were marginalized by the Vatican authorities whom “infallible dogmas” had intentionally placed beyond all control and accountability.  The Vatican apparatus trumped the “Holy Spirit” … effortlessly.  It wasn’t even a contest.  The “Holy Spirit” was no match for the entrenched power of the governance structures of the Church.  Francis’ charismatic “spirit” can hardly lay claim to a greater appeal than that evoked by an ecumenical council, and so he can hardly be expected to fare any better in a contest with those same ancient structures that continue to rule.

The comparison reveals the stark reality of life in a material universe.  “Spirit,” whether Francis’ or the Council’s, only lives in bodies — living human organisms.  If the Church structures that shape living organisms do not embody and evoke that spirit, the spirit dies.  It has to.  It’s the way things are.  The spirit of any individual, even the spirit of Jesus’ himself, was dependent upon “taking flesh” in human society and the structures that maintained it.  Francis’ “spirit” in like manner needs to take flesh in a living community of human organisms and the virtual structures that identify, sustain and protect it, or it will die.

The “re-prioritizing” that was the point of Francis’ interview should never have been necessary if the correct priorities had been maintained.  How did it happen that they weren’t?  Clearly the fault lies with the structures themselves which are claimed to protect Catholic values through the millennia.  Their very purpose was to insure identity … precisely to prevent the loss of perspective and the distortions of inverted priorities.  If the priorities were so lost that the Pope needed to scold the entire “teaching authority” for “obsessing” over the wrong things, then clearly, unless you want to make the absurd claim that all those men are morally corrupt, it is the structures themselves that are dysfunctional — inimical or irrelevant to the spirit of Jesus’ life and message, and they must be overhauled and in some cases eliminated altogether.

The “spirit” of Jesus that Francis is calling forth obviously has not been accurately identified and adequately protected by these structures inherited from ancient times.  His “spirit” in other words, does not share the mindset which the traditional structures create in individual Catholics.  And unless the structures evolve and change … go through a metanoia every bit as penetrating and transformative as that which pride-filled, selfish individuals pass through when they “convert” from serving their false selves to serving LIFE … the false priorities which those structures encourage or tolerate will reassert themselves in short order.  They will continue to exercise their deforming power and subvert priorities as they always have.

Those who have been brainwashed into thinking the Church will be automatically protected from error are more than deluded.  For the very delusion harbors the seeds of self-destruction.  It encourages churchmen to believe their structures are eternal and their authority is a sacred right; they run the risk of a self-idolatry and a worship of power that is the complete antithesis of the message of Jesus.  What, after all, is the obsessive condemnation of the sexual vagaries of others but the flip-side of self-righteous self-projection.  What is the root of the bishops’ cover-up of predator priests but the attempt to maintain social prestige with the appearance of “holiness” while sacrificing the safety of children and refusing to admit the truth of their dysfunctional structures to the world — and to themselves.  There is more than human failure here; there is also an insidious  doctrine that falsely claims the Church is a “divine” institution authorized to teach the entire world and run by men who rule by divine right.  These anti-gospel structures must be derogated if priorities are to be set straight again.

Francis is only an individual human being, no less dependent on the virtualities of human society than Jesus was for the diffusion and perdurance of his message.  If the things Francis is talking about are not concretized in the structural changes needed to sustain them, nothing will change … and the ephemeral nature of his charisma could actually have a subversive effect; for once people realize that the Church is structurally incapable of changing its structures, and that even the charisma of a pope is powerless against it, they might lose all hope for reform.  The very structures that need changing are the ones that dogmatically (and allegedly “infallibly”) preclude the possibility of change.  It is the quintessential “catch-22.”  Catholic identity has been wed to these claims to exclusivity and unchallengeable power guaranteed by divine infallibility for more than a thousand years.  It has become clear that the spirit of Jesus and Catholic claims to preeminence as defined and protected by the dogmas and laws of the Church are mutually incompatible — they cannot live in the same organism.

A choice, therefore, will have to be made between them.  But it won’t be the first time.  Unfortunately, the fact that a Catholic Church with false priorities — so indicted by the pope himself — is still with us after all this time and so many attempts at reform, tells us that when confronted with the chance for conversion, the “teaching authority” of the Church has always preferred “tradition:” the bludgeon of imperial domination over the healing power of Jesus’ spirit of mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

History does not bode well for what will result from this Pope’s charisma … unless he changes those structures.

12 comments on “charisma and structure: a reflection

  1. Bill Wilson says:

    I think you have very accurately described the dilemma of the church, i.e. the People of God. Charisma won’t solve the centuries-old institutional problems. Francis’s exciting ideas will scarcely out live him unless new structures are put in place. I’m no fan of JP2 or B16, but look how quickly and easily Francis has been able to begin undoing their “charismatic” influences.

    That said, putting in place new structures brings its own set of challenges. The history of institutions show that structures become rigid and cast in cement. The idea of a church ever reforming itself (Augustine?) or of a perpetual revolution (Jefferson?) has never really materialized. It didn’t take long for the early Jesus movement to become institutionalized as the “church” and then to be coopted by the Roman upper class. It took less than 200 years for our democratic republic to stray from the concept of constant renewal of a body of citizen legislators and to involve the professional ruling class that now holds us in thrall.

    In my cynical moments, which are increasing in frequency and duration, I find myself more and more agreeing with Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: In the West, people really don’t want the freedom of the sons of God. They want somebody, anybody, to take charge, make their decisions and run their lives. In the mid-East, there is a growing consensus to destroy the immoral West, even if it means that the Jihadists bring all their fellow Islamists to paradise that much sooner.

    Thanks for clarifying the issue. Sorry my response is such a bummer.

    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for your insightful comments.
      I see two “moments” in structural change. One is that dysfunctional structures have to be abrogated, repudiated and eliminated. The second, and very separate moment is the decision to install other structures that allegedly embody the “spirit” which is claimed must replace them.

      The problems you speak of have to do with the second, not the first. We definitely have to get rid of absurd irrational doctrines like the Christian doctrine Original Sin and many others. But we have to ask: is it always necessary to “replace” one “doctrine” with another? Certainly not, especially if its status as “law” is part of the issue. The first structural question therefore is, “what kinds of structures best insure gospel piorities? This is not a sophist attempt to evade the question. The “teaching authority” (which should include everyone) must assess the very usefulness of “law” itself as a vehicle for conveying the gospel message. Can they be separated? In other words, is there a way of insulating the laws necessary to the good running of any “institution” from the gospel message? … or at least making sure that gospel values are not made subject to legal interpretations or applications? These are disturbing notions. People are not comfortable proceeding without the fixed parameters of “law” for institutional order and continuity.

      But I ask: what is it that we are trying to communicate? And before that, what was Jesus trying to communicate and how did he choose to do it? The institutional structures should tailor themselves to gospel values … gospel values should not be tailored to institutional needs. This may result in a level of decentralization that Catholics associate with “low-church” protestants. The early communities were more like store-front churches of today. Could we live like that again? … why not?

      • Phil Dindia says:

        structures will not change unless there is loud cry from thousands of the oppressed and actions that make sure the cry is heard by those who can make the change.The people must force their bishops to listen, as happened with the civil right marches. Charisma alone or the rightness of the cause is not enough there must be a strong demand backed up with action such as mass demanstrations, boycotts/non attendance and refusing financial support. since you first wrote your piece, he has already been forced to reiterate the cold moral stances of the church on women priests and homosexuality.

      • Sal Umana says:

        Tony, It seems to me that the founders of the institutional church wanted to preserve the so-called “deposit of faith” from heresy, so they canonized and dogmatized the scriptures to preserve the gospel values from the distortions both of the right and the left. But in that process they institutionalized the hierarchy as the authoritative defenders of the faith. And we have been stuck with their protective arrogance for a thousand years. You are pointing out the truth that the present institutionalized structures have to go, and the new “spirit” has to be institutionalized in new structures. I think that Vat II’s statement that the Church is the People was the beginning of the end of the Church as a hererchical institution. After VAT II, Riccardo Lombardi, S.J., founder of the Movement For a Better World, would tell us that the Church was never meant to be an institution unto itself, but had to be the “seed of the Kingdom of God,” and thus had to die like a seed before the Kingdom could grow. He also said that the Movement For a Better World was to be the seed of the Church as People of God.Well the Movement died, and like a good seed has brought forth many people who see themselves as the Church, the People of God. I am absolutely sure that Pope Francis, as a Jesuit from Argentina, made the Better World Retreat, and understands that the hierarchical structure has to go. As you say, so what if the Vatican becomes a museum? It already is the greatest museum in the world. As for new structures, or store front churches, we already have thousands of Communidades de Base. In the U.S. alone, at last count, there were over 400 “Intentional Eucharistic Communities” where all the people celebrate the liturgy together. I think that goes a long way towards “institutionalizing the gospel values.”
        Sal Umana

  2. tonyequale says:


    Thanks for your reminder. We shouldn’t expect that democratization in the Church will come as a gift from the elites. Nor should it. We don’t own what we haven’t worked for. A hard fought assertion of the rights of the “People” will go a long way toward shaping the kinds of structures that reflect gospel values. The RC’s need a little “occupy” action …


  3. Bob Willis says:

    I read the text of Francis’ interview. I finished thinking: he is a good man. I recognized in him what I most appreciated in the Jesuits during my years with them: the mystic rather than the moralist, the prophet rather than the priest/theologian. I had soon realized that the priests/theologians had the Society of Jesus and the Church enthralled. They elicited one stark judgment from me: “They’re nuts!” But I stayed on for fifteen more years because I valued the mystical and prophetic vision of Ignatius. I left only when I realized that his vision would not, could not, be actualized in the Society and the Church so to be contrary to the lived example of Jesus.

    Many years ago, I participated in a study Carl Rogers was carrying out. He was wondering what the effect of small group dynamics might have on a self-contained educational system. He used as his target group the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Los Angeles and its Immaculate Heart College, its two high schools, and a score of grade schools.

    Two years into the study, he changed the question to this: what could a dedicated group of experienced professionals do to effect change in a self-contained educational system. He had realized that it was impossible to isolate the cause to experiences in a small-group. The experiences there simply led to other experiences outside the groups that were equally potent as the groups themselves.

    As a result of the study, he found the following: 1) Many individuals changed dramatically from the relational experiences, 2) Some small groups changed their structures in and through the changes that took place in its members, 3) The hardest to change were the institutional structures buttressed as they are by tradition, laws, culture, and established expectations. Remarkably, the Immaculate Heart system did make a significant change but one also due to the intransigence of its hierarchical overseer, Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles. The combination of our relationship to the sisters and his authoritarianism led them to remove themselves from his authority by becoming a lay institute, dissolving themselves as a religious order. Only a small group (as I recall about 80 older sisters) continued on as a religious order.

    I mention all of this by way of saying what I have come to know over my many years as a group and management consultant: personal relationships form the catalyst for change but will only result in institutional change in three ways: 1) Leaving the primary institution, setting up a more open and human system, and depleting the resources of the primary institution (think of the Protestant Reformation, for example); 2) Challenging directly the core values and traditions and laws of the primary institution so as to shatter its ruling structure (think of the American Revolution, for example); 3) Staying with the primary institution as a thorn in its side, sending shock waves over and over through it until it recognizes its need for change or it will come apart without the help of its familial agitators (think of the Roman Empires embrace of Christianity, for example).

    I suspect that all three strategies occurring at once hold the most promise for institutional change.

    After Vatican II and its rejection by the hierarchical church, many dedicated and professional Catholics chose the first strategy. No force has congealed enough since then to successfully implement the second strategy, though many, like yourself, apply constant and growing pressure. John XXIII attempted the third strategy, thinking that an ecumenical council could and would trump the entrenched powers. It worked only somewhat as it was immediately countered by the Vatican and its elected lackeys–Paul VI, J2P2, and Bennie the Bavarian.

    Now we have Francis. He looks like he will follow the path of John XXIII and not his successors. I doubt he will be able to do more than John except in concert with others employing strategies one and two. Only together will the institutional structures shatter, chaos reign, until new structures emerge. All in all, I suspect someone will have to die. Life, after all, demands faith.

    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for sharing your corroborative experiences. Structure is a two-edged sword. As the encrustation of the past, it tends to stifle and stagnate growth even as it prevents significant yaw from the central goal. But for the present to live on, there is no other option. “Movements” must turn into parties or organizations. I remember that is what the Farm Workers were confronted with. They knew they would lose something by becoming an organization — a “union” rather than a movement. But they also knew they would lose everything unless they institutionalized. Chavez would only live so long … and then it would all evaporate. Look at Martin Luther King. His vision ended with his death; the movement continued in a thousand “points of light” all claiming to live by his standards, but his unique legacy that was anti-war and anti-poverty as well as for civil rights was dissipated. The “occupy” movement is another example.

      I suspect that Francis has no intention of changing structures. I may be wrong. I also believe he is a good man … and therefore I am convinced he is naïve. It may come from having been an “armchair” progressive all his life. He’s our age. I don’t think he got into any trouble as a young priest. He wouldn’t have made it to pope otherwise. Those of us who got into the fray … hit the streets and got beat up badly “back in the day” know the story. “Being good” is not good enough. The “good” has to be institutionalized … but first of all the “bad” has to be abrogated. Any move in the right direction is a step. But a homiletic “let’s reset priorities” won’t cut it for long without nailing it down.

      But, whatever. It is undeniably refreshing. I for one am enjoying this guy immensely. I hope he lives forever. Que viva il papa! The other shoe will drop when it drops. Until then … cheers!


  4. Frank Lawlor says:

    This discussion is filled with pithy analysis: thoughtful, stimulating, and a bit discouraging. Most or all of us will not live long enough to see how it all works out. Alas! … and thanks!
    One thing that strikes me is that, at least for the past 4 or 5 hundred years there have been reformers from within the Roman church. Some have embraced institutionalization more than others. All have set up the Gospel Jesus as their criterion for values. What has been the net result? For one thing I think that the process has mostly served to embed the church deeper into denial, into isolation from especially the progress of science in its rethinking the Cosmos and the place of life within it. What does the reforms already attempted say to us as potential reformers?

    Frank Lawlor

    • tonyequale says:

      Frank, hi!

      I think all reforms and reformers, like the abuses and blindnesses they are trying to reform, are historically conditioned. It’s a proof of the relativity of all these matters. Nothing is absolute. It would be indeed strange if a seventeenth century reformer effectuated reforms to the problems we face today. How would he know? … and why would he do it? Each age has its work to do. They had theirs; they couldn’t solve ours. We are here to do that. Each man to his work.

      Science has never been as solid and indisputable as today. Now is the appropriate time to nail this thing DOWN.


  5. Michael Daly says:

    Hey, Tony.. I’ve just discovered you via copies of your pieces on Francis I sent by Mike Volpe, friend of Sal Humana. Mike also sent me a copy of Religion In A Material World. Our thinking (and backgrounds) are deeply compatible; I think your comments on current churchy matters excellent. Looking at your blog, correspondence, and indications of ongoing writing, I have little doubt about how busy you are. My own current emphases are in cosmology (Swimme, Greene), and rooted in Chardin and Berry. I’m looking for correspondents and bloggers with similar interests, would appreciate any direction you might be willing to offer. In any event, please know I find your thinking excellent, wish our paths had crossed sooner. …Mick Daly

    • tonyequale says:

      Mick, hi!

      Thanks. It’s always nice to come across a fellow traveler. We are all in this together; I consider my work here part of a common project to which many are contributing; I look forward to your contributions and our future exchanges.

      I hope you and your people are well,


      • Mick Daly says:

        Tony.. Thanks for the quick reply. Am I correct, that I’ll get an email when you next post? Is it required to fill in details below every time one comments?

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