Authoritarian Addiction

Authoritarianism is hardly a new phenomenon. In the early twentieth century we saw repressive authoritarian regimes in countries like Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and the Croatian fascist ustasha movement. While some researchers debate the causes of authoritarianism, the public and institutional behavior of authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers is rather clear-cut.

Just like drug dealers and their “clients,” authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers sell and promote authoritarian addiction. It happens when followers stop thinking for themselves and submit to the emotional rhetoric of narcissistic authoritarian leaders. We now see a classic example in our daily news. His primary focus is himself and he uses and manipulates people to achieve his goals. His campaign message is emotionally-charged bully-talk, with very little serious socio-political commentary.

Authoritarian followers are highly submissive to authoritarian leaders and aggressively insist that everyone should behave as dictated by the authority. They are fearful about a changing world and a changing society which they neither understand nor want to understand. They would rather turn the clock back to some imagined golden era.

Easily incited, easily led, and reluctant to think for themselves, authoritarian followers don’t question. They obey. They are attracted to and follow strong leaders, who, in often theatrical style, appeal to their feelings of fear and anxiety. And they respond aggressively toward “outsiders.” Blind faith is substituted for critical reason. The unknown and the different become the enemy.

What authoritarian leaders want to implement is undemocratic, tyrannical, and often brutal. Authoritarianism becomes even more sinister, when authoritarian leaders begin to proclaim their message in the name of Christianity. Then, in reality, it becomes an anti-Christian social cancer starting to metastasize across the country. Blurred vision and bizarre rhetoric are the result.

Authoritarian Morphology:

(1) In their self-righteous efforts to re-shape society in their own image and likeness, authoritarians feel empowered and compelled to isolate, to segregate, to humiliate, to persecute, to beat, and even to kill.

(2) If an authoritarian leader has a narcissistic personality disorder, he or she may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. That person belittles or looks down on people he or she perceives as inferior.

(3) Authoritarian followers need to conform and belong to their barrel-vision-group. Loyalty to their group ranks among their highest virtues. Members of the group who question group leaders or group beliefs are quickly seen as traitors.

(4) All authoritarians go through life with impaired reasoning. Their thinking is sloppy and they are slaves to a ferocious dogmatism that blinds them to evidence and logic. As Adolf Hitler reportedly said, “What good fortune for those in power that people do not think.”

[I still remember the example of faulty-thinking, given many years ago by my college logic professor: “All fish live in the sea. Sharks live in the sea. Therefore, sharks are fish.” Today of course one hears faulty-thinking authoritarian politicians and supportive religious leaders asserting: “All Mexicans are criminals” …… “All Muslims are terrorists” ….. “African Americans are lazy”….. “The Jews did kill Jesus Christ”…. “Feminists are undermining male and female identity”….. “And gays are destroying marriage and family life in America.”]

(5) Authoritarians are extremely resistant to change. It is difficult to communicate with people who are ferociously aggressive and fiercely defensive. One is not likely to get anywhere by arguing with authoritarians.

(6) Authoritarians are surprisingly uninformed about the things they say they believe in; and deep, deep down inside, many of them have secret doubts about their own core beliefs. (In somewhat the same way that publicly outspoken critics of homosexuality are often men unwilling to acknowledge their own same-sex inclinations and arrested sexual development.)

Authoritarian Confrontation:

We do need to confront authoritarianism, because it is a malignancy that threatens and polarizes American society.

We need to speak-out now or forever hold our silence.

Too many people are simply standing on the sidewalk, quietly staring at the authoritarian parade as it marches on.

Even if it appears that you are the only person who grasps what’s happening, you have to take courageous leadership to inform and organize others.

Ignorance is neither civic nor religious bliss; and prejudice is based on ignorance.

Critical thinking is an adult skill. Unthinkingly following the big bully is unhealthy child’s play.

Unquestioned loyalty and obedience force authoritarian followers into servitude.

Empathy and compassion are Christ-like; but hatred and denigration of other people are tokens of the anti-Christ.


As we begin Holy Week 2016, my very best wishes for the Easter season. I will be offline for a couple weeks. Taking time for my own deeper reflection about the signs of our time.

An Easter Letter to Pope Francis

Dear Holy Father,

Dear Brother Francis,

In just about two weeks, we will again celebrate Our Lord’s victory over death. For me it is a special kind of personal celebration, because this year I will celebrate my seventy-third birthday on Easter Sunday.

In two years, if all goes as planned (although as you will see I have some doubts about that) I will be sending you, or your successor, my “reached-the-age-of-seventy-five” letter of resignation.

Lent 2016 has been particularly poignant for me. It is not just that I realize that I am now an old man, with all the normal old-age infirmities. I also look at our church and see not the animated and life-giving institution to which I have given my entire life; but a church that has lost credibility and continues to live with an antiquated view of human reality. It is a church that is collapsing.

I often think about Jesus’ words about bread in the Gospel of Matthew. People are turning to us, asking for bread, and we continue to give them old stones.

In my little diocese, the median age of our priests is sixty-eight. Each year I am now burying more priests than I am ordaining. Yet, I will refuse to close parishes. There has to be a better way.

Another part of my Lenten reflection has been about today’s young priests. Not just in my diocese but across the country. They don’t inspire me. They frighten and discourage me. So many of them are arrogant young clerics more anchored in the ethos of 1950 than that of the third millennium. Our seminaries used to be vibrant centers of contemporary life and enlightenment. What happened?

Holy Father, I respect you. I enjoy your well-publicized inspirational words. Nevertheless, Holy Father, we need to do something more than make wonderful statements that make headline news.

When I last met you in Rome for my ad limina visit, you complimented me on my excellent theological formation. I chuckled and said “yes I am a Louvain-trained theologian and some of my professors were the formative theologians of Vatican II.” I told you I was concerned about the shortage of priests and that we should start ordaining young married men with proven ministry skills. We once called them “viri probati.” I told you that I probably have fifteen such young men in my diocese. They are bright, idealistic, well-educated, and burning with zeal for the Gospel. You smiled and said “the time is not yet ripe for such a change.”

You are a very busy man so I will keep this short. A few days ago, when I was sitting on a city bus, as you once did when a humble diocesan bishop like me, I looked at the faces of the young and old people around me. They looked so hungry for God’s bread, not hard old stones. I said to myself “it is time for a new Resurrection in our church.”

Hold on to your zucchetto Holy Father…..By the time you read this letter I will have ordained six young married men as Roman Catholic priests and six wonderful women as Roman Catholic deacons. They will join me and preside with me in our cathedral for Easter Sunday Eucharist. Twelve contemporary apostles, Holy Father! It fills me with great joy and consolation; and I see this as just the beginning.

On Pentecost (if I survive that long) I plan to ordain twelve women – some married, some single, representing all age groups – as Roman Catholic women priests. Wonderful pastoral women. One of them in fact is married to a fine young lady, who teaches social studies in a public school. (I told her, when I met her at their wedding reception, that she is probably lucky she teaches in a public school rather than a parochial school. Who knows what kind of bishop will follow me?)

We need to move forward with faith, hope, and courage Holy Father. Contrary to what is daily proclaimed in some contemporary political rhetoric, truth is stronger than fiction, love is stronger than hatred; and life is stronger than death. We need to practice what we preach.

You know as well as I that we do talk about many progressive ideas, but still behind closed doors. It is now time to move out of our theological closets (of all kinds) and walk proudly and courageously in the sunshine. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew: “What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light. What you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim from the housetops.…” The message of Jesus is indeed our way, our truth, and our life.

I send my fraternal affection and every good wish for Holy Week and abundant Easter joy. Alleluia is still our song…..

Your brother bishop,

+ John W. Greenleaf


Patriarchy – Privilege – Power

On Tuesday, March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day. Another and far more important Super Tuesday than the one that (temporarily?) highlighted US presidential contender Donald Trump.
Perhaps the March 8th day should be circled on calendars as “Beware-of-Patriarchy-Super-Tuesday.”  
Patriarchy is pernicious: an old authoritarian ecclesiastical vice that denigrates just about everyone in the name of Christian virtue. It is very much alive, if not well, in today’s world. 
Patriarchy proclaims male superiority over women. It also destroys children; and in the past week we have seen three big examples of patriarchal child abuse: (1) SPOTLIGHT the Oscar-winning film about the widespread and systemic sexual abuse of children in the Boston area by Roman Catholic ordained ministers (priests), as the National Catholic Reporter editorialized a great humiliation for the Catholic Church. (2) The Vatican’s treasurer Cardinal George Pell’s testimony from Rome to the Royal Commission in Australia about Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. Pell is at the tip and top of a sordid clerical abuse iceberg. One wonders how Pope Francis can keep Pell in his Vatican position. (3) And then, on March 1st came the grand jury report that two Roman Catholic bishops in the Pennsylvania Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown covered up the sexual abuse of hundreds of children by more than 50 ordained ministers and other religious leaders over a 40-year period. Commenting about the victims, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane observed: “Their souls were killed as children. They weren’t out playing baseball; they were trying to avoid priests.” 
Patriarchy over women  
Attributes of power, control, non-emotional rationality, and extreme competitiveness are often praised as traditional male qualities and used to explain why men should be “in control.” Women are often subordinated due to – as a bishop friend likes to stress — their “emotional expressiveness.”  
Reflecting about Christian life and ministry – past and present – I count six anti-woman heresies that need to be condemned as un-Christ-like. Even, today, in all Christian churches, they are often proclaimed as virtues: 

(1) Women are called to affirm “godly masculinity.” Based of course on the false understanding that God is male. 

(2) Women must honor the God-ordained authority of their husbands and pastors. A very strong theme among many evangelical Christians but hardly unknown in Roman Catholic circles.

(3) By submitting to male leadership, women reflect Jesus’ submission to God.

(4) When women focus on their personal rights, they are behaving contrary to Christ’s spirit of submission.

(5) Having a lot of children is a woman’s chief mission in life and God’s blessed gift to women.

(6) If they are truly Christian women, they must teach the next generation of women how to submit to male leadership in church and home.

Preserving patriarchal hegemony: 
Sometimes ecclesiastics seek to preserve their patriarchal hegemony by ignoring or dismissing on-going research and new information. In 1994 Pope John Paul II formally declared that the church does not have the power to ordain women. He stated, “Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force. Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4) 
Saint Pope John Paul II was apparently ignorant of the fact that there is a growing consensus among biblical scholars and historians that women – as leaders of house churches –did indeed preside at Eucharist in the early church. A number of women served as leaders of the house churches that sprang up in the cities of the Roman Empire.  
Successors of the apostles: 
An often-repeated historical error is the insistence that only men were Jesus’ apostles. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament speaks contrary to this belief.  The consensus among a number of respected contemporary New Testament scholars, for example, is that Junia was a woman apostle. Paul wrote in the Romans 16:7: “Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellow prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.”  
Reading through the Pauline literature one finds many women who were key leaders in the early church: Phoebe, a leader from the church at Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth; Chloe, a prominent woman in Corinth; When Paul refers to Priscilla and Aquila, Priscilla is listed first two out of three times. She and her husband were missionary partners with the Apostle Paul. 
Are bishops successors of the apostles? Of course they are, BECAUSE ALL MEN AND WOMEN who go forth and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ are apostles. You and I are successors of the apostles.

Counteracting patriarchy:  
How do we counteract patriarchy and promote women in today’s church? 

(1) We need to promote continuing education about biblical scholarship and church history; and insist that church leadership take seriously the need for in-service updating. Perhaps bishops and other church leaders need to be re-certified every five years? No certification – no leadership position.

(2) We need to insist on using inclusive language in liturgical prayer, scripture readings, hymn texts, and publications. It is correct, for instance, to drop the word “men“ when the creed reads “For us men and for our salvation…” We don’t need to ask anyone’s permission to do this.

(3) One does not need permission to be inclusive. It should be understood as the normal and healthy way to live and act. Exclusive language is simply wrong and not acceptable.

(4) Just as one doesn’t laugh at racist or anti-Semitic jokes (unless one is a certain much-in-the-news presidential candidate), it is not acceptable to laugh at making-fun-of-women jokes, dumb-blond jokes, etc.

(5) At all levels in the church and civil society we need to proclaim that is not OK when women are paid less than men, when women, because they are women, are given menial or secondary responsibilities.

(6) Again – as I have stressed in the past — we need to acknowledge and support those women who are already ordained. Women’s ordination should be understood and accepted as just as normal as men’s ordination….

(7) And of course we need to encourage and support young women in the church. Whether altar servers, lectors, or Eucharistic ministers. Even as girl scouts! (Even as girl scouts in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, where Archbishop Robert Carlson said the behavior and views of America’s Girl Scouts are at odds with the teachings of the Catholic church — in particular, the Girl Scouts’ support for transgender rights and homosexuality.)