Sunday, January 24, 2010

Loyalty Oaths and Pretensions to Power: Vatican Expects American Nuns to Take Oath of Fidelity

Shortly after my last position in an academic institution was terminated, the president who first invited me to take that position and then informed me she wanted me gone from her campus presented all of those who had reported to me with a loyalty oath.  With an oath of loyalty to her personally and to her administration of the university.  Her entire leadership team was presented with the same oath.

As well as I ever understood the logic of this bizarre action, it went something like this: I had been run off because I was plotting against her.  And forcing those who had reported to me or worked on the leadership team with me to sign an oath of loyalty to her would bolster her power over an institution where I had somehow gained unwarranted power. 

The claim that I was undermining the friend who had brought me to work on her leadership team was, of course, ludicrous.  I’ve tried to understand that claim from several angles, and have concluded that 1) it reflected a fantasy implanted in the poor lady’s mind by some unscrupulous and corrupt confidantes who were adroit about playing to her fears and thus manipulating her; and 2) it helped her consolidate her power over a group of people (and an institution) that was badly shaken by her unpopular and shocking decision to run off an outstanding academic vice-president.  (I was one in a series who all experienced the same fate: she has now had as many academic vice-presidents, either interim or official, as she has been president of the university.)

I thought of this loyalty oath last week as I read my way once again to the end of the Harry Potter series.  In the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore asks Harry,

“Have you any idea how much tyrants fear the people they oppress? All of them realize that, one day, amongst their many victims, there is sure to be one who rises against them and strikes back!” 

Dumbledore’s observation fits my former friend’s situation uncannily, and helps to explain the fear that led to her bizarre decision to force her team to take a loyalty oath after she chopped my head off, and then tried to blame me for making her chop off said head!  In the two schools at which she has been president, she has attacked and fired such a string of innocent people that she now has many detractors.  Her imperious treatment of the media in the communities where she has led schools doesn't help, either.  It alienates the media and predisposes the media to listen to those who claim that she is a tyrannical leader.  It’s understandable, then, that she would live in tremendous fear of at least one of those she has savaged in her years of running colleges striking back at her.

Tyrannical behavior is, unfortunately, not anything new in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  Many of these institutions have long been led by presidents who seem to regard themselves as unfettered by legal and moral niceties, when it comes to forcing their will on those they govern.  Some observers link this leadership pattern to the fact that HBCUS were founded by churches and long governed by clergymen, who answered to no one but church authorities as they ran their colleges and universities.  And accrediting bodies tend to overlook tyrannical leadership in these institutions precisely because they are church-affiliated, and because calling the institutions to accountability for compromised leadership will bring charges of racism on the heads of the accreditors.

The longstanding pattern of leadership I’ve just described has passed down in most HBCUs—along with the quasi-religious aura that imputes some kind of divine authority to HBCU presidents.  My former friend is clever about using that aura and her ties to ministers and churches to try to beat her faculty and staff into submission when they become restive. 

Even so, personal oaths of loyalty to HBCU presidents are far from the norm.  The fact that the president who invited me to work for her and then dumped me at the end of a year with false claims that I was undermining her authority feels compelled to force such an oath on her university’s leaders says a great deal about her and the tyrannical way she has come to govern her university, even in a cultural context in which tyrannical leadership is par for the course.  It says a great deal about her ineffectual leadership, and on the tenuous base on which her claim to leadership rests.

Those who refused to sign the oath she administered following my dismissal were, in due course, all demoted and/or fired, by the way.  It was serious business, this oath-taking.

Because of these experiences at my previous place of employment, I’m disturbed to read in this week’s National Catholic Reporter that Mother Mary Clare Millea, whom the Vatican has set up as director of the current investigation of American nuns, has recently written to communities of American women religious to inform them that part of the investigation process will be on-site visits of various religious communities, at which those being investigated will be expected “to pronounce a public profession of faith and an oath of fidelity to the apostolic see.”

As Tom Fox’s NCR article about Mother Millea’s letter to American nuns notes, it’s a response to the widespread boycott of the investigation by American women’s religious communities.  It has been reported that a huge majority of American women’s religious communities have refused to complete the questionnaire sent to them as the first step in the investigation process.  Fox notes that there are widespread reports that many communities answered only some questions on the questionnaire, or returned it to the Vatican blank.  Some communities sent back to Rome the constitutions for their communities—which Rome has long since approved; otherwise these religious communities wouldn’t be in business.  The choice to send to Rome constitutions that Rome has approved communicates that Rome already has the answer to the questions it’s asking about the ministries and beliefs of American women religious.

I’m struck by the information that American nuns will be expected to take an oath of loyalty to the Holy See as part of this investigation—an investigation that has infuriated large numbers of American Catholics, who think that religious women are being unfairly targeted by a Vatican that wants to deflect attention from its shortcomings in the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors.  Nuns have, to a great extent, built the American Catholic church.  They have staffed (and often built) its schools, maintained (and often built) its hospitals, ministered to those on the social margins: they are the backbone of American Catholicism, and it is outrageous to many of us to question their fidelity to the gospel.

And there has been absolutely no Vatican investigation of all the bishops who have covered up the abuse of children by priests . . . .

As I think about the expectation that women religious take an oath of loyalty to the pope, here’s what strikes me: this is a strategy that would be employed only by a badly faltering institution, by an institution badly out of kilter at its center.  The fact that Rome believes it can consolidate its power by forcing people to take loyalty oaths, rather than by providing sound pastoral leadership, says much about just how threatened the power structures of the church are at the center now.

Only those who imagine that the power of leadership has something to do with beating others down, with threatening, bullying, and coercing, would resort to loyalty oaths as a mechanism of consolidating their power.  The power about which the gospels speak—the power we’re expected to see in pastoral leaders’ lives and ministry—is, by contrast, a power that’s all about love and service.  Not about oppression and control.

The kind of power Rome needs, if it’s going to exercise effective pastoral ministry, resides in the very women’s communities Rome is now targeting.  Instead of investigating American nuns and trying to shift blame for everything that’s wrong in the church onto the shoulders of these faithful women, Rome ought to be sending emissaries to learn from them.  To learn about what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus in the world today, and effective pastoral ministers.