A major theme in my understanding of religion and
spirituality is that religious organizations are not so much a means to grow in
genuine spirituality, as they enable many people to come together and engage in
spiritual practice as a community.
The growth remains an individual responsibility, sometimes aided but
sometimes hindered by the organizations we join as a part of our practice. Organizations are necessary because
being part of a community helps remind us of our priorities, but they exact a
very high price.
The organizations with which we
identify are the last refuge of tribalism for many of us. As a rule the ‘us vs. them’ mentality
flourishes any time the organization, or rather its leadership, is caught in an
embarrassing or corrupt situation.
We have a strong tendency to huddle around the embattled person and defend
him or her against the outside world – even if we personally do not approve of
what they did. I explored this
issue in many kinds of organizations in my paper “Why Organizations Lie.”
As the oldest, largest and most
powerful religious organization, the Catholic Church has long been a victim of
this tribalistic syndrome. The
current multiple scandals unfolding in Ireland, Germany, and Switzerland, where high ranking clergy either
engaged in or covered up child abuse by other clergy constitute yet more pages
in this sordid record of “shepherds” putting the interest of their “sheep”
last. Within the Church,
smaller internal organizations exhibited the exact same behavior in looking the
other way and selective blindness when their top leadership lived a double life. The Legion of Christ, a powerful world wide organization
noted for defending “Catholic values.” It’s members are often influential
figures in the US. The Legion is currently in deep crisis as a result of hard to believe
depravity. This kind of thing has been an ongoing issue in the Church for years, reduces
its power and influence, and yet the institution seems incapable of dealing
The organization’s defenders, in
this case defenders of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, will argue three
things, if I may be permitted a prediction.
First, everybody does it. But the issue is the cover-up, not the
original crimes – and only big organizations can cover this kind of thing up on
the scale we are seeing. It is a disease of big organizations.
Second, the top leaders did not
know. In these most recent cases
this is hard to believe, assuming they are otherwise competent at their
jobs. The leaders were not
necessarily child molesters
(although in the case of the Legion of Christ, he was) that is not the
issue. The leaders put the
organization’s interests in not being embarrassed ahead of its spiritual responsibilities. And this almost always happens.
Third, in this case I must be
anti-Catholic, thereby equating being anti-child abuse with anti
Catholicism. Regardless of what I
think of the Catholic Church – and I have a very complex attitude towards it,
far more complex than its attitude towards Pagans, that claim is utterly
irrelevant. Unless, that is, you
react as a member of a tribe, where any criticism from outside is evidence of
deep seated hostility that must be combated. And that, of course, is what is happening.
But the tendency of big
organizations to become tribalistic, defending themselves from any claims of
wrong-doing from the outside and sacrificing anyone and anything to do so, is
not a uniquely Catholic problem.
It would appear in a Pagan organization, if ever it got big and powerful
Nor is this a problem unique to
religious organizatios. It is
ubiquitous whenever we see organizations where people within them become
emotionally identified with them.
The weirdest recent example (I know about) is Lehman Brothers, the recently bankrupted financiers who,
upon closer examination, appear to have been run as a cult. The problem is with the organizational
form, no matter where it appears: religion, business, politics, wherever.
There is no cure. I believe the only palliative is to
keep organizations as small as possible – the exact opposite of what is
happening today in American society.
Small organizations have the same
tendencies, but outside cults cannot dominate the lives of their members nearly
so much. Small size limits the
scope of the harm they can cover up and makes leaving them or blowing the
I suspect it is also the case
that the larger the organization, the more relative advantages corrupt people have
in rising to the top, because internal political skills and manipulation will
become ever more important in enabling their rise. Sociopaths have advantages similarly talented non-sociopaths
do not have. This does NOT mean
good people cannot rise to the top, but they will have more going against them.
When I visit a massive Pagan
gathering like Pantheacon, I am sometimes a little put off by the weirder folks
who show up – but compared to the harm powerful organizations have done and
continue to do within the religious traditions they are supposed to safeguard,
these are small potatoes indeed. As problems, they are tater tots among boulders, if even that.