UNITY THROUGH DICTATORSHIP OR BUILDING CONSENSUS


SCRIPTURE READINGS: [1 PT 5:1-4; MT 16:13-19 ]

Today’s feast is rather odd because the Church celebrates the Chair of St Peter.  This is strange because practically all feasts are concerned with some people and so it seems to be out of place to celebrate a chair.  Yet, the fact that this day is given a celebration with a rank of a feast implies that this commemoration is important for the Church.  What then does the feast really celebrate?  Certainly, we can discount the idea of a chair as something material.  Rather, the Chair has a symbolic meaning.  Firstly, the Chair symbolises authority and power.  Secondly, the Chair, as in the university when a professor holds the chair of philosophy, means that he is the chief teacher for that particular subject.  Thirdly, the Chair refers to the person who conducts and regulates a group, as in a meeting.

Transferring these connotations to the Chair of St Peter, this feast would then celebrate the authority of St Peter and his successor; the authority of being the Chief teacher of the faith so as to preserve the purity of the Faith and also to be the sign of the unity of the Church.  These ideas are present in the scripture readings.  In the First Letter of Peter, we have St Peter addressing his fellow elders, implying that he must be in a position of preeminence to address them as such.  Then in the gospel, we find again and again the position held by St Peter as the spokesman of the twelve.  In uttering the confession of faith, St Peter spoke on behalf of the apostles.  Consequently, his faith is the faith of the Church and on this faith of St Peter, Christ promised authority, victory, fidelity and purity.

The issue that confronts us in today’s liturgy is how should the Church, particularly in this instance, the pope, maintain the purity of the Faith and also the unity of the Church?  Should he exercise his authority in an arbitrary way, that is, in a dictatorial manner, or should he exercise his authority in a democratic approach through consultation, dialogue and common consensus?  If today’s feast is ecumenically sensitive it is because in the history of the Church, there were bad experiences of the Pope being too dictatorial in his decisions.  For this reason, Protestants speak disparagingly of the Papacy.  This over-centralisation of power in the Pope climaxed in the declaration of the dogma of the Infallibility of the Pope in Vatican 1 in 1870.   Nevertheless, we must understand that such a reaction was in response to the Reformation and the cultural and intellectual epoch of that time.

Or should the Church adopt the democratic approach of the Protestant where people are elected into the board; and decisions are made by the board that has been elected by the community?  Which method could be considered the right approach to preserve the truth and the unity of the Church?

Today, all of us in our own right hold positions of authority.  As leaders we, too, are called to preserve the unity of our community and the truth as well.  How should we discharge our responsibilities as leaders?  Should we adopt the dictatorial or the consensus approach?  There are difficulties with regard to these two approaches.  A dictatorial approach certainly is not in line with today’s contemporary mentality.  More and more, governments today see the need to consult and to dialogue.  Even the harsh and authoritarian communist governments are changing the way they govern their people.  Dictatorial leadership styles, such as that of Marcos and Suharto, including Lee Kuan Yew, are relegated to history.  Today, the emphasis is on building consensus.

But the danger of the consensus method is that one can appear to be weak and indecisive.  The downside of such an approach is that in trying to please too many people, we cannot react to the challenges quickly because too much time is spent on consultation and building consensus.  The more serious weakness of the democratic approach is that truth can be compromised by the need to win over the people.  If that were so, then governing by popularity, even though it might bring unity, would also bring decadence and destruction as well.  In the long run, it is self-destructive especially if the people are immature and lacking foresight and judgement.  But precisely, as leader, it is important that we are able to lead our people forward and not simply follow the herd.  We are called to lead and not to be led.  At any rate, trying to please everyone would only end up pleasing no one.

Consequently, neither the authoritarian nor the consensus approach is the key to preserving the unity and purity of the Church.  What is required is collegiality.  Thus, in Vatican II, such a lob-sided emphasis on the almost exclusive authority of the Pope is replaced by the emphasis on the collegiality of the bishops in union with the Pope.  Vatican II clearly teaches that the Pope and his fellow bishops must always act as a college; and even if the Pope acts alone, it is always in union with the college, just as St Peter confessed the faith on behalf of the apostles.  The convocation of synods and conferences precisely is an attempt of the Church to exercise more consultation and collegiality.  Hence, although the pope should consult his fellow bishops and the Church as a whole, it is he who makes the final decision on weighty matters.  The Church in this sense is not democratic, otherwise we cannot preserve the truth of the gospel.  We would lose our autonomy and authority to proclaim what is right.

Therefore, the gospel today invites us to recognise the ways God works in our lives.  We are called to respect authority.  Yet, it must be remembered that those who exercise authority must, as St Peter advised, “never be a dictator over any group that is put in your charge.”   Rather, we must act like shepherds interested in the needs and feelings of our flock.  At the same time, whilst consulting and having sincere and open dialogue with those under our charge, we must be courageous enough to make honest decisions, even when such decisions are painful and difficult; after all, shepherds are called to witness to the sufferings of Christ.  Thus, the approach that is considered appropriate for the Church, which is the Church of Christ, is that of collegiality, not democracy nor authoritarianism.  This implies that we must exercise our responsibilities with courage, conviction and fidelity to the truth; yet seeking dialogue and understanding through consultation before making decisions.

As for those of us who are under authority, let us submit ourselves to those who are placed over us.  If we disagree, we certainly have a right to voice our opinions.  But because views especially, in a community, can be so diverse, it is important that once such views have been aired and the superior has made a decision, all must support the decision and put aside one’s individual and limited self-interests.  In this way, the unity of the community and the purity of the truth of the gospel will be lived and preserved.


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved


Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

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