The Peter Principle — “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence” — was not named in honor of St. Peter and the Vatican. Because so much of what the late Dr. Lawrence J. Peter had to say about hierarchies plays out in that most hierarchical of religious organizations, however, it’s hard not to think that the Vatican may have inspired some of his thinking.
[Note: This Dr. Peterr — i.e., me — is no relation to that Dr. Peter.]
When the Archdiocese of Boston was engulfed in the clerical child abuse scandal under Cardinal Bernard Law, the solution was to promote him out of Boston into a new position in Rome. Some Vatican watchers saw this as an example of what Dr. Peter described as a “lateral arabesque”: shifting a bad employee into a make-work position where they can’t do any further harm, like becoming the “coordinator of interdepartmental communications, supervising the filing of second copies of interoffice memos.” Others viewed this as what Dr. Peter called “percussive sublimation”: kicking the incompetent person into a higher position, and thus making him someone else’s problem. In Cardinal Law’s case, one could argue that both may be correct.
Which brings us to Pope Benedict XVI.
Back in the days when he was fallible, he was . . . well, fallible:
As archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982, the future pope approved the transfer to Munich for psychiatric treatment of a priest who had sexually abused boys. The priest, the Rev. Peter Hullermann, was quickly returned to pastoral work with children. This month, a subordinate took responsibility for the decision, although internal church documents show that Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was copied on a memorandum informing him of the transfer. Benedict has not addressed the issue.
In 1998, top Vatican officials, including the future pope, did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin, according to internal church documents obtained by The New York Times from lawyers who are suing church officials. The decision came after the priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, appealed to Cardinal Ratzinger for leniency.
When this was about Cardinal Law, the Vatican called it “an American problem.” But now things are different:
“He is at a crossroads,” said Marco Politi, a veteran Italian Vatican journalist. “What’s extraordinary is that the scandal has reached the heart of the center of the church. Up to now it was far away — in the States, in Canada, in Brazil, in Australia. Then it came to Europe, to Ireland.
“Then it came to his motherland,” Mr. Politi added of Benedict’s native Germany. “Then it came to his diocese, and now it’s coming to the heart of the government of the church — and he has to give an answer.”
Questions of credibility abound, and the answers Benedict gives can’t be the one used for Cardinal Law. There’s no higher position in the Roman Catholic church than Pope, so the church can’t exactly promote him out of his current job. Similarly, there isn’t even a lateral move that would be open to him. As Peter Wensierski of Der Spiegel notes,
When is it time for a pope to resign? Margaret Kässmann, the former head of the Protestant Church in Germany, stepped down in February upon deciding that she no longer had the necessary moral authority for her office after being caught driving drunk. But how much authority does Pope Benedict XVI still enjoy?
These days, what is left is disappearing almost daily.
There is one move, however, that might work. It came to me when I was reminded of this story from the Gospel of Mark [Mark 9:33-37, NRSV]:
Then [Jesus and his disciples] came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
If Benedict is looking for truly higher position, he might want to leave his post as pope and become a student teacher in a preschool.