Chapter 2: What Sort of Man the Abbot Should Be
When a man is elected abbot, he should govern his disciples by a twofold teaching; namely, he should show them all that is good and holy by his deeds more than by his words… Let him so adjust and adapt himself to each one according to his character and understanding–that he not only suffer no loss in his flock, but may rejoice in the increase of a worthy fold. And let the abbot always bear in mind that he will be held accountable by God Himself for both his own teaching and for the obedience of his disciples.
Amongst all people, religious and non-religious, clergy and laymen, there are leaders. Leaders exemplify qualities necessary to the fields in which they lead. Leaders are people who demand respect, and—in the cases of abbot, teacher, and parent—obedience.
There are an infinite number of ways in which to categorize leaders; but perhaps the best way to do so is to sort leaders into two groups: those we elect, and those we don’t.
For those we elect, there is a lot of give and take. These leaders have a great deal of accountability to those who elect them. We choose these people. There are a lot of examples of this kind of leadership: we elect the President of the United States; we elect mayors, councilmen and school boards; we even elect members to the most glamourous and important position of all, Priory Student council. Since we choose these people, we expect them to perform to our satisfaction. When they don’t, we’re able to express our displeasure with their performance through measures such as petition and impeachment.
Even when these leaders inevitably disappoint us in some way, we still owe them our respect. On the most basic level, respect is something that should be shown by and to all people. That being said, we owe our elected officials more respect than just acknowledging their basic rights as people. Being responsible for and accountable to others is a huge job, no matter what level of governing it takes place at. And while we have every right to disagree with what that person says or how that person acts, we still have to respect their authority. For example, look at President Obama. Personally, I disagree with him on a lot of his policies and opinions; however, I completely respect his authority as the leader of this country, and I don’t question his right to believe and impose those policies, even though I think he’s dead wrong.
What we do not owe elected leaders, though, is obedience. Not only are these leaders very prone to error, but they have sought this leadership out—they have “ran for office”. To quote Thomas Jefferson, elected leaders “Are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We give them the authority they hold. We can also take this authority away from them. Because of this, we are not and should never be obedient to this type of leader.
There is, however, a second kind of leader. This person is not elected. He is not chosen, voted for, or even asked for. While with unchosen leaders—people I will refer to as superiors—there is in some ways slightly less give and take than with those who are elected. They in return owe more to their followers. As it says in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 783-786, Jesus calls us to serve as Priest, Prophet, and King. When it says King, it means “not to be served, but to serve”. If a person is in a position of authority that is thrust upon him, that person owes it to his followers to truly serve to the fullest of his ability. Some examples of superiors would be teachers and parents.
Does this call to service mean that these people will be infallible? Of course not. Our parents will make mistakes. Our teachers will make mistakes. Even the monks will make mistakes. However, as with elected officials, we still owe them our respect. The difference is, with superiors, we also owe them obedience. You are to obey your parents, and your teachers. Why? Because their authority is derived from something higher than just a democratic process. Their authority comes from God. From a Catholic perspective, all you have to do is look at the Fourth Commandment for proof of this. And, in a classroom, “Honor thy mother and Father” extends to teachers as well. But even in a secular sense, obedience to parent and teacher is part of the natural order of human interaction, and can be explained by Natural Law. Now, does “obedience” mean do everything that this person tells you, even if you know it is intrinsically evil? No. Obedience means heeding the direction of those superiors, even if you disagree, because those superiors are still being held accountable, but not by you—by God.
The position of Abbot doesn’t fall perfectly into either of these categories. The abbot is elected; I cannot tell you exactly what that election process entails, but regardless, there is a great deal of choice by the rest of the monks as to who their abbot will be. However, the abbot commands obedience; perhaps even more obedience than is commanded of all of you by your parents and teachers. On the surface, this is somewhat frustrating, as I am someone who likes for things to fit into categories whenever possible. But instead of being an outlier, the Abbot position is a union between the two categories of leadership—in the same way that Christ is the union between two categories: God and Man. As Father Augustine stated in a previous reflection, “For a monk, the abbot takes the place of Christ in this world”.
This connection with Christ that the abbot shares is also shared by the rest of us to some extent. We are all called to be Priest, Prophet, and King. We are all called to be Christ to others. Frankly, we are all called also to rise above the mundane and simple system of elected leadership. There are more important things than being President, than being mayor, than being on Student Council. There are even more important things than being parents and teachers and abbots. Showing respect and obedience to Christ is chief among them.
As you are all undoubtedly aware, we are in the midst of the most bizarre and comical election season in decades. This is a prime example of the first kind of leadership. I’m not here to offer my opinion on who you should support; especially this time, since both answers seem like wrong answers. What I will encourage you to do is to be mindful of your conscience when choosing who you want to lead you. And more importantly, whoever turns out to be our next President, I implore you to remain respectful of that person—but not obedient. Please stand.