By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

No Catholic is likely to have failed to notice the polarization that has infected the church in recent decades – and especially in the last five years.

The gap has grown since 2016 when Donald Trump campaigned for and was elected President in a contest where the two major candidates and their parties’ views of abortion were diametrically opposed. That difference divided the electorate and it also divided church members.

On the political front:

  • Trump and his Republicans adopted an anti-abortion position, generally identified as “pro-life.”
  • Hillary Clinton and her Democrats adopted a pro-abortion position, generally identified as “pro-choice.”

On the Catholic front:

  • Members who oppose the legalization of abortion tended to line up with Trump and his Republicans.
  • Members who tended to line up with Clinton and the Democrats were a bit more diverse group. Some simply supported the continued legalization of abortion or the liberalization of any restrictions on it, including restrictions on government funding. But others called for a “consistent ethic of life” that would include ending the death penalty, focusing on social justice initiatives and extending life-protecting benefits to those in need.

Not going away

This division is not likely to dissolve on its own, especially in view of the fact that members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are discussing what, if anything, to do about President Joe Biden, the nation’s second Catholic president, who seems to value his religious faith in many respects but supports the legalization of abortion and extending its availability with federal funds.

Should bishops deny him Communion?

While that issue may not be specifically raised in a document on the Eucharist the bishops are working on for consideration at their November meeting, it’s clear that when it comes to that issue, there is no consensus among the nation’s bishops. Some have said they would deny him Communion; others have insisted they would not.

The polarization among the nation’s hierarchy is reflected in polarization among Catholic members of the nation’s electorate.

The power distance issue

But there is another issue contributing to the polarization of American Catholics, and it predates the Supreme Court’s Jan. 22, 1973 twin rulings in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that legalized abortion in the U.S.

The issue is “power distance.”

It made itself manifest most recently in the various responses we saw to Pope Francis’ apostolic letter, Traditionis Custodes, which put new restrictions on the use of the old form of the Latin Mass. That caused an uproar in some circles, as some Catholics expressed affection for the old rite and, in many instances, their dislike for the newer rite adopted after the Second Vatican Council and usually celebrated in vernacular language rather than Latin.

So what exactly is “power distance”? Simply put, it’s the extent to which less powerful members of organizations and institutions, including the family, accept and, indeed, expect unequal power distributions.

At this point in history, it has nothing to do with national politics. It’s completely focused on how the church and its official representatives relate to its members. But the issue is one that’s related to, or perhaps more correctly, mired in both civil and church culture.

A cultural perspective

An acute example of a very high power distance culture would be those in the Middle Ages where lives were organized around monarchical and feudal systems in which rulers were expected to have elaborate lifestyles, reign without restriction and never associate with the great unwashed masses.

An acute example of a very low power distance cultures would be even older hunter-gatherer tribes where leadership involved no symbols of power and, indeed, leadership freely rotated among various members depending on their particular skills and the task at hand.

Some people are more comfortable in high power distance settings; others prefer low power distance settings.

Among those who prefer high power distance cultures, the greater the distance maintained between ruler and ruled, the more powerful – and legitimate – the ruler is perceived to be. Lacking the trappings of a medieval court, for example, a leader would be perceived as less powerful.

Note the cultural dimension here. While individuals will vary with respect to their regard for greater or smaller power distance relationships, these individual tastes are deeply influenced by perspectives rooted in the prevailing culture. Out of the culture’s perspective on power distance we see the development of all manner of prescribed etiquette.

What’s regarded as “good manners” in a high power distance culture would be regarded as crazy affectations in a low power distance culture. Conversely, what’s regarded as “good manners” in a low power distance culture would be considered scandalously casual, even rude, in high power distance cultures.

The challenge of change

Challenges arise, as they have in the church, when a culture’s perspective on power distance changes dramatically in a relatively short time – as it has in the U.S.

Pre-World War II U.S. culture tended to be a high power distance culture. Political leaders might press the flesh with the common man, but that wasn’t the case with business or church leaders. They wore nicer clothes, lived in much nicer abode, drove different, bigger cars and vacationed at exclusive properties.

The differences between the few, rich and powerful, on the one hand, and the many, poor and powerless, on the other hand, were many, vivid – and largely accepted by people on both sides of the divide.

But in the post-war period, things changed dramatically. We saw the rise of a huge middle class who had more access to things that had heretofore been restricted to the landed wealthy and powerful. The number of people attending and graduating from college exploded. White collar jobs proliferated. Boundaries based on money, class and age began to dissipate.

First employees quit calling their boss “Mr. Smith.” Then children quit calling their elder “Mrs. Smith.” In no time at all, first names and even nicknames became the norm. The general culture became more informal with respect to dress, diets and recreation – you name it. By the turn of the century, the CEOs of huge companies were making it a point to appear in public without ties. Yes, even bankers.

Intimacy and authenticity were prized over formality and structure.

In just a generation or two, mainstream America transformed from a high power distance culture to a low power distance culture.

Two bishops’ tales

In case this issue of power distance still seems a bit vague to you, let me offer two concrete examples from church life.

The first bishop I went to work for was the first to be ordained a bishop using the new post-Vatican II rite. He was very much a man of the people. As a boy he hauled ice to bars for his dad. He met and liked the bar owners and their customers.

After he was ordained the diocesan bishop, he went to a meeting on the other side of his diocese. When he got to the meeting, a wealthy woman asked him where his driver was. He said he drove himself. She gasped, struggling to catch her breath. Then she gathered herself and asked where his car was. He pointed to his Chevy parked out in front. “I thought she was going to faint,” he told me later. The idea that a Catholic bishop could be driving himself around in a Chevrolet was almost too much for her to take.

Another example: A couple of decades ago our diocese received a visit from now deceased Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, MI. At his episcopal ordination in 1980, when he was just 43 years old, he had introduced himself to more than 6,000 people gathered for the occasion by saying: “My name is Ken, and I will be your waiter for a long, long time.” That set the tone for a tenure marked by informality, intimacy and equality. He sold the bishop’s residence and lived at various rectories, always hoping to move before he wore out his welcome.

As was his habit, he arrived for our conference wearing a v-neck sweater over an open-collared shirt and dark slacks. Sitting next to him was our diocesan bishop, an internationally prominent canon lawyer, who was dressed in the most formal of bishop’s attire. After our bishop introduced him, Bishop Ken, as he preferred to be called, presented a good bit of what he had to say while seated at a piano, often breaking into popular love song melodies.

Most of those gathered were captivated by his low-key, informal manner. But not all.

A few days later I was sitting at my desk as editor of the diocesan newspaper when I opened a letter from an outraged author representing a group of women who took great pride in their “orthodoxy.” Why, the woman wrote, did only one of the bishops on hand for the recent presentation “dress like a bishop”? Her words boiled over with indignation, disappointment and outraged anger. She wanted everyone in the diocese to hear her tale of woe.

High power distance laywoman, meet low power distance bishop. Ka-boom!

A confession

Speaking personally, I’m a low power distance kind of guy. I tend to accord authority to people with whom I can get up close and personal. I think I got this preference growing up at home. We took pride in our “shanty Irish” heritage. My dad made a point of drilling into us that we could learn from everyone – and if we hadn’t yet, we just hadn’t paid enough attention.

We were taught to be polite, but never to grovel.

An exception was made – and likely shared by all the other Irish in the world – for our clergy and women religious, men and women “of the cloth.” We accorded them whatever deference they expected. No questions asked. Or at least that was the instruction.

But an issue arose soon after we got our first television set. I was in the second grade. My mom and I were watching a news clip of the pope. (That’s Pope Pius XXII, by the way.) He was making his way around a room full of admirers, clad in an ermine trimmed cloak and riding in a fancy cart borne on the shoulders of men.

The people there seemed to love it, cheering with all their might. I was stunned. Flabbergasted. Scandalized! My sense of saintly men skewed toward images of Jesus dressed in a simple robe, wearing sandals, up close with and on the same level as other people. Seeing Pope Pius XII being borne on a chair with a canopy, carried on the shoulders of other human beings, was disturbing … dismaying. Reluctantly, I shared my confusion and dismay with my mom.

She was gentle with both of us. The pope got a pass, she indicated, because that’s just the way things are done with popes. Besides, Europe was different than midwestern America. Different things were accepted – and acceptable – there. I should just be fine with it. And thankfully she didn’t chastise me for my first ever criticism of a cleric.

It was post-World War II America and things were changing – fast.

Our changing perspective

But it would still be a long time before public admiration was heaped on a pope for being kind or gentle or down-to-earth. Dear old roly-poly Pope John XXIII probably got that trolly rolling. Then a young, vigorous, jet setting Pope (now saint) John Paul II kept the focus on more informal symbols of authentic power. He was dynamic. He skied. And he was pictured in skiing apparel. Oh dear. Can you believe it? A pope on skis!

Over the years, I’ve learned that I value intimacy in all matters sacred and secular. I’ve had many opportunities to worship among huge crowds in grand edifices, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But my fondest memories of celebrating Mass -- and the times when I felt the mystery of the Eucharist most deeply -- have been in small, informal gatherings in bare rooms or homes, with simple music, often acapella.

My best experience of parish community was in a small group approved by our bishop for experimental liturgy right after Vatican II. We owned no property, rented a basement room in a Catholic orphanage and recruited priests for our weekly Masses. We set up folding chairs in a circle and often had dialogue homilies. We sang simple folk melodies accompanied by a guitar. My spirit soared.

We also had a softball team, an annual weekend campout, and frequent parties in members’ homes. The atmosphere was always warm, friendly and informal. We came to collective decisions by loving consensus. It worked. It really engaged us.

But I know that’s not for everyone.

In fact, we were reminded every week because we shared a parking lot with other Catholics who carried missals, always dressed up -- the men in ties and white shirts, never pastels. They quickly walked past our simple room on their way to the orphanage’s large chapel, where they somberly celebrated the Mass in Latin.

Which way forward?

When Pope Francis issued his apostolic letter restricting celebration of the old Latin Mass, I saw and heard a heap of sentiment expressing appreciation for the trappings of large power distance settings and relationships.

  • The old Latin Mass is “more reverent.”
  • The music is “more sacred.”
  • With the priest facing away from the people, up high, as if leading them toward union with God, the focus is more on the divine and less on the community.
  • The whole ritual is more special because it is more removed from everyday life.

Related to these issues are others:

  • Should people come to Mass in their “Sunday best” or their everyday garb?
  • Should we stand or kneel at the Consecration or when receiving Communion?
  • Should we receive the Eucharist in our hand or on our tongue?
  • Should we sit or kneel after receiving Communion?
  • Should we limit our music to old hymns played on an organ or should we embrace jazz, folk and rock, with guitars – maybe even cymbals, drums and horns?

Each option has its constituency.

But power distance disparity in today’s church is not limited to disagreements over the preferred rite or atmosphere of worship.

As America becomes ever more a low power distance culture, some elements of the church are pulling back.

  • When surveys indicated that many American Catholics did not make a distinction between a Mass and a Communion Service, we started to see more parishes close and fewer of them being administered by permanent deacons, women religious and laymen.
  • When bishops sensed that the distinction between clergy and laity was diminishing – and it might even be adversely affecting the number of priestly vocations occurring – we started to see more restrictions on when and where the laity could be on the altar during Mass.
  • While evangelical Protestantism is raising up a legion of young, hip ministers leading worship service in jeans, sometimes holey jeans, I notice more young priests always wearing clerical collars and often wearing cassocks wherever they go.

The big choice

As the future unfolds, power distance issues will be with us. The choice, in a word, is whether our focus should be on separating or integrating?

Rest assured, there will always be those who prefer high power distance relationships – who would not only be comfortable but also reassured in a medieval court, who would rather kiss a ring than shake a hand or share a hug, who actually welcome opportunities to defer on the basis of elaborate trappings of positional power, trappings for which they are more than happy to pay.

These things speak to them of solidity, of security, of stable certainty. And these people will always be with us.

But as I read the signs of the times, I’m betting jeans will trump cassocks and moral authority will make its way flesh to flesh, accompanied by warm smiles, back slaps and embraces.

The question for me: Will we as church be there for one another, just person to person, in the grace of the moment?

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