Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

What in the world is wrong with our leaders?

This is a question twenty-first-century Americans must continually ask themselves. Since the officially hidden abuses of Cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick were made manifest last summer, it has become an especially acute question for American Catholics. Their—and as a confirmed Catholic layman, I can also say “our”—leaders have once again covered themselves in disgrace.

The story is by now famous. While waiting last Friday afternoon for their bus home after the March for Life, roughly thirty students from the all-male Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Kentucky, found themselves in an incident—altercation is far too strong a term—with American Indian Movement activists in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Saturday morning, less than twelve hours after a 60-second video of the event was posted anonymously on Twitter, the Diocese of Covington and the administration of Covington Catholic High School released a joint statement condemning their own children, their parishioners, their flock. The statement barely offered justification for the censure, pointing vaguely toward untold violations of the “dignity and respect of the human person.” Later that morning the Archdiocese of Cincinnati lamented the boys’ “unfortunate & regrettable” behavior while anticipating “an important teachable moment” for them. Saturday afternoon Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville personally piled on, citing the Covington boys’ “shameful act of disrespect” and expressing total confidence in the Bishop of Covington to do the right thing. As late as Sunday morning, the Archdiocese of Baltimore felt the need to join the fray against Covington Catholic High School by condemning “disrespect” and insisting on “dignity.”

In the heat of the Twitter moment, it seems none of these Catholic leaders gave a thought to whether their own children might deserve respect and dignity. Why not? Cravenness can certainly explain a good deal of what American Catholics have witnessed from their leaders this past week. Yet there is more here to be unpacked. Catholic school principals, bishops, and archbishops are not only Catholic leaders. They are members of the American elite, its professional-managerial class that commands the heights of the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural institutions. Simply because they are Catholic does not mean they do not swim in the sea of class doctrines and dogmas. Neither does Catholic belief separate them from conforming to the cultural and moral ideals of that elite.

Today those ideals are realized in the character of the therapeutic manager. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre defines a “character” as the internalization and embodiment of the values of a social order. Characters—by which MacIntyre evokes both the ethical and the theatrical meaning of the word—are “the moral representatives of their culture.” In the fusion of personality and role, the character “morally legitimates a mode of social existence.”

The therapeutic manager is the moral representative of our society, embodying the ideals of self-realization and social control so dear to the hearts of our elites. The therapeutic manager is the woke CEO who believes the purpose of his firm is to “promot[e] positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man” (Gillette), to “facilitate a conversation between [employees] and customers” about American race relations (Starbucks), and to inform the country that “love is love” (Walgreens). Therapeutic managers believe they are charged (by History?) with a mission to harmonize diversity with excellence, reconcile elitism with egalitarianism, and ensure both individual freedom and intimate community flourish without contradiction. Through therapeutic practices of listening, controlling negative emotions, developing empathy and cooperation skills, teamwork, mindfulness practices, and communication workshops, they believe they can do it.

Who but a bigot could oppose such a project and such a society? Thus the therapeutic manager is always scanning the horizon for dangerous acts of “hate”: cultural appropriation, sexism, racism, heteronormativity, transphobia. These are the emotional sources of disorder upsetting the harmonious whole, which is the therapeutic manager’s raison d’être. What Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call “safetyism” is written into the therapeutic manager's DNA. To eradicate social conflict through psychological control is the very foundation of his claim to effectiveness and legitimacy.

The line between a therapeutic CEO and a therapeutic bishop is vanishingly thin. By Tuesday, January 22, Catholic leaders began backtracking their earlier condemnations. Bishop Roger Joseph Foys of Covington spoke less as a shepherd than as a therapeutic manager when he said, “We pray that we may come to the truth and that this unfortunate situation may be resolved peacefully and amicably.” He announced the beginning of an “independent, third-party investigation” into the matter, and declared there would be “no further statements until the investigation is complete.” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of neighboring Louisville could only echo the managerial cant, lamenting “the regrettable polarization in our Church and in our society” while offering vaguely to “reach out and respond to those who were impacted by these events and media reports.”

This is even worse than cravenness. Many have suggested that Principal Rowe, Bishop Foys, and Archbishop Kurtz simply lacked moral courage. Yet these men also lived out our elite’s moral ideal by condemning their own children in the interest of self-realization and social order. Perhaps they rushed to judgment not so much out of fear as out of fidelity to an ideal of character—an ideal foreign to Catholic Christianity but quite at home in a rival church.

Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage.

Photo by Festival of Faiths via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles