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From left to right: Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Bishop Wilton Gregory, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Cardinal Blase Cupich, and another bishop

June 14, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) – Why can’t 40 Days for Life in my home town get any support from our local bishop? Why does Florida Bishop Robert Lynch interpret the terrible shootings there the very same way the Huffington Post and other enemies of the Faith do? Why did British generals sacrifice many soldiers’ lives with frontal attacks on the Western Front in the First World War?

Curiously, an answer to all these questions may be found in a single book, a 1976 masterpiece called On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, written by a psychologist named Norman Dixon who saw plenty of examples while serving in the British Army in the Second World War as a military engineer.

Interestingly, commentators like to focus on Dixon’s enumeration of the characteristics of bad leadership while ignoring what is the heart of Dixon’s book: “the psychology” of why military organizations promote into high command people incapable of the clear thinking and bold, confident, decisive action their positions require. Dixon said incompetent generals were often physically courageous under fire, but lacked the moral courage to develop unconventional winning strategies and tactics and to take risks.

These smooth, plump men did not sign on for combat, did not sign on for marches, for vigils, for interrogations in courtrooms or for jail terms. As priests they were instantly deferred to and respected by their own flocks. As bishops they get even more of that from their faithful, plus real palaces. But they now find themselves targets for attacks from society at large.

That’s true of a lot of people, of course, but those people should certainly not be generals, right?…Or bishops?

Dixon, however, explained why so many are, by distinguishing between two kinds of leadership personalities: the autocrat, and the authoritarian.

The brilliant British Admiral Horatio Nelson typified the autocrat: he was unconventional, supremely confident in his own judgement and never hesitated to act on it—even though experience taught him he was sometimes mistaken. Nelson wanted above all to get his assigned task done—to destroy his enemies and protect his country—and he did what it took to attain it, with great success. The equally brilliant Napoleon was cut from the same cloth as was his greatest adversary on land, the Duke of Wellington. They rose to and stayed at the top in time of war, significantly, when incompetence was soon exposed and punished.

But what of the authoritarian? What are his characteristics and why do authoritarians rise within military and ecclesial bureaucacies?

The authoritarian, says Dixon, is the opposite of self-confident. He (or she) is unsure about his self-worth, especially his worthiness for high command. How does he get to generalship then? By riding upwards on the coat-tails of an autocrat, as a competent assistant and second-in command, as an efficient carrier out of the wise orders of a good general, and then by stepping into the leader’s shoes upon his retirement or death.

Unfortunately, he may rise in peacetime when his good qualities suit a bureaucracy well, but end up at the top when his country goes to war, when his virtues become vices. Hence the string of military disasters characterising British land – but not naval – warfare in the early years of the world wars.

Authoritarians like being leaders not because they think they can do a better job than anyone else, but because holding the position resolves their uncertainty about their deservedness. Such a path to promotion makes more sense in peace, when leaders must manage their armies, their ships, their bureaucracies or their archdioceses with a minimum of fuss, conflict and publicity. But now we have a war. The enemy approaches. Should the general send out an army, risking all on a single throw of the die, or keep the army at home to protect the base at—say—Singapore?

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Every alternative presents itself as an opportunity for failure. After all, the authoritarian already has reached the top. There isn’t as much upside to defeating the enemy as there is downside to defeat. So the authoritarian—incompetent—general may do nothing at all or he may do too little. He may do a little bit of everything so that no one could criticise him for failing to do anything. He sends some troops north to oppose the enemy but keeps most at home. He doesn’t warn the civilian population to build bomb shelters because he doesn’t want to admit there may soon be air attacks. He wants to be popular. He does not want to win so much as to avoid being criticised. The general who is not motivated by the desire to win is less likely to do so than the general who is.

This makes me think of many bishops. They rose through the ranks when Christians and Catholics were still popular, respected and even powerful. They took their leadership positions in large, military-like hierarchical organizations with the responsibility to preserve these organizations, not risk them—in other words, in peacetime.

For these men, there is no upside, no chance of a decisive victory over evil, secularism or social change—only the downside of unpopularity, criticism and conflict with society’s trendsetters and thought leaders, and quite possibly with civil authorities, quite possibly lawsuits and nasty headlines. If they are in Europe, they enjoy huge salaries on the government's tab.

These smooth, plump men did not sign on for combat, did not sign on for marches, for vigils, for interrogations in courtrooms or for jail terms. As priests they were instantly deferred to and respected by their own flocks. As bishops they get even more of that from their faithful, plus real palaces. But they now find themselves targets for attacks from society at large. They are tasked with feeding their sheep at the same time as defending Christianity’s politically incorrect teachings on homosexuality, abortion and transgenderism, and Catholicism’s particular teachings on a male-only priesthood, divorce and in vitro fertilization.

We should not be surprised that many balk at the second assignment. Aiming for maximum popularity, in the U.S. some adopt positions identical with the Democratic Party, winning for themselves a few years of media approval but guaranteeing the long-term irrelevance of their once-powerful institutions.

An army or a navy that refuses to leave its base is one that is ultimately ineffective. The generals, admirals – or bishops – who are responsible for such inaction are by definition incompetent. For bishops who desire  popularity with the people they should be opposing, this approaches treason.

I have a friend who, when I challenged him on abortion, replied smugly, “I am pro-life and pro-choice.” But all he really meant was, “I wish people on both sides of this issue to like me as much as I like myself.” So for many of our bishops.


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