Dominican Freedom and Responsibility. Towards a Spirituality of Government (1)
Rome,10 May 1997, Feast of St Antoninus OP
fr. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.
Dominic, a man of freedom and government
Dominic fascinates us by his freedom. It was the freedom of the poor itinerant preacher, the freedom to found an Order unlike any that had existed before. He was free to scatter the fragile little community which he gathered around him and send them to the Universities, and free to accept the decisions of brothers in Chapter, even when he disagreed with them. It was the freedom of the compassionate person, who dared to see and to respond.
The Order has always flourished when we have lived with Dominic’s freedom of heart and mind. How can we renew today the freedom that is properly and deeply Dominican? It has many dimensions: a simplicity of life, itinerancy, prayer. In this letter I wish to focus on just one pillar of our freedom, which is good government. I am convinced, after visitating so many Provinces of the Order, that typical Dominican freedom finds expression in our way of government. Dominic did not leave us a spirituality embodied in a collection of sermons or theological texts. Instead we have inherited from him and those earliest friars, a form of government that frees us to respond with compassion to those who hunger for the Word of God. When we offer our lives for the preaching of the gospel, we take in our hands the book of the Rule and Constitutions. Most of those Constitutions are concerned with government.
This may appear surprising. In contemporary culture, it is usually assumed that government is about control, about limiting the freedom of the individual. Indeed many Dominicans may be tempted to think that freedom lies in evading the control of meddlesome superiors! But our Order is not divided into “the governors” and “the governed”. Rather government enables us to share a common responsibility for our life and mission. Government is at the basis of our fraternity. It forms us as brothers, free to be “useful for the salvation of souls” . When we accept a brother into the Order we express our confidence that he will be capable of taking his place in the government of his community and province, and that he will contribute to our debates and help us to arrive at and implement fruitful decisions.
The temptation of our age is towards fatalism, the belief that faced with the problems of our world we can do nothing. This passivity can infect religious life too. We share Dominic’s freedom when we are so moved by the urgency to preach the gospel that we dare to take difficult decisions, whether to undertake a new initiative, close a community or endure in an apostolate that is hard. For this freedom, good government is necessary. The opposite of government is not freedom but paralysis.
In this letter I will not try to make detailed observations about the application of the Constitutions. That is the responsibility of the General Chapters. Rather I wish to suggest how our Constitutions touch some of the deepest aspects of our religious life: our fraternity and our mission. It is not enough simply to apply the Constitutions as if they were a set of rules. We need to develop what might be called a spirituality of government, so that through it we grow together as brothers and preachers.
These comments will be based upon my experience of government by the brethren. So what I have to say will not always be applicable to the other branches of the Dominican Family. I hope, however, that it will be helpful for our nuns, sisters and laity as you face analagous challenges.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father” (John 1.14). These words of John will help to structure these very simple reflections on government. It may seem absurd to take such a rich theological text as the basis of an exploration of government. I wish to show how the challenge of good government is to make flesh among us that grace and truth.
1. The Word that comes among us is “full of grace and truth”.
The first section of the letter reflects upon the purpose of all government, which is that we be liberated for the preaching of the gospel. All government in the Order has the common mission as its goal.
2. This Word “dwells among us”.
In the second section of the letter, we consider the fundamental principles of Dominican government. Central to our practice of government is that we meet in chapter, engage in debate, vote and take decisions. But these meetings will be nothing more than mere administration at the best, and party politics at the worst, unless they belong to our welcoming of the Word of God who would make his home among us. Government needs to be nourished by lived fraternity.
3. This Word of God became flesh.
Finally, this beautiful theory of government must become flesh in the complex reality of our lives, in our priories, provinces and the whole Order. In the last section I will share a few observations on the relationship between the different levels of responsibility in the Order.
1. The Word was made flesh, “full of grace and truth”
The purpose of Dominican Government
1.1 Freedom for the mission
In St Catherine’s vision the Father says of Dominic, “He took the task of the Word, my only begotten Son. Clearly he appeared as an apostle in the world, with such truth and light did he sow my word, dispelling the darkness and giving light.” All government within the Order has as its goal the bringing forth of the Word of God, the prolongation of the Incarnation. The test of good government is whether it is at the service of this mission. That is why, from the beginning of the Order a superior has had the power of dispensation from our laws, “especially when it seems to him to be expedient in those matters which seem to impede study, preaching or the good of souls” .
Fundamental to the life of the brethren is that we gather in Chapter, whether conventual, provincial or general, to take decisions about our lives and mission. From the beginning of the Order we have arrived at these decisions democratically, by debate leading to voting. But what makes this democratic process properly Dominican is that we are not merely seeking to discover what is the will of the majority, but what are the needs of the mission. To what mission are we sent? The Fundamental Constitution of the Order makes quite explicit this link between our democratic government and the response to needs of the mission: “This communitarian form of government is particularly suitable for the Order’s development and frequent renewal ... This continual revision of the Order is necessary, not only on account of a spirit of perennial Christian conversion, but also on account of the special vocation of the Order which impels it to accommodate its presence in the world for each generation” (VII).
Our democratic institutions enable us to grasp responsibility or to evade it. We are free to take decisions that may turn our lives upside down, or we may settle for inertia. We can elect superiors who may dare to ask more of us than we feel we may give, or we choose a brother who will leave us in peace. But let us be clear about this: our democracy is only Dominican if our debating and voting is an attempt to hear the Word of God summoning us to walk in the way of discipleship.
Every institution can be tempted to make its perpetuation its ultimate aim. A company that makes cars does not exist out of a compassionate desire to respond to humanity’s need for cars, but so that the organisation may itself expand and grow. We too may fall into this trap, and especially if we talk about our own institutions in terms which derive from the world of business: the provincial and council may become “The Administration”, and the syndic the “Business Manager”! The brethren may even be referred to as “personnel”. What mother, announcing the birth of a new child, says that the personnel of the family has increased? But our institutions exist for another purpose, outside ourselves, which is to mobilise the brethren for the mission.
There is a story told in The Lives of the Brethren, of how a great lawyer in Vercelli came running to Jordan of Saxony, threw himself down before him, and all he could say was “I belong to God”. Jordan replied “Since you belong to God, in His name we make you over to Him”. Each brother is a gift from God, but he is given to us so that we may give him away, in forming him for the mission and freeing him to preach.
The beginning of all good government is attentiveness, listening together for the Word of God, opening our ears to the needs of the people. In a thirteenth-century Dominican blessing, the brethren prayed for the Holy Spirit, “to enlighten us and give us eyes to see with, ears to hear with, and hands to do the work of God with, and a mouth to preach the word of salvation with, and the angel of peace to watch over us and lead us at last, by our Lord’s gift, to the Kingdom.”. Whenever we gather in Council or Chapter, we pray for the Holy Spirit, that we may have eyes to see and ears to hear, but what we see and hear may well summon us where we would rather not go. Compassion may turn our lives upside down.
And if mission is the end of all government, then what is its beginning? Surely it is that “we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father”. If government is the exercise of responsibility, then this ultimately expresses our response to the one who has revealed his glory to us. Contemplation of the only begotten Son is the root of all mission, and so the mainspring of all government. Without this stillness there is no movement. All government brings us from contemplation to mission. Without it, then we practise mere administration.
1.2 The task of government is the common mission
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. The Word of salvation gathers us together into communion, in the Trinity and with each other. In that Word we find our true freedom, which is the freedom to belong to each other in grace and truth. The good news that we preach is that we may find our home in the life of the Triune God.
If the preaching of the gospel is the summons to communion, then the preacher can never be a solitary person, engaged just in his or her mission. All of our preaching is a sharing in a common task, the invitation to belong in the common home. If the end of government in the Order is the mission of preaching, then its principal challenge is in gathering the brethren into the common mission, the mission of the Order and of the Church. The disciples are not sent out alone.
Nothing so cripples good government as an individualism, by which a brother may become so wedded to “my project”, “my apostolate”, that he ceases to be available for the common mission of the Order. This privatisation of the preaching not only makes it hard for us to evolve and sustain common projects. More radically it may offer a false image of the salvation to which we are called, unity in grace and truth. Ultimately it is a surrender to a false image of what it means to be truly human: the solitary individual whose freedom is that of self-determination, liberated from the interference of others.
One of the principal challenges of government is to refuse to let the common mission of the Order be paralysed by such an individualism. That freedom of Dominic, which we think of as so characteristic of the Order, is not the freedom to plough our own furrow, free from the intervention of superiors. It is the freedom to give ourselves, without reserve, with the mad generosity of the Word made flesh.
Some forms of preaching the gospel cannot be easily shared. For example, a brother or sister who preaches through writing poetry, through painting, or even through research, may often have to labour alone. Even then we must show that they are not just “doing their own thing”, that they too are contributing to common mission. The Order is most often alive when it harnesses the dynamism of the brethren. Sometimes the most liberating thing that a superior can do is to command a brother to do what he most deeply wishes and is able to do. Sometimes the common mission may demand of us that we accept tasks we would not have chosen, that we give up a cherished apostolate for the common good. We need not only preachers and pastors, but bursars and secretaries, superiors and administrators. But this too is part of the preaching of that Word who gathers us into community.
2. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us
The basic principles of Dominican government
The Constitutions tell us that “the primary reason why we are gathered together is that we may dwell in unity, and that there may be in us one mind and one heart in God” (LCO 2.i). This may appear to contradict the fundamental purpose of the Order, which is that we are sent out to preach the Word of God. In fact it is a healthy and necessary tension which has always marked Dominican life. For the grace and truth that we are sent to preach we must live together, otherwise we will have nothing to say. The common mission which we share is grounded in the common life we live.
This tension is found in our government. For if the end of all government is that the brethren be freed for preaching, yet it is founded on our fraternity. Unless we seek to live together in unity of heart and mind, then our democracy will fail. In her vision, the Father says to St Catherine that the ship of St Dominic is one in which “both the perfect and the not-so-perfect fare well.” The Order is a home for sinners. And this means that to build good government, it is never enough just to apply the Constitutions, to hold Chapters, to vote and take decisions. T S Eliot tells us of people who are “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good”. Our system of government ultimately is grounded upon a search for virtue. The flesh must become word and communion, and the mixed group of individuals that we are a community.
2.1 Power, Authority and Responsibility
Good government depends upon a right living of our relationships of power, authority and responsibility. It may seem strange that I do not include a section on obedience. This is because I have already written about obedience at length in my Letter to the Order “Vowed to Mission”. This letter will be quite long enough without my repeating what I have written elsewhere! Also, virtually all that I write in this letter about government comments upon the implications of our vow of obedience, through which we give ourselves unconditionally to the common mission of the Order.
Our common life confronts us inevitably with the question of power. We do not usually like to speak of power, unless we feel that it is being misused. The word seems almost inappropriate for the relationship of brotherhood which unites us. Yet every human community is marked by relationships of power, and Dominican communities are not exempt. When we make profession we place ourselves into the hands of the brethren. Our brethren will take decisions about our lives that we may not welcome, and which we may even feel are unjust. We may be assigned to places to which we do not wish to go, or elected to positions of responsibility which we do not wish to hold.
Every brother has power, by what he says or does not say, and by what he does or does not do. All the issues we shall address in this letter - the democracy of the chapter, voting, the relationship of the different levels of government in the Order - all explore aspects of the power that we all have in our relationships with one another. And if our preaching is to have power then we must live these relationships of power openly, healthily and in accordance with the gospel.
The life of Jesus shows a paradoxical relationship to power. He was the man of powerful words, who summoned the disciples to follow him, who healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead and dared to confront the religious authorities of his time. And yet he was the powerless one who refused the protection of the sword of Peter, and who was hung upon a cross.
With this strong and vulnerable man, power was always healing, and life-giving. It never cast down, diminished, made little, destroyed. It was not a power over people, so much as a power that he gave to them. Indeed he was most powerful precisely in refusing to be a channel of violence, in bearing it in his body, in letting it stop with him. He took his passion and death into his own hands, and made it fruitful, a gift, Eucharist.
Good government in our communities demands that we live relationships of power in this way, granting power to our brothers rather than undermining them. This demands of us the courage to be vulnerable. Josef Pieper wrote, “Fortitude presumes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. An angel cannot be courageous because it is not vulnerable. To be brave means to be ready to sustain a wound. Since human beings are substantially vulnerable, then we can be courageous.” Our government invites to live such a courageous vulnerability.
All government is dependent upon the exercise of authority. The fact that the supreme authority of the Order is the General Chapter is a recognition of the fact that for us authority is granted to all the brethren. The sequence of our General Chapters, of diffinitors and provincials, suggests that for us authority is multifaceted. Superiors enjoy authority in virtue of their office; theologians and thinkers by virtue of their knowledge; brothers engaged in pastoral apostolates enjoy authority because of their contact with people in their struggle to live the faith; the older brothers enjoy authority because of their experience; younger brethren have an authority which comes from their knowledge of the contemporary world with its questions.
Good government works well when we acknowledge and respect the authority that each brother has, and refuse to absolutise any single form of authority. If we were to make absolute the authority of superiors, the Order would cease to be a fraternity; if we were to absolutise the authority of the thinkers, then we would become just a strange academic institution; if we were to absolutise the authority of the pastors, then we would betray our mission in the Church; if we were to make indisputable the authority of the old, then we would have no future; if we were to give authority only to the young, then we would have no roots. The health of our government depends on allowing the interplay of all the voices that make up our community.
Furthermore, we are part of the Dominican Family. This means that we also are called to be attentive to the voice of our nuns, sisters and laity. They too must have authority in our deliberations. The nuns have an authority which derives from lives dedicated to contemplation; our sisters have an authority which comes from their lives as women with a vast variety of pastoral experience. Often they can teach us much through their closeness to the people of God, especially the poor. Increasingly too, there are sisters who have a theological training who have much to teach us. The laity have an authority because of their different experiences, knowledge, and sometimes marriage and parenthood. Part of what we offer to the Church lies in being a community in which each of those authorities should be recognised.
All government is the exercise of our shared responsibility for the life and mission of the Order. Its foundation is the confidence that we should have in each other. When St Dominic sent out the young friars to preach, the Cistercians were scandalised at his confidence in them, and he told them “I know, I know for certain, that my young men will go out and come back, will be sent out and will return; but your young men will be kept locked up and will still go out”.
The aim of all our formation is to form brethren who are free and responsible, and that is why the Constitutions say that the person who has primary responsibility for his formation is the candidate himself (LCO 156). Our government is founded upon a trust in the brethren. We show our trust in accepting a brother for profession; that same trust is present in the election of superiors. Superiors too must trust the brethren whom they appoint to posts of responsibility. Sometimes we will be disappointed, but that is no reason to renounce that fundamental mutual confidence. As Simon Tugwell OP wrote, “In the last analysis, if Dominicans are to do their job properly, they have got to be exposed to certain hazards, and they have got to be trusted to cope with them - and the Order as a whole has got to accept that some, perhaps many, individuals will abuse this trust” .
Such a trust demands that we overcome fear, fear of what may happen if the brethren are not controlled! We must form the brethren to live with that freedom of Dominic. As Felicísimo Martínez OP says, “There is no greater service to a person than to educate him or her to freedom ... The fear of freedom may be rooted in the good-will of those who feel responsible for others, and it can be legitimated by an appeal to realism, but this makes it no less a lack of faith in the vigour and force of the Christian experience. Fear and the lack of faith always go hand in hand”.
Fear destroys all good government. St Catherine wrote to Pope Gregory XI, “I desire to see you free of any servile fear, for I am aware that the fearful person does not persevere in the strength of holy resolution and good desire. ... Father, get up courageously, because I tell you, there is nothing to fear!” Fear is servile, and therefore is incompatible with our status as the children of God, and brothers and sisters of each other. It is above all wrong in a superior, who is called to help his brothers grow in confidence and fearlessness.
But this confidence that we have in each other is not an excuse for mutual neglect. Because I have confidence in my brother, it does not mean that I can forget about him and let him just go his own way. If good government gives us shared responsibility, then it is rooted in the mutual responsibility that we are called to have for each other. When we make profession we place our hands in those of a brother. It is a gesture of extraordinary vulnerability and tenderness. We hand our life over to our brothers, and we do not know what they will do with it. We are in each other’s hands.
The Lives of the Brethren tell us about a certain Tedalto whose vocation passed through a hard time. “Everything that he saw and felt seemed like the second death to him.” He had joined the Order as a pleasant and calm man, but now he had become so bad tempered that he even hit the subprior with the Psalter. This is an experience that we have all had! Even though we may consider that Tedalto should never have been accepted into the Order, Jordan of Saxony refused to give up on him, and prayed with him until his heart was healed. In accepting a brother for profession we accept a responsibility for him, for his happiness and flourishing. His vocation is our common concern.
Do we always fight for our brother’s vocation? If a brother passes through a time of crisis, do I look the other way? Do I pretend that respect for his privacy can justify my negligence? Am I afraid to hear the doubts that he may share with me? I hope that if ever I am driven to hitting the subprior with the breviary, then my brothers will have care for me! Also I must have the confidence, in times of crisis, to share with my brethren, confident of their understanding and mercy.
As preachers of the Word made flesh, we have a special responsibility for the words that we speak. The Word must become flesh above all in the words of “grace and truth”. The Primitive Constitutions ordain that the novice-master must teach the novices “never to speak about people who are absent except to speak well of them”. (I. 13) This is not a pious squeamishness, which flies from facing the reality of what our brethren are actually like. It is an invitation to speak words of “grace”, a recognition of the power of our words to hurt, to destroy, to subvert and undermine our brothers.
It is just as much a challenge to learn to speak words of truth. Fundamental to our democracy is that we dare to speak truthfully to each other, that we dare to bring to word the tensions and conflicts that hurt the common life and impede the common mission. If we do so, then often it may be with anyone except the brother concerned. If we are disturbed by the behaviour of our brother, then we must dare to talk truthfully with him, gently and fraternally. Chapter is not always the first place in which to do so this. We must dare to knock on his door and speak alone with him (Matt 18.15). We must take the time to speak to each other, especially those from whom we are estranged. Communication in the Chapter will depend upon a vast labour of communication outside. If we make that effort, then we will have strengthened the fraternity between us so that hard questions can be addressed together. Then we will be able to have those open debates about our common life, about how we fail and can grow, which were the aim of the old Chapter of faults. The General Chapter of Caleruega (43,2) makes some excellent recommendations as to how this may happen today.
One of the signs that there is confidence in the brethren is when we are prepared to elect them to positions of responsibility even when they are young or inexperienced. Jordan was chosen to be Provincial of Lombardy when he was just over a year in the Order, and Master after two years. What an extraordinary sign of trust in a man who today would not even have made solemn profession. Sometimes in the Order we may find older men hanging on to responsibility, perhaps out of fear for what the young may do and where they may take us. And often these “young” are not so very young anyway, certainly old enough to be fathers of families and hold important positions in the secular world. Sometimes they are even not much younger than I am! But our formation and mode of government should make us dare to entrust our lives to brothers who will take us we know not where. At profession a brother may place his hands in ours. But accepting him, as a brother with a voice and vote, means that we too have placed ours in his.
When I was asked during a television interview in France what was central to our spirituality, I was almost as surprised as the interviewer when I replied “democracy”. Yet it is central to our lives. To be a brother is to have a voice and a vote. Yet we do not have votes merely as groups of private individuals, seeking compromise decisions that will leave each person with as much private freedom as possible. Our democracy should express our brotherhood. It is one expression of our unity in Christ, a single body.
Democracy for us is more than voting to discover what is the will of the majority. It also involves discovering what is the will of God. Our attentiveness to our brother is an expression of that obedience to the Father. This attentiveness demands intelligence. Alas, God does not always speak clearly through my brother. Indeed sometimes what he says is evidently wrong! Yet, at the heart of our democracy is the conviction that even when what he says is foolish and mistaken, yet there is some grain of truth waiting to be rescued. However much I may disagree with him, he is able to teach me something. Learning to hear: that is an exercise in imagination and intelligence. I must dare to doubt my own position, to open myself to his questions, to become vulnerable to his doubts. It is an act of charity, born of a passion for truth. It indeed is the best preparation to be a preacher of “grace and truth”.
Fergus Kerr OP, in his sermon for the opening of the Chapter of the English Province in 1996, said:
“If there is one thing we should surely manage to do at a chapter it is to demonstrate this commitment to look for the truth, to listen to what we can agree with in what we disagree with, to save what is true in what other people think ... What I prize more and more the longer I am in the Order ... is a way of thinking - of expecting other people to have views we may disagree with; expecting also to be able to understand why they believe what they do - if only we have the imagination, the courage, the faith in the ultimate power of truth, the charity, to listen to what others say, to listen especially for what they are afraid of when they seem reluctant to accept what we want them to see: there are many ways of finding the truth, but that is one way that I hope the Order of Preachers will always try to practise”.
This beloved democracy of ours takes time. It is time that we owe each other. It can be boring. Few people find long meetings as boring as I do. It is not efficient. I do not believe that we will ever be one of the most efficient Orders in the Church, and it would be wrong for us to seek to be so! Thanks be to God there are more efficient Orders than ours. Thanks be to God that we do not seek to emulate them. A certain efficiency is necessary if we are not to lose our freedom through paralysis. But if we make efficiency our goal, then we may undermine that freedom which is our gift to the Church. Our tradition of giving each brother a voice and a vote is not always the most efficient at arriving at the best decisions, but it is a witness to evangelical values that we offer to the Church, and which the Church needs now more than ever.
The aim of this dialogue in our Chapters is that the community should attain unanimity. This is not always possible. Then we must arrive at a decision through a vote. One of the most delicate responsibilities of a superior is to judge the time when there must be a vote. He must bring the brethren as near to an unanimity as possible, without waiting so long that a community is left paralysed by indecision.
When we come to a vote, the aim is not to win. Voting in a chapter is utterly different from in a parliament or a senate. Voting, like debate, belongs to the process whereby we seek to discern what is required by “the common good”. The purpose of voting is not to determine whether my will, or that of the other brethren, will triumph, but to discover what the building of the community and the mission of the Order requires.
Voting, in our tradition, is not a contest between groups, but the fruit of an attentiveness to what all the brethren have said. As far as possible, without betraying any fundamental convictions, I should seek to vote for proposals that reflect the concerns, fears and hopes of all the brethren, not just the majority. Otherwise I may indeed “win”, but the community will lose. In politics one’s vote expresses one’s allegiance to a party. For us, voting expresses who we are, brethren given to the common mission of the Order.
It follows that the result of a vote is the decision of the community, and not just of those who voted in its favour. It is the community that has arrived at a decision. I am free to disagree with the result, and even eventually to campaign for its reversal, but I express my identity as a member of the community by implementing the decision. To trust in the simple majority vote was a profound innovation of the Dominican tradition. Previously the choice of the superior had either been through consensus, or the decision of the “wiser” brethren. It was considered too risky to trust the majority. For us it is an expression of our confidence in the brethren.
Never is this more so than in the election of superiors. It is natural that with like-minded brethren one will discuss who might be a good superior, but it would be contrary to the nature of our democracy for a brother to be presented as the “candidate” of a party. Therefore I am doubtful as to whether it is appropriate to approach a brother beforehand to ask whether he is prepared to “stand” as a candidate. It is of course helpful to know whether a brother would accept or refuse an election, but there is the danger of him being seen as the candidate of a group, and of accepting election as its representative. Also, few brethren who would be good superiors would ever wish to be candidates, though they may be more likely to accept election as an act of obedience to their brothers. To look for candidates who express their willingness to be superiors may well lead us not to choose the brethren most suited to office.
A superior is elected to serve all the brethren, for the common good of the Order. His election is the result of a vote that “we” have made, regardless of for whom we voted. And once he is elected he needs the support of the whole community, for we have elected him regardless of how I individually voted. We have prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before we voted, and we must trust that guidance has indeed been given.
One of the most solemn responsibilities that our democracy may require of us is to vote for the admittance to the Order of candidates, and for the profession of our brothers. It is a beautiful expression of our common responsibility. Here we vote as a search for the truth, as part of a process of discerning whether the brother is called by God to share our life. It can never be an expression of party politics, or our personal like or dislike of a brother. Voting has to be an expression of truthful charity, seeking to discern what is best for that brother. If we do so, then a brother who is refused profession will not feel that he is rejected, but that we have helped him to discern what is indeed the will of God for him. If our vote expresses power struggles within the community, ideological tussles, friendships or enmities, then we will have betrayed a profound responsibility. We will encourage those in formation to conceal their true selves, and we will form brothers who will be unfit to govern in their turn.