I needed to make restitution for my sins. So I exposed my body to that combox anti-Catholicism that spits out the word “hierarchy” like it’s Greek for “storm troopers” or “really bad STDs.” I learned two things. First, one really ought to consult a spiritual director before undertaking any extreme forms of penance. Secondly — hierarchy ain’t no dirty word.
Its earliest use was religious — a “system of orders of angels and heavenly beings.” In modern usage (devoid, like most of modernity, of super-dope angel systems) hierarchy is an ordering of highest to lowest. Already our Freedom Glands palpitate — anything ordered in terms of higher and lower rubs against our happy ideas of Equality and Democracy.
It’s not an unfounded fear. Our typical experience of “hierarchy” is one of oppression. Corporations in which the wage slavery of the lower serves the profits of the higher, political pyramids in which the lower suffers for the mistakes of the higher — these misery-makers give us our daily education in “hierarchy.”
But if a hierarchy exists for a particular level of its total order (for the 1%, the bishops, or the boss) then it ceases to be hierarchy proper. It becomes a power structure. We distinguish, then, between two types of hierarchy: Idiotic hierarchy (from idios, meaning “one’s own”) is hierarchy turned in on itself, serving some particular class, while ecstatic hierarchy (from ex-stasis, to “stand outside of oneself”) is directed towards an end beyond the hierarchy.
It’s difficult to deny that an ecstatic hierarchy is something glorious, human, and effective. If I am building a house, and someone with greater talent joins my effort, we will, quite naturally, establish a hierarchy. I will give up my attempts to perform complex masonry, occupy a lower-value skill set (mixing cement, say), and let my friend use his higher-value skill-set. I would not resent my friend for taking a higher place, for the simple reason that our being so-ordered best serves our common goal — the house will be built, and better. Our hierarchy is a hierarchy-for. We’re a team.
Indeed, it is a positive joy to find someone better than me — when my desire is for some goal outside of myself. But the moment my desire is for my own satisfaction, comfort, advancement, the existence of a higher rank becomes an opportunity for resentment. My friend is no longer essential to achieving the goal of a well-built house, he is a competitor for individual happiness, earning a better wage, occupying a position that serves his individual needs better than my position serves my own. Here the existence of a higher negates the lower, where previously the existence of the higher served the common end of both the lower and the higher. Here the lower becomes merely useful in the service of the higher, where previously both were useful in serving an end beyond themselves. The hierarchy has become idiotic, its members concerned with themselves rather than with that common goal that transcends its members.
Hierarchy, understood ecstatically, is beautiful. It is not something rudely imposed. It is a social order drawn out of human beings by their common vision of an end. It does not offend equality — all are equally oriented towards a common good. It does not offend diversity — it thrives on it, seeing the right arrangement of lower and higher as the most human and effective means of achieving an end that transcends the grasp of any one “level” within the hierarchy. Anyone who has been excited to be a part of a team has experienced this feeling of hierarchy springing into place as a natural response of the human heart to goal beyond itself, i.e. “These people need feeding! Well then: You, cook. You, dishes. I’ll seat people, and Jessica, darling, put your fake bartending license to good use.”
This is the nature of Church hierarchy. It is fundamentally ordered to ends outside of itself — the worship of God, the salvation of souls, and the universal communion of all mankind in Christ. The ordering of higher and lower — bishops, priest, deacons, laity — is an effective means of attaining these ends. An antipathy between the “clergy” and the “laity” within the People of God is a sure sign that we’ve forgotten what we’re doing as the Church — that we have forgotten the goal that transcends the lot of us, and thus unifies us in diverse equality.
The greater the goal, the more horrible it is to turn away from the goal and towards the self. So it makes sense that the selfishness of particular clergymen creates a climate opposed to “hierarchy.” But perhaps a reason we have a seemingly “natural” antipathy towards hierarchy (besides the mediocre examples of idiotic anti-hierarchies) is that we live a very recent and very dubious philosophy of individualism. A total critique would go beyond the scope of this essay, but there are two presuppositions of this philosophy that erect a wall against any healthy understanding of hierarchy.
First, the idea that we exist without definite purpose, making our own meaning, neither living up to nor failing to live up our “true self,” but choosing who we are — all this makes being ordered to some definite purpose something extrinsic, foreign, and awkward to the human person. If we are those types of being without definite purpose, then ecstatic hierarchy, which is by its nature purposeful, cannot be natural to us. It presents itself as something unessential and arbitrarily chosen, fulfilling no natural orientation.
Secondly, the idea that the individual exists prior to community, rather than being constituted in and through communion (always-already in relation to other people, already a son, already a daughter) — this, once again, makes hierarchy something extrinsic to humanity. If individuality is our true nature, then our natural orientation is not towards any common good or shared goal, but to our individual fulfillment and satisfaction. Hierarchy, in this view, ought to be an idiotic hierarchy — a group justified not by its common goal, but by its self-enclosed service to individual members.
When these highly Americanized ideas combine in a critique of the Church hierarchy, silliness results.
The irony is that the the resentful layperson and the corrupt Bishop often join hands in their mutual presupposition — that hierarchy ought to be ordered to serve individuals and classes of individuals. I resent the priest and rail against him “hoarding the capacity to forgive sins” because I believe the Church should be fundamentally ordered to my individual satisfaction, to the promotion of my rights, my fulfillment. I desire an equality of function between layperson and cleric because I am being denied what is owed to me as an individual. So too the Bishop who lives in a mansion, takes the tithes, and otherwise oppresses the Church implicitly believes that the Church is ordered to his individual satisfaction, to the fulfillment of his desires. Sure, he desires no equality of function between layperson and cleric, but only because he has limited the focus of an idiotic, inwardly-turned hierarchy towards a particular class of individuals — if not simply himself. In both cases, ecstasy is abandoned for idiocy, and a transcendent goal is abandoned for self-service. But if the nature of man is ecstatic, if I become fully myself by transcending myself, by rising from the individual to the Family, from the egoistic “I” to the ecclesial “we,” from the self to the other — then hierarchy is an art, a modus operandi of being human, and a fulfillment of our nature. Mother Church, then, would be a school of love, not despite, but in her very hierarchical structure — ordering humanity away from egoism and towards a common good.