William Pfaff on the Indispensability of Clerical Leadership

In reviewing Garry WillsWhy Priests? A Failed Tradition (‘Challenge to the Church,’ New York Review of Books, 9 May 2013), William Pfaff writes:

How does a religion survive without structure and a self-perpetuating leadership? The practice of naming bishops to lead the Church in various Christian centers has existed since apostolic times. Aside from the questions of doctrinal authority and leadership in worship, there are inevitable practical problems of livelihood, shelter, and finance, propagation of the movement, relations with political authority, and so forth. Clerical organization seems to me the pragmatic and indeed inevitable solution to the problem of religious and other spontaneous communities that wish to survive the death of their founders or charismatic leaders.

These are interesting and revealing assertions. Pfaff assumes that ‘religion’ is synonymous with ‘organized religion’; from this premise follow the rest of his conclusions. Pfaff does not indicate what he takes to be the extension of ‘spontaneous communities’; presumably these would include–as ‘charismatic leaders’ would seem to indicate–cults of all stripes. It might be that for Pfaff what distinguishes a ‘spontaneous community’ or a cult–as the early Christians would have been so regarded–from religions is more a matter of their endurance and organization than their content.  Two ‘spontaneous communities’ then, for Pfaff, could be similar in theistic and doctrinal, especially eschatological, content, but only the one with the requisite organization and endurance would count as a religion. A cult flowers briefly and dies out; a religion endures.

Pfaff’s conflation of ‘religion’ with ‘organized religion’ suggests that religions are properly thought of as organizations of sufficient complexity–in social, economic and political dimensions–to necessarily require some form of binding, cohesion and direction by ‘leadership’. Tantalizingly enough, we are not told how such a leadership is to be formed or selected from among the ranks of the followers; its ‘legitimacy’ to command, direct, and regulate its followers is left as an open question. (Pfaff does not address the issue of whether the survival of such an entity is desirable or not for the society that plays host to it.) But maybe not; is it the case that the legitimacy of the priesthood is derived entirely from its indispensability? A sort of ‘sans moi le deluge‘ argument, if you will.

This analysis of the necessity of clergies for the maintenance and propagation of religion also suggests leadership could be contested; rival contenders could stake their claims based on their alternative strategies for the continued flourishing of the religion.  This is not unheard of in organized religions; the Sunni-Shia schism in Islam dates back to a succession dispute, which even if not argued for on precisely these grounds, was still the kind that would be entailed by Pfaff’s claims of the indispensability of leadership.

So an interesting picture of organized religion emerges from Pffaf’s claims: its very survival relies on the creation of a space which could play host to a species of political dispute; this survival also requires ‘finance,’ ‘propagation’ and ‘relations with political authority.’ In short, it must be a political actor itself in the society in which it is embedded.

At the very least, this would seem to indicate organized religion should be treated like any other political force in society, and not one requiring special protections or immunities.

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