Authority: Patrick O’Brian and the Church

I wrote recently about obedience in the context of authority in the Church, and I promised a part two on leadership. It is easy to see how obedience can be a service, but it is also true that the opposite—using authority—can be a service, too. This is less intuitive, but I thought I could use a favorite series of novels to write about it.

For this essay, I am using the analogy of a ship in a storm (or a battle?) for the Church—a pretty decent analogy since the Church is, after all, known as the “Barque of Peter,” and today’s world is certainly not a calm sea (if it ever has been).

Hierarchy has a purpose

I am a huge fan of the Patrick O’Brian Master and Commander (MC) series. The novels follow Jack, a captain in the Royal Navy, and Stephen, his best friend, a physician/ naturalist/ spy, who travel the world during the Napoleonic Wars. Someone told me once that the series was “Jane Austen, but for men,” and I think he meant that O’Brien demonstrates an understanding of human nature through his writing, comparable to Austen’s. One of the things that comes out clearly in the novels is the necessity and effectiveness of clear hierarchy on the ship, especially in battle.

The Royal Navy of the time (and I assume today) is structured hierarchically. The captain is the “master and commander” of the ship; he is “read in” to the ship’s company the first time he steps on board, and from that moment, what he says goes. The captain, though, is bound to follow his orders, which come from the admiral, who in turn, follows the king, who, at least in theory, follows God. On the ship, no one on board has any confusion about where he stands. There are the officers and there are the men, and the latter are fully expected to be obedient to the former. When necessary, the “cat” (a whip) is brought out to ensure that no one on the “lower deck” (the men) gets any funny ideas. There is a clear chain of command that is taken seriously and is accepted by all parties. When it isn’t, when the lower decks mutiny, the strongest possible measures are taken, ending in the hanging of all the mutineers.

The purpose of a strict hierarchy on a ship of war is fairly self-evident. The working of the ship–its sails, its pumps, its guns–requires a near-symphonic level of coordination among the ship’s company. All of the men must do their part, overseen by the officers who can direct the whole. This coordination would not be possible if everyone had a say about what to do and how to do it—at the very least, it would not be efficient, and in war, speed is essential. Lives are dependent on whether the ship turns right or left, fires or holds fire. The captain alone bears the responsibility of commanding, while the company carries out his orders and suffers the consequences. Someone has to be in charge, and that is why victories belong to the captain, as do defeats.

Authority can be a service

Thinking about the MC novels has helped me to conceptualize how authority can be a service. I was having a hard time reconciling these two ideas: that Christ came to serve, and his representatives, those in whose hands he placed his Church, bishops, are called to govern and lead. How are service and governing not opposites? I was sharing this question with a friend, and he answered (to paraphrase): “But what does service look like? Could it not look link someone in command? Does not the commander serve those he commands?” That is when I realized that the O’Brien novels demonstrate this well. Jack’s commands are for the good of the whole ship; His decisiveness in battle keeps men alive. When there is a person on board with knowledge that would help him (of a particular port, for example, or a language) Jack calls on that person to assist. But the orders are always given by him.

It can be easy and tempting to view authority simply as a privilege. In the MC novels, the officers are the ones who have cabins, wear fancy uniforms, and have better food, while the lower decks get six inches to sling their hammock and a pound of salt pork. But O’Brien gives us a window into the burden of responsibility that is experienced by the officers, especially Jack. When he is put in charge of his first ship, Jack realizes how lonely the captain’s cabin is. The regulations isolate him; the captain eats separately, sleeps separately, and must take the lead of any group conversation. After every battle, Jack experiences a “black mood,” a depression. He conducts burials at sea; writes letters to the families of every man who dies on board; leads Sunday services; and if his ship sinks or is lost for any reason, Jack has to hand over his sword to the admiralty and be tried at a court martial. The burdens of leadership are his as well as its perks.

Fitting Leaders

In the Royal Navy, there was a significant period of formation before men were “made post,” or promoted as a captain. Every captain started as a midshipman – usually as a boy of eleven or so. Those who progressed became lieutenants; These men had to pass both a formal exam and an informal one (called “passing for a gentleman”). Jack often lamented that a lack of certain social graces or “interest” held some worthy men back, leaving them as lieutenants even though they would have made good captains. On the other hand, some men were promoted because of their family or money. The characters of the O’Brian novels always know why the others have the position they hold. Admirals, I should note, become admirals simply by not dying. They move up the list of captains until the people above them are gone—there is no more need of patronage or distinguishing oneself.

O’Brian shows us that not everyone wants to be a leader, and not everyone can handle the burdens of leadership. Jack once offered to promote his coxswain, Bonden, and the man replies, essentially, “Thanks but no thanks!” Bonden is happy on the lower deck, following his captain into battle and fighting alongside him, not worrying about learning trigonometry or making judgment calls. He knows his place and embraces it. Then there are those captains who go mad, lose control of themselves or their men, or lead their men into a hopeless fight; Captains who let the power go to their heads.

Throughout the MC novels, physician Stephen marvels at the natural authority that Jack exudes when he is on his ship, (often in contrast with Jack’s blunders on land). As captain, Jack is decisive, clear, and confident. His men respect him and volunteer to follow him to the ends of the earth. His abilities match his confidence; Jack understands strategy, navigation, and gunnery. He does not fight when he knows his duty lies elsewhere, but he never shies away from battle either. Jack knows the names of his men; visits them when they are sick or injured; works hard to develop the best strategy of navigation or attack; considers the strengths and weaknesses of the men on board; trusts them to do their duty. While certainly not perfect, Jack is worthy of the respect that is placed in him.

Leadership is not something that comes naturally to everyone. Some personalities lend themselves to it, for good or for ill, while others much prefer the simplicity of following. If one is called to be a leader despite one’s natural tendencies or desires, aspects of leadership can be learned, and people can “fake it to make it” if necessary. In the CM novels, Jack would assess other captains to determine whether he could count on them. He considered the other’s reputation and record, but also their attitude and willingness to fall in with Jack’s often gutsy plans. Even if they hadn’t proven themselves yet in battle, many captains showed that they were ready to act if called upon. Not every leader has to be brilliant, but confidence and competence are must-haves.

Church leadership

Let’s take this all back to the Church. A ship in battle is not the worst analogy for the Church in the modern world, even though no analogy is perfect. The world is hostile to the Church, and so it has always been: “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” (Jn 15:18). To navigate the ship, whether to avoid battle or to face it head-on, we need good captains. These are provided by the Lord: our bishops and priests. Some of them are natural leaders like Jack; Others are not. I would like to think that even those who are not are at least willing to learn or to try. As a member of the lower deck, I implore the leaders of the Church only to ordain men who have demonstrated that they have the capacity to lead. We face many dangers out here on the sea, and we need someone whose judgment and confidence we respect at the helm.

I believe that every man (and every woman) has the capacity to lead. I think that capacity is part of every developed human person because it is integral to parenthood: Mothers and fathers must lead and protect their children. So when I say that only men who can lead ought to be ordained, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t be excluding any. In reality, however, the capacity for leadership can be impaired. It can be obscured or harmed in such a way that it is inoperative. It’s possible that a man’s diminished capacity for leadership is still enough for natural fatherhood (because nature is powerful) but not for supernatural fatherhood, of the kind that priests must exhibit.

Bishops or formation directors who are evaluating seminarians are like captains evaluating midshipmen and lieutenants for abilities to take on more responsibilities. They need to be able to identify leadership qualities, and if they are lacking, or they are being abused and twisted into domination (which is just the other side of the same coin), I would argue that the man is not a fit candidate for ordination—regardless of how holy he appears. As odd as it may sound, holiness does not a priest or bishop make. It is a vocation that entails governance; leadership is part of the package.[1]

The peace of the lower deck

During a storm, the seamen are the ones climbing the rigging and pulling the ropes, physically exhausting themselves—but when the watch changes, they can go and sleep in their hammocks while the captain stays on deck for 24, 30, or even 36 hours. Lay people attend Mass on Sunday, and while they are called to pray constantly and witness to Christ in their daily lives, they do not have to concern themselves with Church business all the time. They will not have to decide, for example, which parishes or Catholic schools stay open and which close, or where priests would minister best. A bishop does have to decide those things, and more. He never ceases to be responsible for God’s work in the diocese, which also means that he should be the most attentive to prayer. -One bishop I know rises at 4:30 a.m. to pray before the rest of his busy day begins. Bishops rely on priests and lay people to carry out most of their initiatives, but they cannot rely on anyone else to keep them close to the Lord and to know His will. And if the bishops are not receiving their orders from God, the lower decks will soon start grumbling. We are only willingly obedient to someone who is himself obedient.[2]

There is a scene in one of the early MC novels in which Jack is wrestling with a question that will determine the fate of all the men on his ship. O’Brien cuts to the men of the lower deck who are playing cards. Their fate is in Jack’s hands. When the time comes to fight, they will be at their stations, but until then, they are totally relaxed. They are not fretting, worried, or even trying to figure out for themselves what might be best to do. This is the peace of the lower deck.

In the midst of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, I have tried (and often failed) to find this peace; To recognize that, at the end of the day, the pope and the bishops have to make decisions about all of these matters: how to handle allegations, how to restore justice and bring healing. There is little that I can do about those things because they are not in my purview. I have no authority to change them. I am on the lower deck. If Church leaders were to ask for my help in a specific area, I could be prepared to give it—just as sometimes Jack asks a seaman who is familiar with a port how the land lies. I can be ready. I can be at my station, rope in hand, willing to follow the captain God has placed at the helm. But I also need to know and recognize that it is not me. I am not the captain. It is not my job.

“It’s your Church, God. I’m going to bed,” is the famous prayer said to have been recited by Pope St. John XXIII every night. It is a wonderful prayer for a pope to say, since (contrary to some misunderstandings) he is not the head of the Church—Christ is. The pope has to be obedient to Jesus Christ, and he bears a tremendous amount of responsibility for the Church by virtue of his position. The bishops, next, are also called to be obedient to Christ, in communion with the pope, the “first among equals.” Bishops, as our captains, can neither outsource their discernment to Rome nor dismiss papal desires out of hand. As fellow captains, the entire body of bishops should be working together to bring the Barque of Peter through the troubled waters that we find ourselves in.


[1] Consider St. Benedict Joseph Labre. He is a saint. He was not fit for ordination.

[2] I could go on a tangent here about the German Synodal Way, but I will refrain.

Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash