Monday, February 12, 2007


It is a watershed moment with a lot of "small-c" catholic significance: for the first time in its history, the US' oldest institution of higher education has tapped a woman to lead it.

When President-elect Drew Gilpin Faust takes the reins of Harvard University on Mid Year's Day, the rise of the historian of the Civil War South won't just signal a change in American academia's top post because of her gender, her background, nor because she's the first Harvard president since 1672 who possesses no degrees from it, but something even bigger -- something whose impact enters the turf of things ("big-C") Catholic.

At the end of an exhaustive search, Faust's election yesterday by the university's governing corporation is but the latest affirmation of a changed dynamic of leadership whose realities extend far beyond the academy, the boardroom and, for our purposes, the cardinal's residence.

In the wake of the bruising, polarizing and, eventually, frustrated tenure at Harvard's helm of the onetime Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, Faust's cited strengths as a consensus-builder, keen on consultation and keeping all parties invested through communication and outreach is another indicator that, in these times, effective leadership -- whether of the classroom, the company, or the church -- isn't exercised through the flaunt of authority, but in planting the seeds of engagement. The Radcliffe dean's open style didn't keep her from making her own decisions "with conviction," colleagues say. But once she did, the process ensured that even those who disagreed with the outcome still felt themselves genuinely included and thus able to join in the chosen course with minimal misgivings, frustrations, or lack of confidence; if anything, many found with time a wisdom in the ultimate decision that their initial conclusions didn't have.

There's a curious echo between two quotes of the last week, seemingly from different worlds, but two places more alike than at first glance.

In its scooping of Faust's nomination for the Harvard post on Friday, a senior professor told the Crimson that "You can bring people much farther along if you persuade them to go with you than if you drag them."

Not long before this, I was speaking with a veteran cleric of an up-for-grabs diocese on the lay of the land and the presbyterate's hopes for its next occupant.

"This is an 'ask me' place," he said. "If [the bishop] asks us to do something, we'll go to the ends of the earth to do it. If he tries to come in here thinking he's some little king or something -- nuh-uh. If he does that, he will accomplish nothing."

For those keen on a genuinely Catholic prism of thought, those looking for the bottom-up approach in action need search no further than the very top of the church.

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger employed the model of consultation from the Rule of St Benedict: in meetings of his staff, the juniormost aide spoke first, with interventions ascending in seniority until the last word belonged to the cardinal. Hosting thousands of bishops on ad limina visits to the Roman dicasteries, while other top curialists would lecture the groups on their competencies, hand out massive amounts of documents or, sometimes, doze, the visiting bishops invariably gave their hour at the Sant'Uffizio top marks.

In contrast from many of his peers, Ratzinger took a listening posture, asking how the Congregation could best be of service to the local churches, eliciting questions and a free exchange as the visitors sought guidance on difficult situations at home. These meetings often took on the shape of fruitful conversations that came to have immense value on multiple fronts and were eagerly looked forward to, both by the prelates and the prefect.

Suffice it to say, the CDF chats only became more useful for the latter when he was elected to Peter's chair.

Since his transition from Ratzinger to Benedict, the sitting Pope has attempted to link his longstanding approach with the execution of his new office. Not only have all the dicasteries gotten the message to shape-up in terms of their ad limina sessions, but the pontiff has convened three meetings to date of his "cabinet" of dicastery heads, and is said to favor being privy to vivid exchanges among aides, that he might be best informed of all contingencies in researching his options and judgment.

While significant resistance has formed around two of Benedict's initiatives which have been described as "stalled" or "held up" -- the reorganization of the Roman Curia and a speculated liberalization of permission to celebrate the Tridentine Mass, to name two of noted controversy -- such is his management style that, even despite his own leanings on the questions, no movement would take place until the bulk of his team was on-board, so that the implementation of other planks of his administrative agenda would not be complicated by significant discord. To date, the qualities of his appointees to significant posts has also reflected this skill-set.

Integrating the collaborative dynamic into an institution grounded in apostolic authority remains a skill many have either not mastered, or find incompatible with the munus regendi and the grace of office. However, in a 2004 ad limina address to the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey that's taken on the air of the epic, John Paul II told the assembled that just as "the existence of an unequivocal right and duty of governance entrusted to the successors of the Apostles is an essential part of the Church’s divinely-willed constitution," "a commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular 'democratic' model of governance, but as an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority." (All emphases original.)

More often than not, particularly after the last five years in the life of the church in the United States, you'll find it proven on the ground time and again: that a local church's strength of hope and vigor for the future is derived not from grand gestures, lengthy statements or the fleeting allure of the mystic. Rather, it exists in direct correlation to the enthusiasm, credibility and confidence-building that emanates from its head.

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On a personal note, the appointment of Faust is a moment of celebration for those of us who wear the Red and Blue of the University of Pennsylvania.

Ivy League competitiveness never dies... nor does it fade away. So while Harvard began in 1636 amid "dreading" that the founding generation might leave "an illiterate Ministry to the [Puritan] Churches" of Massachusetts, it must be noted that its first president since its early days with no diploma from the place is the product of an institution built with an eye toward the divorce of clericalism from the academy.

If it could be said that the egalitarian tradition of Penn -- where the president-elect earned her master's and doctorate and taught for 25 years -- contributed to putting one of its daughters at the head of Harvard Yard and the threshold of history, then it's just further reason to be proud of that little corner of West Philadelphia which, alongside Faust, Jim Martin SJ and 200,000 of our fellow alums the world over, I'm so blessed to call my own.

Go Quakers!

Harvard University