Dysfunction in the Church and the ALP


Dysfunctional - FunctionalAs an institution stricken with dysfunction, the ALP shares a bleak outlook with unions, churches and other organisations that are similarly sustained by shared ideals and belief systems, but are struggling. They all find it difficult to sell their values to a wider public and to recruit new generations of members.

There seems to be a tension between marketability and remaining faithful to the original charism or inspiration. In the past, these have worked in tandem, as they should. But it could be that the institutions have lost their nerve and no longer know how to be authentic, despite explicit and well-publicised attempts to be 'real'.

There is a defensiveness that shows itself in a culture of denial that rejects effective self-examination in favour of actual or de facto authoritarianism. In 2010 British Jesuit psychologist Brendan Callaghan wrote in Thinking Faith of a defensiveness that is also common in the corporate world:

All large institutions develop mechanisms of defensiveness. IBM, General Motors, Lehman Brothers — all have also paid the price for having developed an internal culture which made it impossible for those with responsibility to see the truth ...

Unthinking obedience and loyalty in the face of disagreement with authority can be a way of avoiding the pain and tension of conflict, doubly attractive if those in authority have arbitrary powers of appointment and promotion.

Callaghan's main interest is in dealing with the dysfunction that exists in the Catholic Church, with particular reference to sexual abuse. He traces the problem back to the Reformation and the post-Council of Trent seminary system which was structured by a need to defend received doctrine rather than play a part in the contest of ideas represented by the Enlightenment and the growth of scientific method. 

He refers to the psychologist Erich Fromm's suggestion that we live with two conflicting tendencies: to 'move out of the womb' into freedom and responsibility, and to 'return to the womb', to certainty and security. The latter represents a gain of sorts, but it's actually a loss in terms of human development and fulfilled living.

It's not Eureka Street's purpose to transplant Callaghan's analysis of power structures in the Catholic Church to the Australian Labor Party. But members and observers of the ALP will recognise signs of the party's decline in that of the Church, and hopefully accept that both Gillard and Rudd forces have a particular job to do in order to make the party functional before the next federal election.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, ALP, Brendan Callaghan, dysfunction, defensiveness



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Existing comments

Too often it is the person put in charge who creates the dysfunctionality. On paper he looks the goods, and he presents himself well enough at the interview, or the election, as the person who will deliver. Indeed, can make himself look the obvious choice. Twelve months in it is too late. He has established a divide and control environment that those who work with him find increasingly distressing, while those outside the situation keep being given the appearance that things are working okay, when they’re not. Kevin Rudd is clearly a policy genius, a brilliant analyst of national and international importance. But you don’t put him in charge, you don’t leave him to work with others because he isn’t very good at working at that level. Coded messages about Rudd’s difficult management style were being sent in the media before 2007, and after, but this doesn’t mean much to the electorate. The average thinking is, if he’s got a management problem why would anyone allow him to be a manager? This must have been the problem in cabinet, surely. Going down in the polls with fears of losing the election were not the main reasons that Arbib and Bitar moved on Rudd: he was going to wreck cabinet functionality. The question is, who sends the message to Kevin that his style is causing harm to government and his party? It is still one of the main questions.
MELBURNIAN | 27 February 2012

The current dysfunction in the ALP is probably due more to styles of leadership and, of course, the never-ending tribal machinations of the 'factions'. The ALP encounted a leader who could win electorally but was extremely difficult to work with and with so many in the party intent on gaining footholds of power for their faction it's a volatile mix. The church, on the other hand, has encountered problems particularly in the areas of the age-old patriarchal structure of power. This has led to problems such as the sexual abuse scandals. The continued refusal to allow women and homosexuals to participate in the full 'life' of the church can only continue to give the perception to secular society of the church's irrelevance. When the truth is that the church is the future of society.
Pam | 27 February 2012

Thanks Michael One point of difference worth noting--- we know who is voting for the leadership of the ALP AND there is a vote.
Bill Armstrong | 27 February 2012

I am a member of the Catholic Church and I am frequently appalled at its dysfunction. I am active in my parish's affairs. I am an enthusiastic and active member of my Parish Pastoral Council. We (the parish) have a wonderful PP, who shares with us our dismay at the bad things (None of us deny them) happening in church, locally and worldwide. We do our best within church structures to lessen the damage done, to make amends, to seek reform. We struggle but we don't despair. Even Christ Himself after three years of teaching his followers that His Kingdom was not of this world was asked before his return to the Father: "Lord, are you now going to give Israel its own king again?" (Acts 1:6.) As for the ALP I am not a member. But as a former trade union official I lean towards democratic socialism in my political ideas and ideals. I am frequently appalled at Labor's dysfunction. But I don't despair. The ALP is a human institution formed only 120 yrs ago. The church is a divine institution formed 2000 yrs ago and its leaders still can't read the signs of the times.
Uncle Pat | 27 February 2012

A critical element to cultural strength is dialogue, and spaces for it. Labor Left and Right factions ceased meeting at my local university campus two decades ago(I imagine the situation may have changed). I am greatly interested in the positive power I have in the Church, because I can observe its dysfunction. If I was outside and waiting for others to fix it, I would be much poorer, personally in terms of my soul's imaginative life. I imagine that our Parish is very close to realising its potential as a living, actively caring community of persons. Moreover, in dialogue with my spouse I discern such hope, and press forward for its fulfilment. Passive expectations of our priests/lay people create resentment, because neither feels actively responsible for the life of love, which is following after Jesus with our light crosses. Let us embrace the gift which the Church can supply society, and indeed, political life. Catholics and Labor must be back in dialogue.
Louise Jeffree, Riverview | 27 February 2012

one of the problems of present day politicians is to rely on opinion polls and spin doctors. In opinion polls the results are decided by the wording of the questions asked. they do not represent general opinions. In the Westminister system we vote for our local members not prime ministers who are chosen by the members of caucus.
john ozanne | 27 February 2012

It is the Federal Labor government that is dysfunctional and incompetent. There is nothing wrong with the Church. It is some dysfunctional individuals who do not accept the Church's teachings that are the problem. Please do not compare the Church with Julia and Kevin. The solution "call an election".
Ron Cini | 27 February 2012

Why must you assume that the positive shared ideals of the ALP (that you mention) necessarily coincide with the Church? There are many people everywhere that have these aspirations you mention; not merely Union members and those with ALP affiliation.
Swanberg | 27 February 2012

In the thirty-something age bracket a lot of folks have bracketed religion into "the club-best-not-attended" idea. There is something really sad about this, which reminds me of the observation that "the day when the Church became a religion and ceased to be a way of life, it died". Reviving the Church is an important work. Helping people to activate their faith life is one thing. But in our intellectualist age, it is important to aid others in the discovery of how faith informs our capacity and interest in reason, and how reason leads to a faith response to life's mystery. One example of this is my observation of a parent-child interaction at the local park yesterday. Two mothers were called together by their toddler's tussle for the one plaything. One mother demanded of her (2 year old) child that he say 'sorry' to the crying other child, (who had momentarily lost sight of his mother). The adults around were happy to observe the need to gently suggest that 'saying sorry' is a moralistic response to a pre-moral person. Reason helps understanding. Understanding is only possible in a mind calmed by trust in a higher power than anxious impetus to control.
Louise Jeffree, Riverview | 28 February 2012

The ALP used to be genuinely the party of the battlers when it had principles that were unshakeable and rooted in Judeo-Christian values. Having long abandoned any pretence in this regard it is just as Groucho Marx quipped years ago: "These are my principles, if you don't like them i have others"! If it can ever find them again (which i doubt very much)then there is some hope. As Kim Beazley Snr remarked some years ago, when he joined the ALP it "contained the cream of the working class" but at a later time it was run by the "dregs of the middle class"
Michael Bohan | 28 February 2012

'All large institutions develop mechanisms of defensiveness. IBM, General Motors, Lehman Brothers — all have also paid the price for having developed an internal culture which made it impossible for those with responsibility to see the truth ...' Dare I suggest that Ron Cini's post is yet another example?
Ginger Meggs | 28 February 2012

Simplistic as the suggestion seems, if any elected governement assumed only one term in office, they could get on with the job of governing, and the issue of their authenticity and image would simply fade away, (or be incidentally solved).
Anna Summerfield | 02 March 2012

This may seem trite but dysfunctionality is caused by dysfunctional people. Psychologically the solution is healing the dysfunctional individual. Dysfunctional leaders (politicians; clergy; teachers etc. ) are prevalent in all aspects of Australian life. We need to cure the current generation of dysfunctional leaders, but, more importantly, put programs in place i.e. individual and family therapeutic ones to prevent this dysfunctionality inadvertently being passed on to the next generation, as it will if nothing is done. I must say I disagree with Bernard Callaghan about the reasons for the current dysfunctionality in the Catholic Church. I think, with the Reformation and Counter Reformation, the big problem was that Western Christianity, on both sides of the divide, became terribly involved in what I would call "totally cerebral religion" and lost the deeper inner side. Orthodoxy never split and never lost its link with its own tradition of hesychastic prayer. My gut feeling is that Catholicism desperately needs to rediscover the deep wellsprings of its own spirituality. It could do worse than look to the Desert Fathers; the Benedictine; Franciscan and Carmelite traditions and similar which were around before the split.
Edward F | 08 May 2012

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