As I’ve been shifting my reading away from the p-p model and toward leadership – Catholic, educational, and otherwise – and reflecting upon the various theories, insights, recommendations, and modes of practice found therein, my theological training has provided some wonderfully surprising insight. For the past six years or so I have been greatly influenced by Fr. Robert Barron – of Catholicism Project and Word on Fire fame – a Chicago priest and theologian. Right before I left my post as Director of the Office for Peace and Justice for the Archdiocese of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George appointed him the new rector of Mundelein Seminary (the largest major seminary in the U.S.) – a step that gives me great hope for the formation of future priests. Barron, in my estimation, is the most unsung/underappreciated living Catholic theologian. He is most known for his “popular” ministries, but his academic theology is exquisite. It is so because it is not about him, his cleverness or wit, but about Christ, crucified and risen. His theology is self-conscious without being self-absorbed and he displays an extraordinary ability – also displayed in his homilies and youtube videos – to translate highly complex and subtle philosophy and theology into clear, but still subtle, images and language. He is a preeminent translator of the Catholic tradition.
Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism (PoC) is his greatest work and has deeply influenced my thinking. Barron (especially PoC) has been on my mind as I work my way through all this leadership lit. It has become clear to me that, perhaps beginning in the 60s, and certainly through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and into the new millennium, the principalship in schools became unworkable: too much on one plate. The answer – now for the vast majority of Catholic secondary schools in the US – was a division of labor based on the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) – Chief Operating Officer (COO) model in the business/for profit world. Thus (in a nutshell) was born the president-principal model. The p-p model’s reliance upon the CEO-COO model is evident both in the literature available on the structure and in personal conversation with those in it as either presidents or principals. As I pointed out in earlier posts, some researchers even use the terms CEO and COO in lieu of the terms president and principal.
This reductionist 1-to-1 conception is troubling. The problem is not that the CEO-COO model is purely secular, but that it could ever be thought of as sufficient in a Catholic context. At best we might be able to say with James Heft that today the model is “necessary but not sufficient” for Catholic schools. Surely there needs to be a division of labor roughly along the lines of money, fundraising, strategic planning, alumni relations for the president, and curriculum, instruction, teacher development, parent and future student relations for the principal. But the president and principal can’t be reduced to these roles and responsibilities, nor can they be so easily segmented, let alone separated or hermetically sealed from each other. Though I know there is disagreement here, at this point in my thinking I’m pretty convinced that the president and principal are really doing one job. Do they emphasize different skill sets? Yes. Can one person do the whole thing (and still be physically, psychologically, and spiritually healthy)? No (in most cases). But that does not mean that fundraising has nothing to do with classroom instruction or that alumni relations has nothing to do with faculty professional development, etc. They have everything to do with each other!
Classroom instruction isn’t free and tuition doesn’t cover the total cost – fundraising handles the difference. In philosophical terms: fundraising is the condition for the possibility of classroom teaching and learning. This is especially true when there are students in that classroom on financial aid – aid brought to the school through fundraising! Does a fully developed and professionally competent faculty provide future motivation for alumni donations and reinforce their connection with the school? of course! Alumni don’t donate to schools that don’t invest in their faculty. Why would they?
What does Barron have to do with any of this? In my mind, everything. As I pondered both Catholic high schools’ dependence upon the secular CEO-COO model, and the sometimes overly segmented/separated roles and responsibilities of the p-p model, it occurred to me that Barron provides the perfect theological framework for making sense of it all in a Catholic context. In Part V of PoP, Barron shifts from a fundamental theology of God to the ethics that flow from that theology. After dealing with Kantian deontology (duty ethics) and proportionalism, Barron shifts to chapter 5 of Luke’s Gospel.
Here we see an “odd story” involving Jesus barging, uninvited, onto Peter’s boat to avoid a crowd. The rabbi asks the fisherman to head out to deeper water and cast his nets despite a long day of pulling them up empty. Peter gives in and, to make a long story short, the massive catch proves his unworthiness and Jesus tells him to not be afraid for he will now catch people. Thus Peter is called as an apostle and we have not just a wonderful little story but “a depiction of the central dynamic in Christian ethics.” This moment of uninvited “barging” into Peter’s boat “represents something of enormous moment: the invasion of grace.” The remainder of the chapter can be considered a mediation on this invasion. Of special import here is when Barron deals directly with Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, part 2 (the section on ethics). Aquinas relies heavily on Aristotle’s notion of virtue as the mean between two extremes – one an excess, the other a deficiency (eg. the virtue of bravery is the mean between the excess called foolhardiness and the deficiency called cowardice). This is not Christian ethics, however; it is virtue ethics. As Barron points out, “what interests him [Aquinas] above all is the manner in which the virtues are transfigured by the addition of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love as well as the infused moral virtues.
Under the influence of grace, ordinary courage becomes the boldness of the martyr, ordinary temperance becomes the chastity of the monk, ordinary justice becomes the poverty of the ascetic mendicant, and ordinary prudence becomes the canny attunement to love characteristic of the saint.”
Barron later uses the phrase “elevated by grace” as shorthand for this influence that takes the merely normal, mundane, secular, or natural and transforms it into something extraordinary, sacred, spiritual, even supernatural. The key to this conception is understanding that the theist is not just a regular person plus the added ingredient of belief in God; the Christian is not the theist + Christ. Grace is not one more component that Jesus adds onto our lives; rather grace invades us and transforms our whole person. Grace does not destroy the secular or the mundane or seal itself off from it as if the secular could contaminate grace. Rather grace elevates and transforms the secular or the natural “into something properly supernatural.” Thus an ordinary Galilean boat and its fisherman are elevated by grace to a sacred space within which an ordinary man becomes an apostle.
Like Peter, catholic schools and their leaders are called to do more than their secular or “normal” counterparts. Peter is to catch people, not fish; Catholic schools are to educate and form the whole person (soul included), not just bodies and/or minds. In order to fulfill this calling, Catholic schools and their leaders can learn and borrow much from their public school and business neighbors, but whatever is learned or borrowed must be elevated by grace in order to be sufficient for the Catholic context. It is good that we can borrow the CEO-COO model from the business world only insofar as we allow the model (more accurately, the two persons who populate it) to be invaded by grace and so elevated into something sufficient for the mission of Catholic education. Without this transfiguration of grace the president and principal are merely the CEO and COO of a school, just as without grace Peter is just a Galilean fisherman with an empty boat.
It seems to me that this concept can be applied fruitfully to much of Catholic education: the Catholic school is the school elevated by grace; a Catholic educational leader is an educational leader elevated by grace; a Catholic school teacher is a teacher elevated by grace. As Barron points out, a peculiar consequence emerges from this conception which, as you might recall is “a depiction of the central dynamic in Christian ethics”:
“we must . . . look to concrete exemplars of the life of grace, the people whom the church recognizes as saints. Thereby we see the good life in its densely textured facticity; we see the dynamics of grace on iconic display . . . We can see the form of Christian ethics only by looking, finally, at those lives that exemplify it across time and in the face of obstacles.”
In other words if you want to know what it “looks like” to be elevated by grace, we must actually look at those who have actually been elevated thusly. In the Christian moral life that means looking at the saints. In the case of education it means looking at schools that have been elevated by grace, teachers, presidents and principals elevated by grace. It is they who put Catholic educational leadership “on iconic display” for us. The p-p model, though dependent upon the CEO-COO model is NOT the CEO-COO model at all once it has been invaded by grace, just as Peter, though dependent upon his past as a fisherman, doesn’t catch fish at all once invaded by the one who gives himself to us in the form of grace.
The next step in my journey will be to flesh out this thinking and figure out how I can “find exemplars” of presidents and principals elevated by grace – those men and women who put “the life of grace . . . on iconic display” every day as leaders of our schools. This process began in earnest this morning with my first interview of a Catholic school leader and I can’t wait to see where all this takes me. Special thanks, of course, to Fr. Robert Barron for giving me this language of grace – may we all be elevated by it.