A Swiss Guard is seen as Pope Francis embraces a cardinal during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 18. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Well up on the
list of things Pope Francis abhors is religious careerism. "Careerism
is leprosy. Leprosy! Please, no careerism," he exclaimed in a
talk last June to young priests in training for the Vatican
diplomatic service. It's a theme he sounds often and with deep
As well he might.
But the problem is more complex than at first might appear. Indeed,
there's another side to this particular coin, one I'll get to in a
minute. But first, careerism.
understood it extremely well. Trollope, who lived from 1815 to 1882,
was one of that gifted group of British Victorian novelists whose
ranks included such as Dickens, Thackeray, and George Eliot.
Among the works
of this prodigiously prolific writer is a series of four novels known
collectively as the Barsetshire Chronicles. They depict clerical life
in rural England during the middle years of the 19th century,
painting a portrait that's often funny, sometimes sad, and always
deeply human, with clerical careerism never far from the surface.
The best known of
these books is the second, Barchester Towers. At the center of
the story is the memorable figure of the Rev. Mr. Obediah Slope, a
young Anglican clergyman who is the very embodiment of religious
careerism. Of him Trollope writes: "Though he can stoop to fawn,
and stoop low indeed, if need be, he has still within him the power
to assume the tyrant; and with the power, he has certainly the wish."
What follows is
the story of how Slope sets the placid diocese of Barchester on its
ear through a remorseless campaign to fulfill that wish.
To be sure,
Obediah Slope is a character in a story, yet people like him exist
for real. They're the ones Pope Francis is talking about--and warning
against imitating--when he speaks of religious careerism.
It's a problem
for the clergy, certainly, but not only for them--especially not
these days, when growing numbers of lay women and men pursue careers
in the institutions of the Church. Self-seeking and self-promotion,
cutting corners to get ahead at the other guy's expense--these things
are not peculiar to people in the clerical state.
At the same time,
concern to avoid careerism should allow for a decent measure of
ambition and the desire to do a good job. Surely it doesn't justify
that other bane of religious institutions--sloppiness, laziness, a
general lack of professionalism, sometimes smugly rationalized by
saying, "This is a church, not a multilateral corporation"--as
if that were an argument that excused bad work.
legitimate resistance to careerism mustn't be allowed to obscure the
spiritual value of honest good work done to the best of one's ability
in a religious setting as much as a secular one.
that, though, how can someone take a genuinely positive approach to
work and career without lapsing almost without noticing it into
careerism or something resembling it?
The answer of
course lies in motivation: do the work for the love of God, family,
and neighbor. That should be the motive for work done in any
setting, but it applies especially to work done in a religious
institution because of its obvious capacity to add to--or else
disastrously subtract from--the institutional witness to faith.
suggestion. If you haven't read it lately, take a look at the
"spirituality of work" powerfully laid out in Blessed John
Paul II's remarkable 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens. Nothing
could be farther removed from careerism than that.