112. Sycophancy and ecclesiastical authority
112. Sycophancy and ecclesiastical authority

112. Sycophancy and ecclesiastical authority

In continuation of the discussion on the exercise of authority, today’s post focuses on sycophancy, a major threat to the exercise of ecclesiastical authority in the Church in Nigeria.

The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines sycophancy as the “behaviour that praises important or powerful people too much and in a way that is not sincere, especially in order to get something from them.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary puts it succinctly as “obsequious flattery”. In both dictionaries, the tone of the word is disapproving.

In my recent post about seminarians and cheap labour, I argued that the current seminary formation structure “breeds sycophancy as seminarians live to please formators rather than prepare for the mission. This attitude is brought into the priesthood, where priests exhibit fawning obsequiousness in relating to older priests and the bishop, often for favours and not for the mission Christ entrusted to us.” What drives this phenomenon, solidified in the current seminary formation structure?

Amongst the many possible reasons, I identify five interrelated points: culture, social convention, poverty, greed, and the quest for a higher office.

Culture refers to our way of life, representing our traditional values. Respect for elders is an aspect of our culture that breeds sycophancy as we quickly slide from showing respect to flattery in order to obtain favours. 

Social conventions are arbitrary rules governing behaviour in the society. Two prominent conventions from which we slip into sycophancy are the love for titles and the penchant for being praised. Our society loves titles. Consider our titles of God and how many divine titles we use in a short prayer. We work hard to earn some titles and academic degrees and love to be addressed with them. We are offended, refuse to attend to invitations or reduce our commitment when people omit any of them. Since we desire to be addressed as such, sycophants utilise the opportunity by hyping them and even adding extra ones. 

On the other hand, our penchant for being praised is so strong that we now expect praise when we perform our basic duties and even when we are on the wrong path. We see this among Nigerian politicians who expect praise for building and maintaining roads as if these are not basic government duties. Politicians hire praise singers to chant at gatherings even when they know they are not meeting up to expectations.

Poverty is another reason for sycophancy, as we seek favours to improve our economic well-being and security and, sometimes, of our family. In Nigeria, priests’ remuneration largely depends on the wealth of the parish or school where they work. In other words, a priest working in a wealthier parish or school will earn much more than one in a poorer parish or school. Without a centralised system or diocesan subsidy, the income gap between priests is always wide.

Having been privileged to live in countries where priests’ remuneration is centralised or subsidised by the diocese, I discovered that the desire for a wealthier parish, which translates to better remuneration and economic security, is a major reason for sycophancy among priests in Nigeria. The unfortunate prevailing ideology in Nigeria is that to be sent to poorer parishes is a punishment, as if we were called to save ONLY the souls in wealthier parishes and ignore the ones in poorer areas.

To avoid the poorer parishes, we tend to continuously sing the praises of the bishop, even if he is on the wrong path and needs someone to call his attention to something undermining the salvation of souls. Sometimes, we support our praise-singing with unregulated and undocumented ‘accompaniments’ while encouraging others to do the same. Priests are also reticent to genuinely advise the bishop even when he privately seeks their honest feedback.

Apart from poverty, greed is another reason for sycophancy. While it is somewhat connected to poverty, greed stems from the insatiability of humans. Although problems that require monetary solutions never end, we sometimes want to continue to oppress and intimidate our colleagues and others with our wealth. We sometimes compete among ourselves and even with the laity on the acquisition of property and luxury items. Our lifestyle also pressures us to be greedy.

Another reason is the desire for a higher ecclesiastical office. While it is natural to desire a favour or aspire for a higher position, desperation for this sometimes makes us sycophants so that we can be rewarded with a higher office or recommended for a higher one.

The danger of sycophancy is that it snuffs out the truth from us, and as priests and religious, it undermines the Truth, the very foundation and purpose of our vocation and mission.

While nature, culture, and the Church require that we respect superiors, none supports sycophancy.

Natural law entails there are intergenerational differences among people due to societal changes and advancements in science and technology. This means that younger people must always have newer ideas than the older generation. A quick example is comparing what younger and older people do with their phones. In all cases, the older people invite the younger people to teach them. Failure to work with a younger person excludes the older person from the numerous benefits of these innovations.

Culture recognises that the young must always respect the elders. While respecting elders is a treasured heritage that must be safeguarded, our culture does not support sycophancy. An Igbo proverb says: “Asọkata ézè anya ekpuru nkata na ihu gwa ya okwu”. It roughly means that “After continuously not daring the king, one puts a veil and talks to him.” This proverb means that our culture does not promote perpetual silence in the face of improper deeds.

The Church knows that superiors need help to make the right decisions because they do not know everything. Hence, there are many references in canon law where superiors must consult their council before acting, even if the council’s opinion is merely consultative. Canon 127 states:

§1When the law prescribes that, in order to perform a juridical act, a Superior requires the consent or the advice of some college or group of persons, the college or group must be convened in accordance with can. 166, unless, if there is question of seeking advice only, particular or proper law provides otherwise. For the validity of the act, it is required that the consent be obtained of an absolute majority of those present, or that the advice of all be sought.

§2 When the law prescribes that, in order to perform a juridical act, a Superior requires the consent or advice of certain persons as individuals:

1° if consent is required, the Superior’s act is invalid if the Superior does not seek the consent of those persons, or acts against the vote of all or of any of them;

2° if advice is required, the Superior’s act is invalid if the Superior does not hear those persons. The Superior is not in any way bound to accept their vote, even if it is unanimous; nevertheless, without what is, in his or her judgement, an overriding reason, the Superior is not to act against their vote, especially if it is a unanimous one.

§3 All whose consent or advice is required are obliged to give their opinions sincerely. If the seriousness of the matter requires it, they are obliged carefully to maintain secrecy, and the Superior can insist on this obligation.

Moreover, ecclesiastical offices are established in a stable manner, so much so that the duties and rights proper to an office are defined by law (Can. 159). This means that we should not expect special praise for doing the duty required by law. For instance, a parish priest or assistant priest expecting praise for visiting the sick as if visiting the sick members is not part of his duties and rights (Cann. 529 §1, 911 §1, 1001). It is like a superior of a religious institute visiting a sick member and expecting praise as if it is not part of his or her duty (Can. 619). Jesus asks if a master should thank a servant because he did what was commanded. He continues that when we have done all that is commanded of us, we should say: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:9-10).

On the other hand, since I argue that economic security is the major reason for sycophancy in the Church in Nigeria, I recommend reviewing priests’ remuneration and social welfare systems. While centralisation, as done in Europe and North America, may not work in Nigeria, a hybridised centralisation system or a subsidy system is opportune to reduce the income gap between the wealthier and poorer parishes (I will discuss this in the future).

Of course, one can argue that sycophancy is a choice of how one wants to live. No one is the judge of another. Even if we successfully argue thus, the ethics of a third party bind us. How one decides to relate to superiors is his or her choice. However, it becomes a problem when one’s decisions negatively affect the people of God and the salvation of their souls. A council member or one opportune to advise superiors who refuses to give an honest opinion is doing a disservice to oneself, others, the Church, and God.  

Jesus, the founder of our faith, remains the model. Hence, I conclude this post with his encounter with sycophants. The gospel of Matthew reads:

“Then the Pharisees went and took counsel on how to entangle him (Jesus) in his talk. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men.’

Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax.’ And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard it, they marvelled; and they left him and went away” (Matt 22:15-16).

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


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