Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Church, Disagreements, Conflicts and Resolution

Sorry for the long lapse since my last article but I’ve been on multiple trips with only a few days at home in the last month.  My travels included witnessing Turkey’s internal conflict firsthand while my time at home included hearing secondhand accounts about an internal parish conflict.  Both conflicts involved leaders with conflict resolution approaches of “I’m the boss; I’m in charge; do what I say or else.”    

This weekend’s gospel passage from Luke 9 also involves a conflict.  Due to a long-standing conflict between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus is rejected by a Samaritan village.  Angered by the rejection, two apostles, James and John, ask if they can call down fires from heaven to destroy the village but Jesus rebukes them for the idea.

Though conflicts involve disagreements, conflicts are characterized by broken communications and destructive patterns whereas simple disagreements usually foster positive growth and change based upon healthy communications between disagreeing parties.  However, differences are so strong in conflicts that often communication is seen as pointless and so genuine understanding gets replaced by assumptions.  

The conflict between the pastor and some parish school parents in my parish is just one of many internal conflicts within the church. Currently the church seems to abound with internal conflicts on global, national, diocesan, and parish levels.  These conflicts each began as disagreements but somehow devolved into outright conflicts.  Why are there so many unresolved internal church conflicts?


Disagreements are simply different opinions based upon different contexts, interpretations, needs, and intentions.  Because people are different, intermittent disagreements are natural, expected and healthy. 

If internal church disagreements fostered positive growth and change, one would expect the church to be teeming with active participants rather than experiencing atrophied Mass attendance.  Why doesn’t the church see disagreements as healthy growth catalysts but rather treats them as destructive conflicts?  Why is it so difficult to resolve internal church conflicts?

A brief overview of conflict resolution styles is probably helpful.  The most common conflict resolution styles are based upon a dual-concern model which balances concern for self against concern for others.   As you read the different styles, think about which styles you see used by the hierarchy at various levels.

  1. Accommodating: Having higher concern for others than self, one party yields to another party that has higher concern for self than for others.  This sometimes resolves minor conflicts but often worsens more significant conflicts because it spawns resentment.
  2. Avoiding: Having minimal concern for others’ interests, one party ignores the conflict hoping it will disappear.  However, that party’s inaction and passiveness often escalates the conflict because the inhumanity of being ignored aggravates the other party.
  3. Collaborating: Balancing concern of self and others, the parties communicate and work towards a win-win resolution.
  4. Compromise: Having concern for self and others as well as a sense of fairness, both parties bargain in a give-and-take manner with each side yielding to the other for some things.  This is a blend of accommodating and collaborating styles and is frequently used to reach interim solutions.
  5. Confrontation: Having very strong self-interest, at least one party tries to dominate the other by using power to intimidate or force compliance.  The objective is a win-lose scenario.  If communications exist they are hostile.

It’s also worth considering a few common psychological conditions that instigate or fuel conflicts: codependency, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Hubris Syndrome.  Again, as you review the symptom lists, think about which ones you’ve seen in the hierarchy, in laypeople and yourself.


  • External reference – others are the source of happiness or pain
  • Controlling others – since others are the source of happiness and pain
  • Afraid of losing people
  • An unbalanced desire for other’s approval
  • Rigid defenses out of fear of being rejected
  • Delusional beliefs and a willingness to lie or accept lies to retain others’ approval
  • Loss of self
  • Martyr complex

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

  • Sincerely believe they are “special”/better than others, and often disdain “inferiors”
  • Fantasize about power or success
  • Exaggerate talents or achievements and have unrealistic goals
  • Expect constant praise
  • Fail to acknowledge other's feelings and concerns, sometimes appearing as unemotional
  • Expect others to follow their plans and thus take advantage of or manipulate others
  • Are jealous of others and think others are jealous of them
  • Have difficulty establishing and maintaining healthy relationships
  • Have fragile self-esteem and therefore are easily hurt or take offense

Hubris Syndrome

  • Have a messianic zeal and believe they are only accountable to a higher court or God
  • Have an unshakeable belief that they are right and place being "right" above cost, practicality or outcome
  • Have contempt for those who disagree with them
  • Equate themselves with the organization and use the royal we speaking as though representing universal opinions of the group
  • Have excessive self confidence from unshakeable belief they are “right”
  • Have incompetency in basic leadership skills
  • Act to cast self in positive light and give highest priority to their image
  • Lose contact with reality
  • Act recklessly and impulsively
  • Find power is a way for self-glorification

First, why are there so many internal church conflicts?  Due to manifestations within the clergy of Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Hubris Syndrome symptoms, I think the hierarchy puts numerous disagreements on a fast-path to conflict by refusing to communicate.  Instead of benefiting from disagreements, any disagreement is labeled as “dissent” or “evil.”  Most disagreements immediately jump to conflict because communication and dialogue are not permitted.  This is the case with married clergy, female ordinations, human sexuality, and women’s health topics.  In some cases the hierarchy even seems to pick fights.

Some pastors and bishops try to resolve conflicts they created by using a combination of avoidance and confrontation styles sprinkled with Hubris Syndrome and Narcissistic Personality Disorder behaviors. Inspired by their unyielding sense of being “right”, they ignore others’ concerns and use their position of power to intimidate and force others into compliance with their will.  While having a profoundly strong self-interest, they encourage parishioners to have a profoundly strong other-interest wishing parishioners to adopt an accommodating conflict resolution style.  

Some codependent laypeople craving clergy approval comply.  However, due to some people’s God-given attributes or life circumstances being mutually exclusive of the hierarchy’s unyielding definition of “right”, some people will never secure the clergy’s approval.  Such people who are also codependents often leave the church emotionally crushed by the impossibility of securing clergy approval.  Many non-codependent laypeople do not comply and many of them just leave.   Thus, this doesn’t seem to be an effective resolution style unless the desired resolution is a church exclusively filled with codependents fitting a narrow definition of “right.”

In the sexual abuse and bishop accountability conflicts, the predator priests used children’s natural codependency to secure their prey.  The lies, cover-ups, movements and legislative ploys to permit predatory priests to continue or avoid criminal prosecution rely upon centuries of cultivated codependency amongst the laity as well as Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Hubris Syndrome within the clergy.  This is all wrapped in a dominant avoidance conflict resolution style with smatterings of confrontation.

However, access to information, secular culture efforts to address codependency, global connectivity, elevated education levels, and egalitarianism associated with democracy, as well as numerous other social factors not mentioned, profoundly reduce people’s willingness to “go along to get along.”  People more openly disapprove of clergy.  This stands at odds with codependent clergy craving laypeople’s approval and is exacerbated by clergy Narcissistic Personality Disorder behaviors that become indignant in the absence of approval.

The situation is somewhat analogous to parents having children grow up.  Some parents foster their children’s growth towards independence; others cultivate lifelong codependency.  Some parents guide their children’s growth past iconic hero-worship of parents; others try to preserve heroic illusions of perfection.  Some parents want their children to become adults; some prefer they remain children.  Some wish to be teachers; others wish to be controllers. 

However, in the case of actual parents, there is now some form of governance structure holding parents accountable to their children whereas Canon Law expresses no accountability or recourse when spiritual fathers abuse their children spiritually, physically, sexually or emotionally.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus holds the apostles in check from abusing laypeople.  Since the people of God are the church and the church is the Body of Christ, Jesus is still present to rebuke the apostles through the laity.  But, with the combination of codependency, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Hubris Syndrome, will the apostles listen or continue with their delusional promotion of self as equivalent to the totality of Christ? 

What is the proper response?  What effective conflict resolution styles could be used?  What can be done to address codependency, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Hubris Syndrome that fuel conflicts?  How do we establish healthy communications about differing opinions so as to foster healthy growth?  Or, is the church in an uncorrectable spiral akin to Greek tragedy’s definition of hubris, “an excess of ambition, pride, etc…, ultimately causing the transgressor's ruin”?