We have seen the rise and fall of any number of celebrity priests and preachers who catch our attention momentarily and then fall for one reason or another. The most famous of these is Father Coughlin, the radio priest, who rose during the depression and gained a nationwide audience. His broadcasts were an eclectic mixture of religion, antisemitism, conspiracy theories and political commentary with a pronounced sympathy for some of Hitler's platform. He was only silenced at the outbreak of WW2 when his radio program was taken off the air. Finally, when the US entered the war he was under threat of a sedition trial and his bishop ordered him to cease all political activities in exchange for lenient treatment. Estimates of his radio audience at his peak were 30 million.
I am not interested in whether this person or that is another Fr. Coughlin. It seems not to matter since as soon as one of these celebrities falls another rises to take his place. What is interesting about this phenomenon is the need some people feel to be led by someone of this type. The phrase "the leader principle" ought to sound a little ominous to most ears. Führerprinzip is the German translation and it was the governing principle of the German Reich. It was an idea that grew out of Social Darwinism that held that certain gifted individuals were born to rule and should form the elite of any society.
The failures of this notion ought to be obvious. Hitler fell at great cost, leaving Germany in ruins. Some of these celebrity priests have also fallen, leaving their flocks in disarray and susceptible to all sorts of divisiveness. Even the relatively benign change of leadership from Pope Benedict XVI to Pope Francis has left people in some quarters confused and anxious. It was as though Benedict had been latched onto as "the leader" in certain circles and his resignation was seen as an abandonment.
Let me state this quite clearly. The Pope is Christ's Vicar and his purpose is to point towards Christ. Fair enough but when people confuse the finger pointing to Jesus with Jesus himself then there are serious problems. There is no discontinuity between Benedict and Francis... they are both pointing at the same person. If you take your eyes off Jesus to are likely to find, like St. Peter, that you begin to sink.
Those who cannot grasp the notion that we may at once owe fealty to a bishop while at the same time disagreeing with him may look upon loyalty to a bishop with some derision. The leader principle states that the leader is always right and that someone who is mistaken cannot be leader. The notion that one may be completely free, yet owe fealty to another is a difficult one to grasp. The difficulty lies in a mistaken notion of freedom from attachments or obligations. If I am free, then I am free to bind myself to another by a vow. Christ does not compel our submission.
The freedom to make this choice, to make this rash vow, carries with it a certain fear and anxiety. There is always security in being told what to do, whether by the group or some leader. The temptation to trade this freedom for security may be achieved through authoritarianism, destructiveness or conformity. Through authoritarianism one surrenders one's freedom and submits to the control of another. Through destructiveness one destroys that which cannot be controlled. Through conformity one adopts the beliefs and mores of one's society. The left seems to have an affinity for conformity and you are likely to hear about consensus and committees. The right seems to be susceptible to authoritarianism. All of these allow one to avoid the inherent anxiety of freedom.
The left seeks refuge from their anxiety and fears in submitting their will to the group while the right is on a fruitless search for the perfect leader. Both want relief from their sense of fear and anxiety. Both are continually disappointed while Jesus only offers the cross and asks us to place our fears and anxieties there.
Now this I say, that every one of you saith: I indeed am of Paul; and I am of Apollo; and I am of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you? or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I give God thanks, that I baptized none of you but Crispus and Caius; Lest any should say that you were baptized in my name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanus; besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not in wisdom of speech, lest the cross of Christ should be made void. For the word of the cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is, to us, it is the power of God. 1Cor1:12-18