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Cardinal’s welcome swipe at careerism

A career seems like a perfectly decent thing to have. It even carries overtones of high achievement. It’s amazing, though, what an extra syllable can do to a word. Careerism smacks of something less worthy. The word ambition is never far behind it. And careerism seems to raise its head in the very areas where its presence is most unsavory -- where one expects to find altruism rather than self-interest. If one were starting a religion, for example, one would be wise to exclude careerism.

The bad news is that the church has long wallowed in careerism. The good news is that highly placed Catholic officials -- albeit in the autumn of their own careers -- are calling it a curse and urging an end to it.

Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, retired head of the Congregation for Bishops -- than whom no one was in a better position to know about the aspirations of bishops -- started the outcry (NCR, May 28). He was appalled by the blatant ambition of bishops and would-be bishops propelled by vanity or various other too-human hungers. It was refreshing to hear a ranking prelate call this abuse by its name.

Now comes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with the same message (see page 10): “In the church, above all, there should be no sense of careerism. To be a bishop should not be considered a career with a number of steps, moving from one see to another, but a very humble service.” This, too, is an admirable admission from on high.

It would be a pity if these cardinals were to defang their own criticism by applying a too-benign interpretation to careerism. They seem to suggest this is all about what’s good for the church rather than about vaulting ambition. Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the Rome diocese, among other things, spells out this argument from ecclesial expediency. Climbing the ladder is good because you can apply what you learned on the lower rungs to the situation higher up, he said.

This sound suspiciously like rationalization. The dictionary defines careerism: “The policy or practice of advancing one’s career often at the cost of one’s integrity.” People know what this means in practice. It’s not about who will serve best in one diocese or several. Other words come trailing, such as vanity, the quest for power or advancement. And it’s not only about bishops. It’s at its most distasteful in young priests whose sights are already set on high eminence.

And speaking of eminence, Gantin suggested the rank of cardinal should not be associated with particular sees. But why should it be associated with bishops at all? A church is no place for princes.

Still, it’s great to have their gray eminences debating such interesting and salutary matters.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 1999