The Pope, the Big Other and the Network


It’s a very, very tough leadership role to be negotiating international political agreements (Cuba – USA relations) and then act as the spiritual leader and preach to millions over the Christmas period, and trying to achieve this and much more in an organization that is morally bankrupt, filled with stifling bureaucracy and is actively undermining you. This is what is happening to Pope Francis, and during his Christmas greeting to the curia (the Vatican civil service), he made a very public condemnation of their morality and behaviours, naming their 15 sicknesses (see below), which undermine the work of the church.

Commentators point out just how dangerous this is, as the curia holds immense formal and informal power as reported in the Irish Times: This is more or less the same curia blamed by the College of Cardinals in great part for Pope Benedict’s unexpected resignation last year”

The leadership question posed here is where does Pope Francis find the resources and courage to challenge the curia so openly, and where does he believe the dynamic for change will come?

I propose that one way to look at this is to examine virtual and lateral dynamics, a) Vertically- how the Pope interprets the ‘Big Other’ in relation to the church, and how this mirrors the structures and culture of the Vatican; b) Laterally- how the Popes life-long engagement with grass-roots poverty, social movements and liberation theology, gives him a much clearer understanding how real change takes place in the 21st century through lateral not vertical dynamics.

The Big Other[1]

We all relate to a Big Other, sometimes we are aware of this, and sometimes not.

Religious fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists identify with a Big Other that is omnipotent, that offers one way truths, coming at us top down in a vertical fashion, that are non-negotiable. Religious fundamentalists identify the Big Other as an all-powerful God, usually a God of prohibition, a “thou shalt not” God. Secular fundamentalists place a total faith in a Big Other of science and rationality, an ideological force and discourse that cannot be questioned, but does not have a claim on the other social-cultural forces that shape our lives, such as nature, beauty, love, poetry, and spirituality.

These secular and religious fundamentalists fight culture wars between themselves, thinking each other crazy, but in essence they are two sides of the same coin as they both place their total faith in a Big other that espouses a dominant ideology that cannot be questioned. Anything outside of the realms of their dominant ideology is forbidden territory.

What Pope Francis seems to be aware of is that this vertical relationship between the Church and its omnipotent Big Other (God) has to change. This uni-lateral relationship of an all-powerful God of prohibition, who passes judgment upon us, is not the Big Other the Pope recognizes. The Catholic church mirrors its structures and culture on this way of relating to the Big Other, creating an all powerful, centralized and hierarchical church that has got out of control. The sexual abuse scandals are one manifestation of this and the cold manipulative curia is the another. Top down omnipotent power relations always lead to abuse and dehumanized behaviour. What this fundamentalist mindset does is create a Big Other than cannot be questioned, that is non-relational. It is an ideology that becomes normative, and unquestionable – whether the Big Other is scientism, or an omnipotent God; danger lurks.

What Pope Francis is doing is reclaiming a relational Big Other. In doing this he challenging contemporary western society that is in denial of the Big Other, claiming to be free of authority from above, which has led to narcissism, hedonism and fantasmatic ideas about individual freedom and our ability to attain pure enjoyment (what Lacan calls jouissance).  He is also undermining the omnipotent uni-directional Big Other, that resides in the Vatican at present.

The Pope is evoking a Big Other that each of us can relate to, the Big Other retains authority and elements of prohibition and limitation (it is not a cuddly sweet God!) but the relationship with the Big Other is dynamic, and it is a Big Other who can love as well as punish, and be generous as well as prohibit.

Facing limitations and relating to authority outside of the self, is vital for a healthy society. Doing it in a way that is relational and dynamic, is a 21st century way to relate to the Big Other and this transforms the fundamentalist mindset, and then the structure and culture of the organization changes as well. This is a reording of the libidinal economy of an organization. The Popes message is to the Catholic church, but also to secularists with similar fundamentalist mindsets.   It challenges us to think beyond our dominant ideology, and be prepared to engage in dynamic relation with authority, knowledge, and with that which is beyond us.

The Network

My hypothesis is that Pope Francis is also placing a greater faith in the digital and social revolution of the network society and the rising importance of lateral dynamics.  Alone he cannot transform the Catholic church or the curia, but as a leader-from-the-edge (the first outsider from the Americas to take the role) he understands the power of new social movements that are emerging in all walks of life.  He understands liberation theology and the grass-roots power that subverts hierarchy and utilizes community and lateral networks to create change.

Pope Francis seems to be working on a dual task

1) To trust, encourage and influence the power of the laity. To unleash the talent, commitment and love of the millions who are working for a better world. Believing change will come from the lateral and bottom up, not top down.

2) To transform the relationship people have with their Big Other, to recognize a Big Other that demands prohibitions, and yet also can be generous, loving and redemptive. Most importantly, a Big Other that is relational – not uni-directional, omnipotent and punitive.

This is radical theology, and yet it goes beyond the theological. The same principles apply to the secular world that either lives in pretence that the Big Other is dead; or worse, takes a fundamentalist position and puts scientism as a new unquestionable faith. Denying the Big Other merely displaces the problem elsewhere, for the Big Other is with us whether we are religious or secular, the task is how we relate to the Big Other, and not to be condemned to follow it either consciously or unconsciously either as an omnipotent God, or as an omnipotent ideology.

Lessons for leaders: 

Go through Pope Francis checklist and see how you, your leadership team and your organization fair against this list.

Lessons for Coaches

What is the coachee, and what are you bringing into the room in terms of hidden belief systems, and where do you imagine hidden authority lies? i.e. what is the unspoken Big Other in the room?


In full: Pope Francis’s 15 ‘ailments of the Curia’

1) Feeling immortal, immune or indispensable. “A Curia that doesn’t criticise itself, that doesn’t update itself, that doesn’t seek to improve itself is a sick body.”

2) Working too hard. “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

3) Becoming spiritually and mentally hardened. “It’s dangerous to lose that human sensibility that lets you cry with those who are crying, and celebrate those who are joyful.”

4) Planning too much. “Preparing things well is necessary, but don’t fall into the temptation of trying to close or direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which is bigger and more generous than any human plan.”

5) Working without coordination, like an orchestra that produces noise. “When the foot tells the hand, ‘I don’t need you’ or the hand tells the head ‘I’m in charge.’”

6) Having “spiritual Alzheimer’s”. “We see it in the people who have forgotten their encounter with the Lord … in those who depend completely on their here and now, on their passions, whims and manias, in those who build walls around themselves and become enslaved to the idols that they have built with their own hands.”

7) Being rivals or boastful. “When one’s appearance, the colour of one’s vestments or honorific titles become the primary objective of life.”

8) Suffering from “existential schizophrenia”. “It’s the sickness of those who live a double life, fruit of hypocrisy that is typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that academic degrees cannot fill. It’s a sickness that often affects those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic work, losing contact with reality and concrete people.”

9) Committing the “terrorism of gossip”. “It’s the sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs.”

10) Glorifying one’s bosses. “It’s the sickness of those who court their superiors, hoping for their benevolence. They are victims of careerism and opportunism, they honour people who aren’t God.”

11) Being indifferent to others. “When, out of jealousy or cunning, one finds joy in seeing another fall rather than helping him up and encouraging him.”

12) Having a “funereal face”. “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

13) Wanting more. “When the apostle tries to fill an existential emptiness in his heart by accumulating material goods, not because he needs them but because he’ll feel more secure.”

14) Forming closed circles that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad scandals especially to our younger brothers.”

15) Seeking worldly profit and showing off. “It’s the sickness of those who insatiably try to multiply their powers and to do so are capable of calumny, defamation and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines, naturally to show themselves as being more capable than others.”

[1] the Symbolic big Other also can refer to (often fantasmatic/fictional) ideas of anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, Science, or the analyst as the “subject supposed to know” [sujet supposé savoir]