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The Splendor of Hierarchy in Catholic Life

Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

The Satanic wave of egalitarianism that has drowned the world since the Protestant Revolution of the 16th century until the Communist Revolution of the 20th century attacks, slanders, undermines and tries to wither everything that symbolizes hierarchy, presenting every inequality as an injustice. It is part of human nature, says the egalitarian, for man to feel diminished and annoyed when he bows before a superior. If he does so, it is only because certain prejudices or the demands of economic circumstances force him to do so.

But, he continues, this violence against the natural order of things does not go unpunished. The superior deforms his soul by arrogance and vanity, which make him demand someone to bow before him. With his subservient gesture, the inferior loses something of the personality proper to a free and independent man. In other words, whenever a person bows before another, there is a winner and a loser, a despot and a slave.

The Catholic doctrine teaches us exactly the opposite. God created the universe according to a hierarchical order. And He determined that hierarchy be the essence of every truly human and Catholic order.

In the presence of the superior, the inferior can and must pay tribute to him, without the slightest fear of being lowered or degraded. The superior, in turn, should not be vain or boastful. His superiority does not result from force, but from the holy order of things, desired by the Creator.

A Carthusian monk  showing respect to a prior

In the Catholic Church, customs express this doctrine with admirable fidelity. In every ambience, rituals and formulas of courtesy markedly emphasize the principle of hierarchy. And in the Catholic Church we clearly see how much nobility can exist in obedience, and how much elevation of soul and goodness can exist in the exercise of authority and in preeminence.

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The photo at left taken in a Spanish Carthusian monastery, a monk kneels and kisses the scapular of his superior. It is an expression of his entire submission.

However, if we attentively consider the scene, we will see how much manliness, strength of personality, sincerity of conviction, and elevation of motives this humble, kneeling monk puts into his gesture. In it we find something holy and chivalrous, grandiose and simple, which makes us think of the times in the Golden Legend, the Song of Roland, and the Fioretti of St. Francis of Assisi.

How this kneeling, humble and unknown religious is greater than the modern man, a self-infatuated, impersonal, anonymous and expressionless molecule in that vast amorphous mass into which contemporary society was transformed.

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After viewing the humility of the monk, let us consider that of the gentleman.

Count Wladimir d'Ormesson kneeling before Pius XII
Count Wladimir d'Ormesson (1888-1973) was France's ambassador to the Holy See. In our photo at right, we see him dressed in the solemn attire of a French diplomat, kneeling before Pope Pius XII during an audience. It is difficult to imagine an action that better expresses the high awareness of his own dignity and simultaneously the great respect before the transcendent and supreme authority with which the Ambassador had the honor to meet.

He kneels on the ground, but his trunk and neck are erect, displaying the nobility and reverence of his greeting. In short, everything shows the great respect and dignity of those traditional diplomatic rituals – which the Count faithfully interprets here – that developed in the golden centuries of Christian Civilization.

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If we turn our eyes to the first photo again and consider the Prior, we see that there is a contrast between his large white figure, erect, robust, stable, expressing authority, security and paternal protection, and his facial expression, which seems neutral, impassive, serene, a little distant. The ensemble of his figure expresses the official position of the Prior. The face reflects the detachment and simplicity of the man. For it is not to the man as such that the homage of the monk is directed, but to the position the Prior represents.

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Finally, with all due respect, let us consider the position of the Pontiff. Seated on a small throne, he does not rise to receive the homage of the ambassador. However, he slightly inclines his trunk forward to draw closer to the Count. He keeps the Count’s hand in his. The Pope gives to his welcome of the Count a note of marked amenity. Maintaining himself completely as the Pope, he expresses a great benevolence and high regard for the Ambassador.

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We see four attitudes that are inspired by a very hierarchical view of things. All are noble, dignified and honorable, each in its own way. In a word, here we see the splendor of Catholic humility and the magnificence of a hierarchical life…

Catolicismo, n. 70, 1956

Posted November 2, 2012

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