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Lessons in earthly management


The church today. Anguish. Pain. Conjecture. Bewilderment. The erosion of trust.

Why did it happen? Who is to blame? How can it be stopped? How do we prevent it from happening again? Have we heard the worst? What is all this telling us? Will good grow out of it?

This Perspective deals with only one issue.

“Who is to blame?” doesn’t cut through the morass quite as sharply as “what is to blame?”

What happened has occurred because the Catholic church is a closed, clerical, patriarchal society that operates in hierarchical secrecy. It has, in earthly terms, both a management and marketing problem. Like a corporation losing its market, the majority of the faithful -- the educated Catholics as customers/consumers/recipients of edicts from on high -- aren’t buying much of what the Vatican is selling in the name of Jesus.

No Catholic I know wants divisions and schisms. Rather, grownup, mature, involved and believing Catholics want two-way communication and trust -- and an era that leads to what Tertullian noted, “These Christians, see how they love one another.”

Nonetheless, every level of church secrecy has produced a leadership -- most cardinals, archbishops and bishops and priests, the pope and the curia -- that believes it is absolutely right in what it says and does.

The omnipotence is a self-reinforcing mechanism. The church is able to believe itself invulnerable and above account not because God ordained it but because the leadership is completely shielded from those who would tell it otherwise. What is to blame is a mindset reinforced by the style and tone of the management structure of the entire system.

The management system was fine for the Tridentine top-down, do-as-you’re-told, men-only church. And in fact, the operations portion of the system worked better in Pius XII’s day than it does now. Pius XII’s was the era when management guru Peter Drucker footnoted that the Catholic church was one of the three best managed organizations in the world, along with General Motors and the Prussian army general staff -- which gives us some idea of the company the church kept, management-wise.

In modern management terms, Ratzinger’s September 2000 Dominus Iesus (which implied Roman Catholicism had the monopoly on God through Jesus and everyone should buy our product exclusively) was like Coke’s New Coke. Both had to be retracted pretty quickly when the consumers gagged in disbelief. Coke disavowed its product. The best the Vatican’s free thinkers could manage was to distance the church from what Ratzinger thundered (and the pope imprimatured) through open criticism of Dominus Iesus by the retired and current head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Too many Catholic church leaders are -- like Enron’s management -- fear-stricken by what closer scrutiny might reveal: on sexual activity cover-ups and/or on finances, on excluding women and/or refusing to ordain married men, on celibacy and/or the sexuality issues. The leaders know that some of what the church management and teaching persists in doesn’t hold up.

In a situation like this, what does earthly management ask? (That question alone guarantees six letters in three days reminding me, “The church isn’t like any other institution, etc., etc.” Given what I refer to, those anticipated letter writers should get themselves appointed to a diocesan or pontifical finance or advisory council and find out for themselves.)

The faithful is capable of co-leadership of the church -- out of their faith life experience. (Think: consumer experience in the market place of faith or, in church terms, sensus fidelium.)

Meanwhile, hey out there, we faithful are present, remain present, because we want the basic product: Jesus’ all-encompassing inclusive love expressed in so many styles and rituals. We believe in Jesus’ guidance in our living and dying. He gives us meaning in the Eucharist, in what happens to us in community with other believers, in his word in the scriptures as he constantly creates and recreates our intimate and extended family, as we meet him, meet God, in prayer, contemplation, in creation, and in art and beauty as we individually find it and behold it.

What we behold, too, is a church management system unresponsive to our everyday lives and experience, unresponsive to the rapid growth in scientific and technological knowledge; unresponsive to the need for prophetic action on the distressed state of today’s people and world.

In the face of this Catholic management unresponsiveness, I asked a Catholic who created his own highly successful multinational corporation to give me the basic what-questions-does-management-ask. He provided these:

  • Is the organization having a problem? If so, why is it having that problem?
  • Is the organization closing its eyes to an obvious reality creating its problem?
  • If the problem is public, has the managerial reaction been to attempt to hide the problem, increase control, or engage in damage control -- rather than to realistically appraise and address the situation?

Facts essential to a solution:

  • Unless the cause of a problem is identified, the solution is not effective.
  • Unless the top man is a listener, capable of encouraging honest feedback, sincerely offered and capable of responding to that feedback in the interests of organizational survival and progress, then the organization will continue to falter and diminish.

There, that shouldn’t be too hard for the Vatican and most of the world’s bishops to swallow. And if they need a little bit of sugar to make the medicine go down, Matthew offers an entire cube in: “Fear not.”

Arthur Jones is the NCR’s editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002