National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

A message to America’s bishops: Listen to Yogi


American bishops probably don’t read the scholarly literature in organizational science. But an issue of the distinguished journal Organizational Science titled, “Trust as an Organizing Principle,” is a “must read” insofar as it describes “accumulating evidence” of the pivotal role of trust to institutions like the Catholic church.

Trust generates two types of benefits. It produces direct effects on the performance of individuals and units. High levels of trust enable better communication, negotiation, and personal relations; low levels of trust make organizational life more difficult and costly. Trust also generates indirect effects, creating or enhancing conditions that are conducive to achieving goals. A “high trust” environment is more conducive to achieving success while a “low trust” setting impedes success.

The Catholic church has become a “low trust” environment and provokes the most serious, pressing questions. We all want to know:

  • Have all the “secrets” have been discovered and revealed?
  • Can we believe that new child protection policies will be vigorously implemented?
  • Can we trust our bishop?

I recently asked a group of 200 parishioners if they believed we had “hit bottom” regarding news of pedophile priests and church cover-up. The answer was a resounding “No!” Many believe there are more secrets to be revealed. We do not believe that our bishops have “told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” We do not trust them. How can it be otherwise?

Trusting another person is a “leap of faith” that involves a risk. In today’s church, that is a difficult leap for many to take. There is a profound -- and lingering -- sense of betrayal. A recent Gallup poll shows the precipitous decline in public confidence in bishops. How can it be otherwise?

The costs of distrust are high to individuals and institutions. Expectations must be verified, often at great cost, creating a constant game of testing one another. (Recall Ronald Reagan’s famous comment on Soviet disarmament, “Trust -- but verify.”) And there are emotional and psychological costs -- anxiety and frustration replace confidence and assurance. All of this is at work in today’s Catholic church.

Organizational science recommends that administrators employ a form of “open book management” to build trust. John Case, a successful business writer, has written that open book management is reducible to one big axiom: Treat people like adults. This is good advice for Catholic bishops.

American laity are among the best educated in the history of the world. The refusal of some bishops to engage in a dialogue with the laity is self-defeating. And the continued failure of some bishops to disclose financial information is absurd and damaging. A large number of Catholic lay women and men are business professionals with the aptitude -- and desire -- to read and understand financial materials. Public audits of parishes and diocesan financial affairs are essential to restoration of trust and confidence.

As long as Catholic laity are treated as second-class citizens by bishops, the trust gap will widen. As that oft-quoted wise man, Yogi Berra, said, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’re gonna get what you always got.” This, too, is good advice for bishops.

The administration of the American Catholic church has failed miserably. Performance is lagging in every significant area: Regular attendance is down; donations are down; the morale of priests is down; the spiritual state of the laity is in disarray; many young people are leaving the church or viewing it as irrelevant to their lives. If America’s bishops were chief executives of publicly held companies, many would be out of a job.

The bishops are facing a yawning “trust gap” between expectations and performance. Leaders cannot lead if followers will not follow. Restoring trust among the laity, priests and bishops is essential. When the history of the Catholic church in the 21st century is written, historians will rightly look at the role of trust as the keystone to all that follows.

“Bishops,” we plead, “listen to Yogi!”

James E. Post is president and a cofounder of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics formed in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that seeks participation in the governance and guidance of the Catholic church. Post is a professor of management at Boston University, where he teaches strategic management of nonprofits, business ethics and corporate public affairs.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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