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Issue Date:  March 25, 2005

Bread-and-butter advice

It is, perhaps, an inopportune time to offer American big business as a model for church reform. Last week, former WorldCom chief executive Bernard J. Ebbers was found guilty of securities fraud and eight other counts by a New York jury. Next up: Enron’s Ken Lay, who -- whatever the outcome of his trial -- is less likely than insider-trader Martha Stewart to land a network television program.

Meanwhile, Halliburton benefits from no-bid contracts in Iraq, while the face of business most familiar to the average American, Wal-Mart, scours the countryside looking for new sites to construct its local business-destroying big-box stores. And the scandalous list goes on: Tyco International, Arthur Anderson, Fannie Mae, Adelphia Communications and Boeing, to name just a few notables among the nation’s corporate bad boys. It is true, as Savannah, Ga., Bishop Kevin Boland notes (see related story, Page 5) that the “values of corporate America” are not altogether praiseworthy.

In this context, one could imagine an American bishop -- busy juggling the innumerable tasks associated with running a complex diocese -- taking a jaundiced view of offers of help from the newly formed National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, a business-driven group that believes it has some of the expertise necessary to combat what ails the church. Some bishops will, no doubt, urge business to remove the beam from its eye before tackling the splinter in the church’s.

Which would be a mistake.

The crony capitalism described above does not represent the totality of American business any more than the 4,000-plus priests who raped and molested minors over the last half-century represent the totality of American Catholicism. One of the beauties of the church is its ability over two millennia to take what is best about a culture and adapt it to further its salvific mission. The church can learn from the best of the American business culture -- where benchmarks are set, results measured, and structures (however imperfect) of accountability and transparency are present.

The Roundtable leadership was wise, we think, to narrow its focus to “excellence and best practices in church finances, management practices and human resources.” This is not Call to Action or Voice of the Faithful or the Common Ground Initiative -- or the NCR editorial page, for that matter -- in three-piece suits. Those groups exist to prod and push the church or to debate topics involving some of Catholicism’s more intractable issues.

No, the Roundtable is something different. Its members are thoroughly mainstream, successful Catholic Americans, well funded and highly educated, who have a particular expertise -- the management of large organizations -- they feel compelled to share with an institution they love. They offer bread-and-butter stuff, basic to any large institution operating in a society as diverse, free and complex as the United States. It’s also an area where the American church -- free from the government regulation that secular nonprofits experience or the investor scrutiny faced by public corporations -- could benefit. Any church employee denied a timely performance review or any layperson who has tried to make sense of the convoluted, meaningless reports passed off as financial disclosure by most dioceses, knows the need for such a group.

Let’s pray the bishops do too.

National Catholic Reporter, March 25, 2005

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