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  Home :: 2006 September :: Why the church’s hierarchy isn’t working Andrew Greeley


Why the church’s hierarchy isn’t working
Andrew Greeley


TheReverend Andrew Greeley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Hisnew books this spring are The Catholic Revolution: New Wine in OldWineskins (University of California Press), Priests: A Calling inCrisis (University of Chicago Press), and a novel, The Priestly Sins(Tor).


Despitethe fax machines and computers ubiquitous today in offices of the Romancuria, the institutional organization of the Vatican has not changedappreciably since the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the organizationof the Vatican worked well enough one hundred fifty years ago. Yet thechurch stretches to the ends of the earth and is now responsible forthe religious life of at least 1.2 billion people in a world of jettransportation and almost instant communication. Moreover, the modestreforms of Vatican II quite unintentionally destabilized the structures(what sociologists call behavior patterns and the supportingmotivations) of the church and thus diminished the credibility of itsleadership. Any attempt to govern with the same style that waseffective in 1850 would be like the United States trying to return tothe presidential style of Theodore Roosevelt who used to sit in arocking chair in the “rose garden” at the end of the day and talk tofederal workers as they walked home across the White House lawn.

Toa relative Vatican outsider like myself, the church’s need fororganizational change seems self-evident. Yet few bishops are ready toconsider a drastic reform of the church’s internal operations. They donot comprehend that decision making is shaped by the informationavailable to the decision makers, and that, in the absence of goodinformation, serious mistakes are made.

In this article I willdevelop a social-science critique of the internal organization of theCatholic Church and offer tentative recommendations for reform. Indoing so, I will eschew theological arguments. My thesis is that manyof the problems facing the church today flow not from theologicalerror, bad will, or malice, but from inadequate information. Areorganization of the church will not by itself heal the polarizationbetween those who enthusiastically support the Second Vatican Counciland those who want to reverse it, but without an open flow ofinformation, healing is not possible.

Many in Rome and elsewherein the Catholic world contend that the church does not need socialscience because it has the Holy Spirit. Hence the tools of managementscience are not relevant. Nor, because of its divine origin, does thechurch need to apply to itself its own principle of subsidiarity(nothing should be done at a higher and larger level that can be doneat a lower and smaller level). Such reasoning, based on simplisticfaith and even more simplistic theology (or a calculating one), ineffect regards the church as purely divine and thus unaffected by theproblems that beset other human institutions. Don’t worry about thepoverty of leadership, pious folk (including cardinals) tell me, Godwill not desert his church. (Does that also mean God was responsiblefor all the errors and mistakes the church has made?) Yet all that waspromised to the church by Jesus was survival—the gates of hell will notprevail against it.

Whether this erroneous perspective isbased on naive piety or (deliberately) bad theology does not matter. Itmust be dismissed out of hand, for the church is subject to the sameorganizational dynamics as other human institutions. If the church isto function effectively it needs to follow the same principles ofsubsidiarity any other human institution must. Subsidiarity opens theway for the maximum input from the Spirit. There may be some sense inwhich subsidiarity does not apply to the church, but there must be somesense in which it does—at least when it comes to organizationalmanagement. (John XXIII said that it does apply to the church; JohnPaul II says it does not. I am prepared to agree with both; they werespeaking of different dimensions of the church.)


The span of supervision
Perhapsthe most serious issue facing the next papal conclave is whether thepresent strongly centralized organization of the church can continue.The truth is that it doesn’t work very well because the currentstructure is “flat.” There is in practice no ordered hierarchy leadingdown from the pope to the local bishops, and no reliable flow ofinformation coming up from the local church.

For example, thepope must supervise several thousand bishops. Yet corporate theorysuggests that an executive should supervise no more than sevensubordinates. True, the pope exercises control with the help of theheads of the various curial congregations and the dozen or so membersof his cabinet, but these men specialize in subject matter (liturgy,the making of bishops, etc.), not in regions of the world or specificcountries. The pope’s task is therefore impossible, both because he ispersonally responsible for far too many supervisory tasks, and becausethe available sources of information—either through the papal nunciosin the various countries (men who do not remain in a country long andwhose competence may vary greatly) or through the various curialdepartments (who collect their information mostly from negativecomplaints)—are bound to be thin and often contradictory. Even if itwere possible for the pope to personally supervise every bishop in theworld, he does not have good information about the local churches onwhich to base his decisions. The leadership structure of the church haschanged little since it supervised Europe primarily and communicated bystagecoach over the Alps. How can the Vatican know the truth about aspecific problem in a specific country?

Think of the Vatican’srelations with the United States. We routinely hear of Rome’s solemnconcern for the problems affecting the American church. Yet the truthis that the Vatican is largely clueless, not simply because of itsanti-American bias or because of stupidity (though one must not excludethose factors), but because there is no way for the curia to acquireadequate information about the United States or any other country. Thusthe pope was, through no fault of his own, apparently not aware of theseriousness of the sexual-abuse problem. How was he to know, if no onetold him?

It took a long, long time for the curia to realize howserious the crisis was in the United States. It is not clear even nowthat it understands the sexual-abuse problem, or realizes that theproblem is not confined to the church in the United States. One Romanofficial attributed clerical sexual abuse to the “hypersexuality ofAmerican culture.” In the absence of better information, more carefulresearch, and deeper understanding of the various countries in theCatholic world, curial officials fall back on vague generalizationsthat are often little more than uninformed clichés. They do so notbecause they are malicious, but because they are ignorant. Inadequateinformation leads to bad decisions. That inevitably happens in a “flat”organization. Whoever the next pope is, he must open up communicationwithin the church and transform the flatness of the organization.

Anothermark of good management is the ability to govern collaboratively. Inevery organization someone is ultimately responsible for makingdecisions. Successful managers listen very carefully to subordinates,however, and take into account their advice and recommendations. Theold adage that two heads are better than one has at least this merit:the eyes in the second head may see something the first does not.

It is not unfair to say that since the bishops went home at the end ofthe Second Vatican Council there has been little collaborativegovernance in the church. The current synod system, for example, is theecclesiastical version of a Potemkin village. Neither Paul VI nor JohnPaul II has taken the triennial synod of bishops very seriously.Bishops have no control of the agenda. While bishops may speak, they donot engage in active debate and the proposals that emerge often do notreflect what was said, much less the emphasis with which it was said.When Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco had the audacity some yearsago at a synod to suggest that more dialogue with the laity on birthcontrol might be appropriate, he was promptly put down by curialrepresentatives. There is no serious collaboration and little tolerancefor new thinking. In fact, as one Roman cleric said to me, the presentpope cannot work collaboratively. The same thing could have been saidabout Paul VI, who seemed to care only about what his enemies in thecuria would say. He removed major issues, like birth control, from theagenda of the synods. The dream of collegiality that emerged from thecouncil died.

Historically, of course, collaborative work at thehighest levels of the church has been rare. But we desperately need itnow. The flat shape of the church and lack of collaboration are not,one can safely say, part of the essence of the church. Theseorganizational failings are now preventing the upward flow ofinformation and the utilization of all available talent and insight,and placing the church in a straitjacket. The pope may speak onmarriage with serene confidence. Yet if he wants to be heard by thoseto whom he is speaking, it would be helpful if his listeners felt theyhad some input into his reflections.

As the most elementarydictum of management science puts it, all those whose cooperation willbe necessary to implement a decision should have input. To put it moreclearly, top church leadership should not only want to listen, not onlytry to learn how to listen (neither of which it is currently ready todo), but must see to it that effective channels for both communicationand collaboration exist at every level.

Some will complain thatthis is nothing more than an argument for making doctrinal decisions bymajority vote. That is not my goal. My proposal seeks only to involveas many people as possible in collaborative efforts so that the finaldecision will be based on the best possible information and the wisestpossible insights. If that happens, the final decision will have moreinfluence rather then less. One may even say Rome will have greaterauthority.

One must assume that the Spirit still blows whithershe will, and that the Holy See has no monopoly on it. Indeed, one ofthe primary roles of any bishop, including the bishop of Rome, is thediscernment of spirits: which voices must be listened to and which not.Without collaboration and subsidiarity, however, most voices are notgoing to get a hearing, much less contribute to the church’sdiscernment. In fact, in present-day Rome the only discernment thattakes place is at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whichjudges theologies and theologians and seeks only to prevent dangerousheresies. Virtually all other insights, intuitions, suggestions, orexperiences that may be pertinent to the life of the church and thewelfare of its people are ignored.

Paul VI was not muchinterested in promoting the flow of information, nor is John Paul II.To be fair, few of their predecessors, especially in the previous twocenturies, were much interested either. Nor, for that matter, are manyother bishops or even parish priests. It is an iron law of corporatebodies, however, that he who does not listen cannot communicate.Subsidiarity and collaboration are not options, they are necessities. ACEO who does not listen and who is uninterested in information will runhis organization into the ground. A pope in the contemporary world whofollows a similar strategy will not destroy the church (that has beentried by earlier popes and it hasn’t worked) but he will continue toweaken his credibility. When a pope speaks today, the whole world hearshim, not just bishops and priests. The style and the substance of whathe says must show that he respects his audience. This does not mean hemust change Catholic doctrine, but he must not seem arbitrary, cruel,or insensitive in the way he propounds it.


Three illustrations
Threeexamples will illustrate the problem. Much of the world believes thatthe church hates gays, women, and marital sex. I don’t believe theseperceptions are accurate. In a striking turn away from St. Augustine,John Paul II, at the beginning of his papacy, praised marital love in aseries of addresses, albeit in the abstract rhetoric of hisphenomenological philosophy. At the same time, though, he renewed thebirth-control prohibition and argued that artificial contraceptioninterferes with the total self-giving of spouses in marital love. Thisargument does not convince most Catholic married people. Their standardreply is: “How does he know?” The pope’s knowledge comes fromphilosophical deduction, not personal experience. Married Catholics arenot likely to be swayed by this sort of argument. In fact, the pope’sapproach is counterproductive. It merely confirms suspicions that achurch run by elderly celibate men cannot understand the role of sex inthe married lives of the laity. The point is that if church leaderswant to be heard on the subject, they should be careful to demonstratea respect for the experience of married couples. At one time thehierarchy did not have to exercise such care. Now and ever after itwill. So far, it must be said in all candor, official statements tendto give the impression that the church issues orders without regard forwhat those orders may mean in the married life of the laity. Thechurch’s leaders may not be harsh men, but they sound harsh. It is myimpression that some prelates still consider marital sex if not exactlysinful, then messy and somehow less than appropriate.

The humansciences, which the church always endorses but almost always ignores,tell us that what is unique about human sexuality, as compared to thatof the other higher primates, is its bonding power. Human couples makelove far more often than do other primates because their natureinclines them to such behavior. Lovemaking is part of the complexchoreography that binds couples together through the tensions andstrains and conflict and frictions of the common life. Animals engagein sex only at certain specific times and are generally not interestedthe rest of the time (with the exception of the pygmy chimpanzee).

Ihave yet to encounter any church leaders who understand the role sexualcompanionship plays in healthy marriages. Certainly no Vaticandocuments grasp it. Paul VI had the input of laity on his birth-controlcommission, but then ignored it. John Paul II, with his highly abstracttheory of “mutual giving,” only dug the hole deeper. The laity all overthe world did not listen and continue not to listen. I am notdiscussing here whether they should listen. I am saying they have notand do not. Some church leaders may believe that the church does notneed to be careful about how it communicates with married laity becausethe latter are so corrupted by contemporary paganism and materialismthey cannot hear what the church is saying. Such a generalization isself-serving and self-deceptive, as well as ill-informed.

I amnot entering the argument about the morality of birth control. I amrather asserting that the laity feels that church leadership does notknow what it is talking about. Such communication breakdowns areinevitable when subsidiarity and collaboration are not practiced. Yetthe pope himself has said that because of the charism of the sacramentof matrimony, the laity have a unique and indispensable contribution tomake to the church’s understanding of sexuality. This contributioncannot be made if there are no recognized channels for the laity tocommunicate the knowledge gained from their experience.

Aparallel problem exists concerning certain developments inbiotechnology, such as the church’s teaching on in vitro fertilization(IVF). Laypeople simply cannot understand why a church that promoteslife in all its phases forbids infertile couples from using IVF. Withtheir usual sense of tact and consolation, some Roman officials haveresponded that no one has the “right to have children.” My sociologicalargument here is not concerned with the moral theology of the issue(although the laity and the majority of the lower clergy have certainlymade up their minds about that), but with the Vatican’s insensitive andclueless use of language. When the leadership of a church of more thana billion people acts as if it has a monopoly on God’s Spirit, it willinevitably offend the moral sensibilities of those it is trying toteach.

A similar situation exists when the hierarchy tries tocommunicate with women. To many Catholic women, especially youngerwomen, the church’s leaders, from the pope down to the local pastor,seem tone-deaf. When talking about women, the leadership often choosesa rhetoric that is reminiscent of nineteenth-century Romanticism—aglorification of the “feminine” that seems designed to keep women intheir place. Whenever the leadership chooses a woman to represent thechurch on the subject, it almost always chooses someone who will simplyrepeat the party line. All others are dismissed as “radical feminists.”In fact, many, many Catholic women who are devout and active in theirparishes think church leaders hate women, and they respond in kind. Thepope just doesn’t get it, they say. Neither, I would add, does anyoneelse in a leadership position in the church. If they do, they keeptheir mouths shut.

Finally, it often appears that the Vaticanhas lost patience with homosexual people. While admitting that a gayorientation is a given and not something freely chosen, Rome seemsoffended by the advances gays and lesbians have made in their quest forhuman rights. Documents on the subject that describe homosexuality asan “objective disorder” and a “grave detriment to the common good” seemunduly harsh. Vatican warnings to Catholic politicians about approvinglegislation that grants legal recognition to same-sex relationships (orworse, gay marriage) seem based on an almost obsessive fear thatlesbians and gays are a threat to heterosexual marriage—a threatassumed rather than demonstrated.

There seems to be littleawareness in Rome that the tone and style of these denunciations offendnot only gays but also their relatives, who love them no matter whattheir sexual orientation, as the church itself ought to, and as the Godwho created them certainly does. Moreover, the CDF’s recent statement(“Same-sex Unions Harmful to Society,” Origins, August 14, 2003) thatfor gay couples to adopt children is to do “violence” to thosechildren, a charge for which no evidence was offered, appears to bemotivated by little more than homophobia.

On the subject ofgays, the church ought to be religiously correct—these men and womenare deserving of the same loving concern as all other human beings. Idoubt that anyone in the top leadership in Rome has ever seriouslylistened to gays, lesbians, or members of their families. In fact, theabsence of sensitivity and love in the church’s public statements andcomments creates the strong impression that the church hateshomosexuals. In a world in which a Vatican statement is reduced to aninety-second clip on television or a 750-word newspaper article, thechurch often looks monumentally insensitive, much more so than itreally is.

I am not suggesting that the church should change itsposition on birth control, the role of women, or homosexuality. I amarguing, rather, that the church’s rhetoric is counterproductive anddefeats its purpose. Instead of influencing its intended audience,Vatican pronouncements turn them off. Whether greater collaboration andthe implementation of the principle of subsidiarity may cause a furtherdevelopment of the church’s teachings on these matters is beyond thescope of these reflections.


A tentative program for reorganization
How does one go about creating subsidiarity in the church? I would recommend consideration of the following suggestions:

Returnthe selection of bishops to the local church. The “Great” popes of theearly church (Leo and Gregory) said that a new bishop should beselected by the priests, accepted by the people, and consecrated by thebishops of the province. He should not be imposed on them from theoutside.

In the American church, until the 1919 revision ofcanon law, the “irremovable” pastors of the Archdiocese of Chicago hadthe right to submit a terna (a list of three candidates for bishop) toRome. So did the bishops of Illinois and the archbishops of thecountry. Hence, not so long ago, some form of popular nomination ofbishops existed. I would propose that in the future the priests ofChicago (perhaps the priest council) should be able to submit a ternato the pastoral council (laity). The latter would either accept it orwork out a compromise terna, which would then go on to Rome. The popewould then choose the new archbishop or request another terna (and ifhe deemed it necessary, another and yet another indefinitely). It wouldbe difficult to keep these discussions secret, and perhaps it would bebetter not to try. Secrecy is a dubious strategy in a church whosefounder warned that what is whispered in the closets will be proclaimedfrom the housetops. It is also an impossible strategy in thecontemporary world where whispers find their way instantly into theinternational media.

Such a change need not be as abrupt as atfirst it may seem, especially since it would be in part a return to asystem that persisted until the early twentieth century. It would benecessary, though, to revise canon law. While the pope would still havethe final say, even he would not be able to impose a bishop whom thepriests and people did not want.

Would there be politics in sucha system? Certainly. To be sure, the present system of covert cronyismhas plenty of politics also. Could the Holy Spirit work through a moredemocratic process? Probably more effectively than in the presentsystem.

Since most dioceses would select from among their ownnumber, such a reform would help temper the ambition fostered in thepresent system wherein a man in one diocese seeks to be promoted to amore important diocese and even a possible red hat. The church mighteven consider limiting bishops to two five-year terms, as manyreligious orders do for their leaders. This policy could also apply tothe bishop of Rome, but only if each pope voluntarily promised to abideby it.

Some people have suggested that a more democraticselection of bishops would produce churchmen who would (as they say theAnglicans do) ignore traditional teaching. Without wishing to involvemyself in the discussion of the current Anglican problems, I wouldpoint out that the pope would still have the final say, and that theCatholic laity and clergy in America are generally sane, sensiblepeople—more sane and sensible than many who have played the role ofkingmakers in American Catholic history.

Strengthen nationalbishops’ conferences. Subsidiarity requires that national hierarchiesbe given more authority and power—and thus be rehabilitated fromCardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s attacks on them. National bishops’conferences should be able to enforce decisions (made by some kind ofsupermajority) on all dioceses. They should have authority to makedecisions in many matters without prior clearance from Rome, though thepope would have the right to review any decision he thought harmful tothe faithful.

Promote local, regional, andsupernational synods. There is also a need for supernational synods(European, North American, English-speaking world) with clearlydelimited powers, as well as more local synods within a country. Thisprocess would force bishops to attend even more meetings, but perhapsnot many more than they do now. Such synods ought not to be merelypilgrimages from preconceived ideas to foregone conclusions, as someAmerican bishops are now recommending for a plenary council.

Furthermore,the church should rehabilitate the international synod of bishops inRome, give it canonical and theological status, free it from dominationby the curia, and permit it to establish its own offices in Rome andprepare its own agenda (subject to papal approval). Between meetings, agroup of its members should be appointed interim representatives, andbe available for consultation with the pope whenever he desires it—or,perhaps, whenever they request it. The idea would work only if a popewas completely committed to consultation. The synod, like a generalcouncil, however, would have no authority over the pope and no right toreverse his decisions. The synod would be nothing more than a groupunder the inspiration of the Spirit who would be ready to discussproblems facing the church with the pope, and to whom the pope(presumably) would listen.

Note carefully that at no point inthis vast structure is papal authority under challenge. The pope mighthave to listen to many more people, some of them doubtless with wildideas. On the other hand, if he did not want to listen to them, hewould not be forced to do so. Nor would there be any limitation on hisright to micromanage any subsidiary institution in the church, rightdown to the local diocese or parish. My plan is not to put restraintson a pope but rather to make more information available to him and hisadvisers.

Papal elections. As for the election of a pope, itwill not do to return it to the actual (instead of titular) parishpriests of Rome. Clearly, the historical process for the election ofthe bishop of Rome has evolved and is now quite broad, yet the priestsof Rome ought to have and nominate their own vicar. Still, some waymust be found for the clergy and laity of the world to be involved inthe choice.

Reforming the Roman curia. The problemwith the curia, as I see it, is not that it’s too big but rather thatits two thousand members are much too small a staff for advising theleader of a church of 1.2 billion people. The curia must be larger,better trained, more professional, and more restrained in itspropensity to interfere in problems that could be solved better at alocal level. Terms of service should be limited to two five-yearperiods (or maybe only one), so that membership on a curial staff wouldnot become a prerequisite for ecclesiastical advancement. Perhaps arule could be made that would preclude immediate election to abishopric from a curial position. Finally, there should be a divisionof labor based on representation from the regions of world. The curiashould rely on and consist of specialists whose training and functionis to understand the church in all its distant manifestations.

Churchleadership should make every effort to prevent the curia’s commonpractice of drawing up elaborate a priori plans for the entire churchwith little or no consultation from those who might be affected. Aclassic case is the recent General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Theexperts at the Congregation for Divine Worship share with their fellowliturgists a propensity for spinning out of the air fussy rubricalreforms that they think address crucial problems—in this case lack ofreverence at the Eucharist and a failure to distinguish between thepriest and the laity. In fact, any serious empirical analysis (which ishard for liturgists because they know everything already) orhigh-quality information of any kind from the Catholic laity would haveshown that the serious liturgical problem is not the occasional lack ofreverence or the almost nonexistent collapse of the distinction betweenclergy and laity. The sad truth is that the liturgy is boring,especially when it is marked by poor music and bad preaching. If theCongregation for Divine Worship was truly interested in the quality ofthe liturgy, it would launch a worldwide campaign to improve sermons.

Thestructural change I have outlined may seem cumbersome, and it may evenappear more cumbersome than the current arrangements. But given thesize of the church and the goals of subsidiarity, more men and womenmust be brought into the decision-making process, always reservingfinal decisions to the pope as necessary. These changes cannot beimplemented all at once. The church would have to see what works andwhat does not. While some of my suggestions would require revisions ofcanon law—or perhaps a whole new code of canon law—as well as sometheological reconsiderations, none of them, as far as I am aware,violate Catholic doctrine.

Is there any chance that the nextpope would begin to move in these directions? One would be ill-advisedto bet on it. Still, the most serious failures of the church since 1960are due not to a resistance to change, but to the failure to adjust tothe administrative and managerial demands of a world church in a worldculture. All too often today, the world episcopate appears as anisolated oligarchy, a removed priestly caste claiming access to specialknowledge of God’s will. Only systematic reform of how the institutiongathers information can change that appearance.

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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia