Governance of the church still locked in its monarchical past

Published April 8, 2019. La Croix

A monarchical organization, powered by ideology, with promotion by patronage results in bad governance. The Catholic Church has a governance problem.

Wilton Gregory has been appointed Archbishop of Washington, DC replacing Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

While there will be some disappointed faces amongst younger bishops in the USA, most Catholic commentators are positive about the appointment.

At 71 he is old for the job and has only four years till official retirement age. One factor may be a shortage of younger bishops who are in tune with Pope Francis.

Therein lies the problem. A monarchical organization combined with appointment by patronage inevitably weakens an organization.

The first rule of any Human Resources (HR) department is to get the best person for the job.

This entails advertising the job, publishing an accepted set of criteria for the choice of the successful candidate, having a competent selection process to scrutinise the applicants, and a clear system of making the final determination.

The more transparent this whole process the better will be the result. This is HR best practice.

The Catholic Church has not embraced this practice.

It still works on the monarchical model of its past glory days. A monarchy is literally one-man-rule.

The monarch’s advisors and administrators are answerable solely to him. They try to discover “the mind of the boss” and reflect that back to him. This limits the frank and fearless advice needed for wise decisions.

The monarchical system tends to spawn an inner circle of influence with accompanying intrigue.

George Pell was such an eminence grise. As archbishop first of Melbourne and then of Sydney he used his monarchical power to sack Melbourne’s seminary staff and re-make Sydney’s in tune with the papal ideology – making them both academies of clericalism.

He also used his Vatican position and contacts to influence Australian episcopal appointments. The two main dioceses are headed up by his proteges.

The Roman system is monarchical. The pope is the sole appointer of bishops. Likewise, in a diocese, the Bishop has the final say on all matters. This explains the mediocrity of the Catholic bishops of the world.

Essential pre-requisites

The 35-years of the Wojtyla and Ratzinger pontificates were heavily ideological and centralist.

They opposed Communism. They opposed any review of sexual mores – contraception, divorce, clerical celibacy, homosexuality, family planning.

Both popes were suspicious of biological research and opposed women’s ordination. They reduced episcopal authority and changed the Synod of Bishops into a papal rubber stamp.

As identity politics became more mainstream across the world, the Wojtyla ideology became a network.

Sympathetic bishops and academics built up think tanks such as the JP II Institute for Marriage and the Family, the Napa Institute in California, founded and funded by the controversial Timothy Busch, and the Catholic Institute of Italy, supported by Steve Bannon.

Similarly, tertiary institutions like Notre Dame University Sydney were founded – in this case by George Pell.

New publishers like Ignatius Press, founded by Joseph Fessio SJ, disseminated the ideology. Altogether a war with several fronts and a small, but tight-knit, and often wealthy, bunch of warriors. And – a million miles away from the pastoral vision of Jesus.

The essential pre-requisite for selection as bishop was complete compliance with this papal ideology.

This eliminated many potential leaders and favoured conformists. When the full force of the sexual abuse crisis hit in 2002 this monochrome cohort of defensive bishops was singularly unprepared for it. “They’re after us; protect the show.”

Catholic services which answer to the wider society such as education, health care and social services do very well – but at some distance from the bishop.

However, diocesan administrations are still based on the old monarchical culture. The bishop alone has full executive power. And even in those organizations open to public scrutiny the bishop still has enormous influence particularly in key appointments.

The appointment of Wilton Gregory effectively reaches back over the long Wojtyla/Ratzinger period. He became bishop in 1983 under the patronage of Cardinal Bernadin.

He has known a different era. Many younger bishops do not. He fits this bill, but the appointment method is the same. He is Bergoglio’s choice. That’s the system. Observers can only guess the rationale. It would be more legitimate if the appointment procedure was more transparent.

The governance of the Church is still locked into its monarchical past. That model is inefficient in today’s world with its diversity of specialisation, social science knowhow and technological sophistication and political structures.

A wise incorporation of aspects of modern politics, including the separation of powers, would make it more effective in achieving its main goal – the pastoral care of all.

Eric Hodgens is a senior priest in Melbourne, Australia.

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