Ten Steps to a Healthier Church: How to fix the Vatican

by Michael Kelly SJ

My high school chemistry teacher’s motto, “The facts are friendly,” applies to a lot more than scientific experiments.

The English version of the German magazine, Der Spiegel offers a summary of and explanation for the disarray and confusion at senior levels of the Vatican that have resulted from rivalries, scandals, blunt and even brutal administrative acts, falsification of facts and monumental mismanagement.

Almost daily, the woes of the Vatican are made more extreme by coverage of the scandals of the Church in the United States where one senior cleric has been convicted of “child endangerment”  and a bishop will go on trial in September to face a charge of failure to report the sexual abuse of a child. The US bishops’ conference has embarked on a high-risk strategy to oppose President Barack Obama over contraception insurance, a subject where a majority of Catholics in the US, especially women, don’t share their bishops’ passion.

After the failure of his first attempt to overthrow the rule of the in Russia Czars, Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” It’s a frequent question when we are faced with failure and a mess.

We can bemoan the misfortune, look for scapegoats, blame anything from evil people through to the Devil (as people in the Vatican have done), start a revolution, just walk away or try a combination of these.

Or we can, with my high school teacher, say that the facts are friendly. It has taken a long time to create the mess and it may well take longer to remedy it. But for everyone’s sake, fix it we must.

Here are ten tips that might be considered as ways out of the mess:

  1. Learn to listen: A maxim dating from Patristic times is that the teaching Church is first of all the learning Church. That was one of the great achievements of Vatican 2: the Council fathers heard what the world in its diversity was saying to and about the Church. Preoccupation with the supply side – what I have to tell you – to the exclusion of the concerns and interests of the “consumer” always leads to a breakdown in communication.
  2. Learn other languages: To become part of the Church’s leadership, it is necessary to speak Italian and know Canon Law. Without them, not much can get done in the Church as currently governed. But, they greatly narrow the range of possibilities for hearing from fresh thinkers, understanding the cultures and concerns of those outside the inner circle of Vaticanistas, or hinder even knowing that such cultures and concerns exist.
  3. Don’t shoot the messenger: At last the Vatican is being forced to realize what every other public institution, government or business knows: that it is impossible to hide bad news and that lamenting the motivations or actions of who expose a crisis is the worst form of crisis management. Rather than trying to hide behind cover-ups that exacerbate the problem, it is necessary to admit problems and be clearly seen as taking the situation and its rectification seriously.
  4. Tensions are natural: There is no escaping the tensions of the world in which we live. Sanity and success come from managing those tensions, threats, risks and uncertainties. People who hold different views offer an opportunity to enrich your own if you are willing to avoid viewing them as enemies to be eliminated.
  5. European culture wars are for Europeans: They aren’t for export and don’t mean much to people who don’t appreciate their genesis or history. There are culture wars elsewhere, but they have a local genesis and can only have local resolutions. People in Asia, Africa and the Americas look at Europeans and wonder what all the fuss is about. The Church’s leaders would do well to accept the relativity of cultures, forget the fiction of Europe as a benchmark and work with other cultures as they are rather than as Eurocentric imagination thinks them to be.
  6. Learn from Max Weber: Weber’s observations about the connections between increased specialization, complexity, the need for open ways of operating and clear rules for limiting the claims of authority have become more relevant as populations grow, organizations diversify and specialization increases. In light of this, the Church’ practice of appointing office holders in its centralized organization on the basis of status rather than competence is a recipe for disaster. To fix it, the Vatican must restructure itself to limit the power of particular parts of the organization to control the whole, specify how the elements of the bureaucracy interact so that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing rather than having things done by one office surprising the others. The Vatican can only work better if there is a commitment to choosing competence over status in making appointments.
  7. Learn from the history: Today’s problems in the Church are mostly of Western origin. The history of the last two hundred years in the West has emphasized that if people don’t have a say in their destiny, they at least opt out or even overthrow a regime. In many parts of the West, people are walking away from the Church, most especially women who want to make a contribution but are held in check by male hierarchies. To fix it, Church leadership in general and the Vatican in particular need root and branch reform to foster effective participation, including that of women, in decision making at all levels.
  8. Recognize that people have options and are exercising them: Gone are the days of “command and control” as a sustainable management strategy for any organization. Long gone for many Catholics in the West is a religion of rituals, tribal or national bonds and a culture of fear as a motive for submission. The future of faith is in the free choice to accept a persuasive invitation to join a journey. Vatican practice is perceived as more related to the procedures of the Inquisition than to the message of Jesus. To fix it, the operations of Vatican offices need to accept the dismissive attitude of many Catholics to it and recognize how much trust has to be regained.
  9. Become really catholic again: The numbers say it all; there are three Asians, a few Africans, and a sprinkling from the Americas among the top leaders of Vatican offices even though the only places the Church is growing are in Asia and Africa. Within the old world, the exclusion of fresh thinking and discussion of issues that societies are facing – the role of women, the place of homosexuals, the reexamination of moral rules formed when biological knowledge was primitive – have marginalized the Church as a discussion partner not only in society, but even in Catholics’ minds. To fix it, the Vatican has to see that real catholicity calls for inclusiveness and a more representative leadership for the Church. This means that the Church is truly Catholic when, for example, dioceses are seen not as branch offices of a centralized multinational but as the authentic local realizations of a universal faith.

10. Accept that the facts are friendly: God “writes straight with crooked lines.” But to appreciate just what God is up to requires a sober acceptance that the lines are crooked. Jesus tried to burst the bubble in which religious leaders of his time were living. He appeared to them to be at least destabilizing and perhaps demonic. But he confidently worked in the real world because in that world God is at work and “Wisdom is proved right by her deeds” (Matt 11:19). In the Incarnation the Son did not enter some perfect realm, but took on the reality of a particular time and place. The Vatican has nothing to lose by doing the same, engaging with the real world, listening to it and learning from it. And it has everything to gain.

Michael Kelly SJ, a frequent writer, publisher and broadcaster who was founding publisher of the Australian Jesuits’ Eureka Street Magazine.