Despite the fax machines and computers ubiquitous today in offices of the Roman curia, the institutional organization of the Vatican has not changed appreciably since the late eighteenth century. Perhaps the organization of the Vatican worked well enough one hundred fifty years ago. Yet the church stretches to the ends of the earth and is now responsible for the religious life of at least 1.2 billion people in a world of jet transportation and almost instant communication. Moreover, the modest reforms of Vatican II quite unintentionally destabilized the structures (what sociologists call behavior patterns and the supporting motivations) of the church and thus diminished the credibility of its leadership. Any attempt to govern with the same style that was effective in 1850 would be like the United States trying to return to the presidential style of Theodore Roosevelt who used to sit in a rocking chair in the “rose garden” at the end of the day and talk to federal workers as they walked home across the White House lawn.

To a relative Vatican outsider like myself, the church’s need for organizational change seems self-evident. Yet few bishops are ready to consider a drastic reform of the church’s internal operations. They do not comprehend that decision making is shaped by the information available to the decision makers, and that, in the absence of good information, serious mistakes are made.

In this article I will develop a social-science critique of the internal organization of the Catholic Church and offer tentative recommendations for reform. In doing so, I will eschew theological arguments. My thesis is that many of the problems facing the church today flow not from theological error, bad will, or malice, but from inadequate information. A reorganization of the church will not by itself heal the polarization between those who enthusiastically support the Second Vatican Council and those who want to reverse it, but without an open flow of information, healing is not possible.

Many in Rome and elsewhere in the Catholic world contend that the church does not need social science because it has the Holy Spirit. Hence the tools of management science are not relevant. Nor, because of its divine origin, does the church need to apply to itself its own principle of subsidiarity (nothing should be done at a higher and larger level that can be done at a lower and smaller level). Such reasoning, based on simplistic faith and even more simplistic theology (or a calculating one), in effect regards the church as purely divine and thus unaffected by the problems that beset other human institutions. Don’t worry about the poverty of leadership, pious folk (including cardinals) tell me, God will not desert his church. (Does that also mean God was responsible for all the errors and mistakes the church has made?) Yet all that was promised to the church by Jesus was survival-the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Whether this erroneous perspective is based on naive piety or (deliberately) bad theology does not matter. It must be dismissed out of hand, for the church is subject to the same organizational dynamics as other human institutions. If the church is to function effectively it needs to follow the same principles of subsidiarity any other human institution must. Subsidiarity opens the way for the maximum input from the Spirit. There may be some sense in which subsidiarity does not apply to the church, but there must be some sense in which it does-at least when it comes to organizational management. (John XXIII said that it does apply to the church; John Paul II says it does not. I am prepared to agree with both; they were speaking of different dimensions of the church.)

The span of supervision

Perhaps the most serious issue facing the next papal conclave is whether the present strongly centralized organization of the church can continue. The truth is that it doesn’t work very well because the current structure is “flat.” There is in practice no ordered hierarchy leading down from the pope to the local bishops, and no reliable flow of information coming up from the local church.

For example, the pope must supervise several thousand bishops. Yet corporate theory suggests that an executive should supervise no more than seven subordinates. True, the pope exercises control with the help of the heads of the various curial congregations and the dozen or so members of his cabinet, but these men specialize in subject matter (liturgy, the making of bishops, etc.), not in regions of the world or specific countries. The pope’s task is therefore impossible, both because he is personally responsible for far too many supervisory tasks, and because the available sources of information-either through the papal nuncios in the various countries (men who do not remain in a country long and whose competence may vary greatly) or through the various curial departments (who collect their information mostly from negative complaints)-are bound to be thin and often contradictory. Even if it were possible for the pope to personally supervise every bishop in the world, he does not have good information about the local churches on which to base his decisions. The leadership structure of the church has changed little since it supervised Europe primarily and communicated by stagecoach over the Alps. How can the Vatican know the truth about a specific problem in a specific country?

Think of the Vatican’s relations with the United States. We routinely hear of Rome’s solemn concern for the problems affecting the American church. Yet the truth is that the Vatican is largely clueless, not simply because of its anti-American bias or because of stupidity (though one must not exclude those factors), but because there is no way for the curia to acquire adequate information about the United States or any other country. Thus the pope was, through no fault of his own, apparently not aware of the seriousness of the sexual-abuse problem. How was he to know, if no one told him?

It took a long, long time for the curia to realize how serious the crisis was in the United States. It is not clear even now that it understands the sexual-abuse problem, or realizes that the problem is not confined to the church in the United States. One Roman official attributed clerical sexual abuse to the “hypersexuality of American culture.” In the absence of better information, more careful research, and deeper understanding of the various countries in the Catholic world, curial officials fall back on vague generalizations that are often little more than uninformed clichés. They do so not because they are malicious, but because they are ignorant. Inadequate information leads to bad decisions. That inevitably happens in a “flat” organization. Whoever the next pope is, he must open up communication within the church and transform the flatness of the organization.

Another mark of good management is the ability to govern collaboratively. In every organization someone is ultimately responsible for making decisions. Successful managers listen very carefully to subordinates, however, and take into account their advice and recommendations. The old 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 of the Second Vatican Council there has been little collaborative governance in the church. The current synod system, for example, is the ecclesiastical version of a Potemkin village. Neither Paul VI nor John Paul II has taken the triennial synod of bishops very seriously. Bishops have no control of the agenda. While bishops may speak, they do not engage in active debate and the proposals that emerge often do not reflect what was said, much less the emphasis with which it was said. When Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco had the audacity some years ago at a synod to suggest that more dialogue with the laity on birth control might be appropriate, he was promptly put down by curial representatives. There is no serious collaboration and little tolerance for new thinking. In fact, as one Roman cleric said to me, the present pope cannot work collaboratively. The same thing could have been said about Paul VI, who seemed to care only about what his enemies in the curia would say. He removed major issues, like birth control, from the agenda of the synods. The dream of collegiality that emerged from the council died.

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

As the most elementary dictum of management science puts it, all those whose cooperation will be necessary to implement a decision should have input. To put it more clearly, top church leadership should not only want to listen, not only try to learn how to listen (neither of which it is currently ready to do), but must see to it that effective channels for both communication and collaboration exist at every level.

Some will complain that this is nothing more than an argument for making doctrinal decisions by majority vote. That is not my goal. My proposal seeks only to involve as many people as possible in collaborative efforts so that the final decision will be based on the best possible information and the wisest possible insights. If that happens, the final decision will have more influence rather then less. One may even say Rome will have greater authority.

One must assume that the Spirit still blows whither she will, and that the Holy See has no monopoly on it. Indeed, one of the primary roles of any bishop, including the bishop of Rome, is the discernment of spirits: which voices must be listened to and which not. Without collaboration and subsidiarity, however, most voices are not going to get a hearing, much less contribute to the church’s discernment. In fact, in present-day Rome the only discernment that takes place is at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which judges theologies and theologians and seeks only to prevent dangerous heresies. Virtually all other insights, intuitions, suggestions, or experiences that may be pertinent to the life of the church and the welfare of its people are ignored.

Paul VI was not much interested in promoting the flow of information, nor is John Paul II. To be fair, few of their predecessors, especially in the previous two centuries, were much interested either. Nor, for that matter, are many other bishops or even parish priests. It is an iron law of corporate bodies, however, that he who does not listen cannot communicate. Subsidiarity and collaboration are not options, they are necessities. A CEO who does not listen and who is uninterested in information will run his organization into the ground. A pope in the contemporary world who follows a similar strategy will not destroy the church (that has been tried by earlier popes and it hasn’t worked) but he will continue to weaken his credibility. When a pope speaks today, the whole world hears him, not just bishops and priests. The style and the substance of what he says must show that he respects his audience. This does not mean he must change Catholic doctrine, but he must not seem arbitrary, cruel, or insensitive in the way he propounds it.

Three illustrations

Three examples will illustrate the problem. Much of the world believes that the church hates gays, women, and marital sex. I don’t believe these perceptions are accurate. In a striking turn away from St. Augustine, John Paul II, at the beginning of his papacy, praised marital love in a series of addresses, albeit in the abstract rhetoric of his phenomenological philosophy. At the same time, though, he renewed the birth-control prohibition and argued that artificial contraception interferes with the total self-giving of spouses in marital love. This argument does not convince most Catholic married people. Their standard reply is: “How does he know?” The pope’s knowledge comes from philosophical deduction, not personal experience. Married Catholics are not likely to be swayed by this sort of argument. In fact, the pope’s approach is counterproductive. It merely confirms suspicions that a church run by elderly celibate men cannot understand the role of sex in the married lives of the laity. The point is that if church leaders want to be heard on the subject, they should be careful to demonstrate a respect for the experience of married couples. At one time the hierarchy did not have to exercise such care. Now and ever after it will. So far, it must be said in all candor, official statements tend to give the impression that the church issues orders without regard for what those orders may mean in the married life of the laity. The church’s leaders may not be harsh men, but they sound harsh. It is my impression that some prelates still consider marital sex if not exactly sinful, then messy and somehow less than appropriate.

The human sciences, which the church always endorses but almost always ignores, tell us that what is unique about human sexuality, as compared to that of the other higher primates, is its bonding power. Human couples make love far more often than do other primates because their nature inclines them to such behavior. Lovemaking is part of the complex choreography that binds couples together through the tensions and strains and conflict and frictions of the common life. Animals engage in sex only at certain specific times and are generally not interested the rest of the time (with the exception of the pygmy chimpanzee).

I have yet to encounter any church leaders who understand the role sexual companionship plays in healthy marriages. Certainly no Vatican documents grasp it. Paul VI had the input of laity on his birth-control commission, but then ignored it. John Paul II, with his highly abstract theory of “mutual giving,” only dug the hole deeper. The laity all over the world did not listen and continue not to listen. I am not discussing here whether they should listen. I am saying they have not and do not. Some church leaders may believe that the church does not need to be careful about how it communicates with married laity because the latter are so corrupted by contemporary paganism and materialism they cannot hear what the church is saying. Such a generalization is self-serving and self-deceptive, as well as ill-informed.

I am not entering the argument about the morality of birth control. I am rather asserting that the laity feels that church leadership does not know what it is talking about. Such communication breakdowns are inevitable when subsidiarity and collaboration are not practiced. Yet the pope himself has said that because of the charism of the sacrament of matrimony, the laity have a unique and indispensable contribution to make to the church’s understanding of sexuality. This contribution cannot be made if there are no recognized channels for the laity to communicate the knowledge gained from their experience.

A parallel problem exists concerning certain developments in biotechnology, such as the church’s teaching on in vitro fertilization (IVF). Laypeople simply cannot understand why a church that promotes life in all its phases forbids infertile couples from using IVF. With their usual sense of tact and consolation, some Roman officials have responded that no one has the “right to have children.” My sociological argument here is not concerned with the moral theology of the issue (although the laity and the majority of the lower clergy have certainly made up their minds about that), but with the Vatican’s insensitive and clueless use of language. When the leadership of a church of more than a billion people acts as if it has a monopoly on God’s Spirit, it will inevitably offend the moral sensibilities of those it is trying to teach.

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

Finally, it often appears that the Vatican has lost patience with homosexual people. While admitting that a gay orientation is a given and not something freely chosen, Rome seems offended by the advances gays and lesbians have made in their quest for human rights. Documents on the subject that describe homosexuality as an “objective disorder” and a “grave detriment to the common good” seem unduly harsh. Vatican warnings to Catholic politicians about approving legislation that grants legal recognition to same-sex relationships (or worse, gay marriage) seem based on an almost obsessive fear that lesbians and gays are a threat to heterosexual marriage-a threat assumed rather than demonstrated.

There seems to be little awareness in Rome that the tone and style of these denunciations offend not only gays but also their relatives, who love them no matter what their sexual orientation, as the church itself ought to, and as the God who created them certainly does. Moreover, the CDF’s recent statement (“Same-sex Unions Harmful to Society,” Origins, August 14, 2003) that for gay couples to adopt children is to do “violence” to those children, a charge for which no evidence was offered, appears to be motivated by little more than homophobia.

On the subject of gays, the church ought to be religiously correct-these men and women are deserving of the same loving concern as all other human beings. I doubt that anyone in the top leadership in Rome has ever seriously listened to gays, lesbians, or members of their families. In fact, the absence of sensitivity and love in the church’s public statements and comments creates the strong impression that the church hates homosexuals. In a world in which a Vatican statement is reduced to a ninety-second clip on television or a 750-word newspaper article, the church often looks monumentally insensitive, much more so than it really is.

I am not suggesting that the church should change its position on birth control, the role of women, or homosexuality. I am arguing, rather, that the church’s rhetoric is counterproductive and defeats its purpose. Instead of influencing its intended audience, Vatican pronouncements turn them off. Whether greater collaboration and the implementation of the principle of subsidiarity may cause a further development of the church’s teachings on these matters is beyond the scope 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:

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

In the American church, until the 1919 revision of canon law, the “irremovable” pastors of the Archdiocese of Chicago had the right to submit a terna (a list of three candidates for bishop) to Rome. So did the bishops of Illinois and the archbishops of the country. Hence, not so long ago, some form of popular nomination of bishops existed. I would propose that in the future the priests of Chicago (perhaps the priest council) should be able to submit a terna to the pastoral council (laity). The latter would either accept it or work out a compromise terna, which would then go on to Rome. The pope would then choose the new archbishop or request another terna (and if he deemed it necessary, another and yet another indefinitely). It would be difficult to keep these discussions secret, and perhaps it would be better not to try. Secrecy is a dubious strategy in a church whose founder warned that what is whispered in the closets will be proclaimed from the housetops. It is also an impossible strategy in the contemporary world where whispers find their way instantly into the international media.

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

Would there be politics in such a system? Certainly. To be sure, the present system of covert cronyism has plenty of politics also. Could the Holy Spirit work through a more democratic process? Probably more effectively than in the present system.

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

Some people have suggested that a more democratic selection of bishops would produce churchmen who would (as they say the Anglicans do) ignore traditional teaching. Without wishing to involve myself in the discussion of the current Anglican problems, I would point out that the pope would still have the final say, and that the Catholic laity and clergy in America are generally sane, sensible people-more sane and sensible than many who have played the role of kingmakers in American Catholic history.

Strengthen national bishops’ conferences. Subsidiarity requires that national hierarchies be given more authority and power-and thus be rehabilitated from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s attacks on them. National bishops’ conferences should be able to enforce decisions (made by some kind of supermajority) on all dioceses. They should have authority to make decisions in many matters without prior clearance from Rome, though the pope would have the right to review any decision he thought harmful to the faithful.

Promote local, regional, and supernational synods. There is also a need for supernational synods (European, North American, English-speaking world) with clearly delimited powers, as well as more local synods within a country. This process would force bishops to attend even more meetings, but perhaps not many more than they do now. Such synods ought not to be merely pilgrimages from preconceived ideas to foregone conclusions, as some American bishops are now recommending for a plenary council.

Furthermore, the church should rehabilitate the international synod of bishops in Rome, give it canonical and theological status, free it from domination by the curia, and permit it to establish its own offices in Rome and prepare its own agenda (subject to papal approval). Between meetings, a group of its members should be appointed interim representatives, and be available for consultation with the pope whenever he desires it-or, perhaps, whenever they request it. The idea would work only if a pope was completely committed to consultation. The synod, like a general council, however, would have no authority over the pope and no right to reverse his decisions. The synod would be nothing more than a group under the inspiration of the Spirit who would be ready to discuss problems facing the church with the pope, and to whom the pope (presumably) would listen.

Note carefully that at no point in this vast structure is papal authority under challenge. The pope might have to listen to many more people, some of them doubtless with wild ideas. On the other hand, if he did not want to listen to them, he would not be forced to do so. Nor would there be any limitation on his right to micromanage any subsidiary institution in the church, right down to the local diocese or parish. My plan is not to put restraints on a pope but rather to make more information available to him and his advisers.

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

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

Church leadership should make every effort to prevent the curia’s common practice of drawing up elaborate a priori plans for the entire church with little or no consultation from those who might be affected. A classic case is the recent General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The experts at the Congregation for Divine Worship share with their fellow liturgists a propensity for spinning out of the air fussy rubrical reforms that they think address crucial problems-in this case lack of reverence at the Eucharist and a failure to distinguish between the priest and the laity. In fact, any serious empirical analysis (which is hard for liturgists because they know everything already) or high-quality information of any kind from the Catholic laity would have shown that the serious liturgical problem is not the occasional lack of reverence or the almost nonexistent collapse of the distinction between clergy and laity. The sad truth is that the liturgy is boring, especially when it is marked by poor music and bad preaching. If the Congregation for Divine Worship was truly interested in the quality of the liturgy, it would launch a worldwide campaign to improve sermons.

The structural change I have outlined may seem cumbersome, and it may even appear more cumbersome than the current arrangements. But given the size of the church and the goals of subsidiarity, more men and women must be brought into the decision-making process, always reserving final decisions to the pope as necessary. These changes cannot be implemented all at once. The church would have to see what works and what does not. While some of my suggestions would require revisions of canon law-or perhaps a whole new code of canon law-as well as some theological reconsiderations, none of them, as far as I am aware, violate Catholic doctrine.

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

Rev. Andrew M. Greeley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of The Catholic Revolution: New Wine in Old Wineskins (University of California Press), Priests: A Calling in Crisis (University of Chicago Press), and The Truth about Conservative Christians (University of Chicago Press), with Michael Hout.
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Published in the 2004-03-12 issue: View Contents
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