The Church Is Too Important to Be Left to the Clerics

The faithful, including Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart, who is originally from Iraq, carry a cross between the Catholic Churches of Quincy, Mass., to pray the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday April 14, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
For its governance, the Catholic Church should turn to laity who have the necessary independence, experience, and sophistication.

Almost everyone is familiar with the expression “War is too important to be left to the generals.” Credited to Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister at the end of World War I, the aphorism seems simple on its face. Military leaders, embroiled in the tactics and operations of the battlefield, might lose touch with the larger issues at hand — especially political ones — in wartime. The quip has been embraced as a principle by civil-military scholars in democracies over the years to bolster the case for civilian control of the military.

Clemenceau’s truism was not just about war and generals. It could be applied to almost any institution in which a highly trained and highly specialized cadre of professionals not only perform all the unique duties of the institution but also oversee it on behalf of a broad set of stakeholders as well. The healthiest institutions, especially those responsible to much of the rest of society, have a system of governance and a cadre of governors that is somewhat separate and distinct from the operating life of the institution itself.

The current and recurrent struggles of the Catholic Church with sexual abuse has its roots in thousands of shocking individual decisions by clergy in the Church — not just the acts of abuse themselves, of course, but also the many decisions to turn aside from the acts or cover them up. On the latter decisions, whether they were implicit or explicit, direct or indirect, sins of commission or omission, they all greatly undermined the institutional integrity of the Church.

In cases like this we want heads to roll. And many should — including at the top. That might satisfy some adherents who feel betrayed (who doesn’t?). But how the Church changes and strengthens itself is more important. The changes need to address not just the problem that everyone can see in the newspaper — the Bad Apples problem — but also the more insidious problem, harder to discern problem: the Bad Barrels problems. Specifically, the Catholic Church needs to change its clergy-only governance structure to ensure that it does not betray its stakeholders again.

Pope Francis would seem to agree — but without details. In his immediate response to the recent crisis he declared, explicitly and repeatedly, that “clericalism” has been a major contributing factor to the abuse crisis. He called for the involvement of the laity to help with framing policies that would ensure that the Church has the structure in place to safeguard against abuse and cover-up in the future.

To do this, the Church needs to place experienced lay leaders in fiduciary roles at all levels of Church leadership. This is not akin to civilian control of the military, or to outside-inspector-general investigations such as that of the Keating Commission, whose report 15 years ago on the abuse crisis was shelved by Church leadership. Rather it is a call for a day-in, day-out partnership on the lines of a shared governance, full transparency, and shared responsibility between experienced lay-governance practitioners and consecrated Church leaders. Only when outside perspective is combined with some measure of governing authority can an insular system “see” itself . . . and act on it.

A few years ago, I co-chaired a group that was commissioned to research recent ethical lapses in a large and venerable American institution. We found instances of bad apples at the roots of the scandals, of course — individuals at all levels who made terrible decisions, slipped through the system, lost their ethical moorings, and so on. The dark side of human nature intrudes even in the most ethically grounded professions.

But more impressive to us in our findings was the phenomenon of bad barrels. The rot here was at the institutional level, not the individual. Misplaced loyalties, narrow paths of experience, localized incentives created to cheat the bigger system, and closed systems without much independent oversight created a few pockets of bad barrels. Those barrels were able to rot even many of the good apples they touched.

Only about half of the mid-level leaders that we interviewed thought that healthy oversight of the institution from an ethical standpoint was one of their core responsibilities. They were operators, after all — there to do. Exquisitely trained over the course of many years in highly specialized professions, they were world-class experts in their technical and tactical fields and were there to perform those tasks — even if they were the boss. They were unequipped on some levels to govern the institution rather than perform key and complicated tasks that were essential to it.

Experts and specialists — especially homogenous groups of experts and specialists — can be very unsuited for institutional leadership or governance. In the many instances of recent corporate scandals, from Enron to Wells Fargo, senior management and boards were full of experts in the specialized fields of those enterprises. Superbly and uniquely qualified experts. And yet, they failed in the effective governance of those institutions — which is to provide insight, foresight, and especially oversight. Even if by SEC standards they were technically independent, by not being in management, their experiences were not independent of the industry or institution they were overseeing.

The healthiest political and corporate institutions have checks and balances, and some degree of independent oversight or overseers. The Catholic Church does not (at least from a temporal authority). The highly trained (in philosophy and theology) and specialized clergy are terrifically prepared to administer the sacraments to the faithful, but they also must administer the Church — its finances, workforce, politics, and all else. The latter set of issues requires a very different set of skills and experiences from those that are necessary in teaching, pastoral, or missionary work or in conducting liturgy and administering sacraments. Especially at the senior levels.

But the senior leadership of the Church — the leadership at every level, really — is exclusively clergy. Chosen by . . . clergy. The Church is aided by advisory bodies of lay leaders at almost every level. I serve on several — from the level of my little parish right on up to a program in the Vatican. But, even so, the lay leaders are members of advisory boards only. As such, they are not in a position to know and help with some of the more sensitive legal, personnel, and behavioral issues in the institution in a way that fiduciary-board members would. We give advice, we write checks, we form great relationships with our clerical partners . . . but at the end of the day we are waving at the car as it drives away — and praying for its safe journey.

When I think of the sophistication and experience of the Catholic lay leaders that I work alongside on these advisory boards, I bemoan that we cannot legally or structurally help the priests, bishops, and cardinals with the tough decisions of guiding and running institutions. As we do with the companies, universities, hospitals, and charities where we serve as trustees and directors. The executive skill set of these women and men are very different from those that operate the institutions that they help govern.

The Church needs a much more robust model of shared governance with its lay leaders at all levels. This would not undermine the apostolic or episcopal “chain of command” or bring in “civilian control.” And I certainly would not want any governments involved. The Church is a free association that has and should continue to govern itself. But the Church belongs to all Catholics. Not just the clergy. And it is discredited in many eyes for these shameful scandals.

No moves the Church might make to institute any sort of shared governance or independent oversight with its lay leaders would make up for the abuses committed. But it can help prevent bad barrels in the future.

The history of institutional governance shows that diverse voices in the “boardroom,” a range of experiences and expertise among senior leaders and overseers, and some degree of independent oversight make for healthier institutions. The Catholic Church should try it.

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John Hillen, a former assistant secretary of state, is the James C. Wheat Professor in Leadership at Hampden-Sydney College’s Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest, and a member of the NR, Inc. Board of Directors.


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