Church Hierarchy Needs Work

By Andrew Greeley
Chicago Sun-Times [Rome]
November 14, 2003

ROME -- Perhaps the most serious issue facing the next conclave is whether the present strongly centralized organization of the Catholic 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 from the local bishops to the pope.

The pope's span of supervision includes several thousand bishops. Corporate theory argues that the span of supervision of an executive should be no more that five, and preferably as low as three.

The pope exercises his control with the help of the leaders of the various curial congregations, 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 flow of information upward -- either through the papal nuncios (men who do not remain in a country long and whose competence may vary greatly) in the various countries or through the various curial departments -- is bound to be thin and often contradictory. Even if it were possible for the pope personally to supervise every bishop in the world, he does not have the information about the various individual dioceses on which to base his supervision and decisions.

The leadership structure of the Church has not changed much since it supervised only Europe. Now it must supervise the world. Moreover, the pope reserves the right to reverse decisions made at lower levels. Thus, even though the local bishops and the nuncio submit ternas (list of three men who are qualified for a given diocese) and the congregation of bishops submits the master list of three, the pope still may toss out any or all of these and make his own choice. That is certainly within his rights under canon law, but in some instances, such a rejection of the upward flow of information leads to unhappy results.

Under such circumstances, how does the Vatican know what's going on in the Catholic world? How does it know whether a lot of crazy things are happening about which it must take a stand? How does it know whether Catholicism in a given country is in a healthy or abnormal state? How does it know the truth about a specific problem in a specific Catholic country?

Much of the upward communication comes from complaints of the extreme conservative members of the church. They write letters about the faults of a local bishop. Not having any other source of information, curial officials often engage in adversarial conversations with the local bishop, and he is presumed guilty until he proves himself innocent.

It took a long, long time for the curia to realize how serious the sexual abuse problem in the United States was. It is not clear that even now it understands that the problem is not limited to the United States. One official attributed sexual abuse in America as the result of the "hyper sexuality of American culture." What hyper sexuality is, whether there is indeed more of it in the United States than in, for example, France or Germany or Poland, and whether this amorphous evil really produces a hunger for sexual pleasure with children is not at all clear.

But in the absence of better information, more careful research, and deeper understanding of the various countries in the Catholic world, curial officials are forced to fall back on such vague generalizations, which are often little more than uninformed cliches. They do so not necessarily because they are malicious (though many of them share in the common European hatred of America), but because they need some basis on which to make decisions.

The fog of misunderstanding and insensitivity that often seems to an outsider to descend on Vatican City is not necessarily the result of incompetence but rather the result of an organizational structure that constrains men to grope in the dark when they must make important decisions. That inevitably will happen in a "flat" organization. Whoever the next pope is, he must look to opening up communication and transforming the church organization.


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