Saturday, October 13, 2012

Thoughts on church leadership...

Earlier in 2012, the Pew Research Center released a study with a statistic that 70% of U.S. Catholics are satisfied with the leadership provided by the American bishops.  That statistic breaks down as follows:
  • 24% “very satisfied”
  • 46% “somewhat satisfied
  • 13% “somewhat dissatisfied”
  • 12% “very dissatisfied”
  •    5% “don’t know”
In surveying, the order of satisfaction categories typically goes something like this:
  • Completely satisfied (meaning 100% positive)
  • Very satisfied (almost 100% positive but there are a few insignificant issues)
  • Satisfied (lots of good things but enough negative that it doesn’t merit an amplifying adjective)
  • Somewhat satisfied/Somewhat dissatisfied or sometimes categorized as “neutral” (when the glass has 50% water and 50% air, it can be described as “half full” or “half empty” but the amount of water is the same either way)
  • Dissatisfied (lots of negatives but enough positives that it doesn’t merit an amplifying adjective)
  • Very dissatisfied (almost 100% negative but there are a few redeeming things)
  • Completely dissatisfied (nothing redeeming about this)
Typically, only “completely” and “very” satisfied responses are considered positive ones.  Since “somewhat satisfied” implies a person is also “somewhat dissatisfied”, these responses are often combined into one category representing the tepid, “eh…” response – the type that is expressed accompanied by wrinkled nose and shrugged shoulders.  However, the Pew study did not pose the question in a way to capture the “eh…” response explicitly.  It must be derived by adding the two “somewhat” categories. 

Therefore, instead of thinking 70% are satisfied, it might be more realistic to say 59% think, “eh…”  The combination of “eh…” and negative responses yields insight that 71% of U.S. Catholics are less than thrilled with the American bishops’ leadership.  Yeah, that sounds about right.

Competent leaders should see these results as identifying a very big problem, one that many Catholics would like to see addressed.  Successfully addressing such a problem requires following a simple problem solving methodology:
  1. Admit there is a problem
  2. Understand its causes
  3. Address the causes
1.  Do the bishops admit there is a problem?  I do not know but I personally doubt they do.

2.  Making a bold assumption that they do, the next step is to understand underlying causes such as the bishops’ lack of credibility.  Examining the credibility issues’ causes might reveal people perceiving the bishops as:

A.      Asserting authority on topics in which they lack expertise such as science, biology, sociology, psychology, sexuality, medicine, women, marriage and family life
B.      Denying new understandings on those same topics
C.      Clinging to theological concepts that are based on flawed understandings of those topics combined with flawed logic
D.      Making decisions that impact people negatively based upon those flawed understandings
E.       Violating the 6th Commandment pertaining to sexual impropriety
F.       Violating the 8th Commandment pertaining to telling the truth  and bearing false witness
G.     Being hypocritical such as declaring themselves the ultimate arbiters of truth while repeatedly demonstrating difficulty telling it
H.      Prioritizing preservation of hierarchical power and traditions over Scripture, the Commandments and ministry
I.        Inconsistently and arbitrarily applying rules or Canon Law
J.        Fearing women, laypeople, science, change, sin, sinners, death, facts, the media, sexuality
K.      Focusing on their shepherd association more than on their sheep
L.       Focusing on trivial matters like the new liturgy translation
M.    Pretending things that happened didn't, such as covering up priest sexual abuses, or denying the history of ordaining women deacons
N.     Pretending things happened that didn’t such as claiming Jesus ordained anyone, or said women couldn’t be ordained
O.     Lauding and rewarding bishops and clergy who exhibit bad behavior
P.    Contradicting gospel messages

To the last point, I've only gotten as far as Chapter 27 in Matthew doing a categorization exercise but from getting that far in that one gospel I’ve read Jesus:
  • 33 times reprimands religious leaders
  • 22 times heals people
  • 19 times rails against hypocrisy especially amongst religious leaders
  • 12 times reprimands/corrects his closest followers (the apostles let's say)
  •   9 times says that children and/or the weakest shall be the highest valued
Bishops say they are superior imitators of Christ and from this claim their authority.  In doing so, they call themselves to a higher standard.  Regardless, all Christians are called to imitate Jesus.  Therefore it is reasonable to ask of ourselves and the bishops:
  • What are we doing to reprimand religious leaders? 
  • When and how are we healing people? 
  • What are we doing to address hypocrisy especially amongst religious leaders?
  • What are we doing to correct the Apostles? 
  • How do we put our weakest members and children first?
We can and should be concerned about the bishops’ poor credibility but we should also be concerned about our own.  By challenging them, it will help ensure we institutionally admit our problems and also that we delve into why they exist so we can fix them. 

3.  How can the bishops address their credibility issues?  It’s not difficult to name what must be done.  Due to human nature, the challenge emerges in executing the steps.  This isn’t an exhaustive list of ideas to address the bishops' credibility issue but it’s a start: 
  • Tell the truth and build a culture of openness and honesty instead of obfuscations and secrecy or one that tolerates convenient lies
  • Do not fear – loss of power, science, facts, logic, women, laypeople, future, change, death, the media, sin, sinners, sexuality
  • Keep your pants on and zipped and when someone doesn’t, deal with the situation in honesty instead of obfuscation and secrecy
  • Re-read the gospels and pay close attention to what Jesus actually does say and what he doesn’t say – not what you want him to say, not what you think he says, not what you hope he says, not what you insist he must say to justify what you’ve been doing
  • Truly imitate Christ and don’t worry about who does it better – nobody does it perfectly and you look like a pack of fools trying to figure out who is the most superior amongst a flawed, sinful bunch
  • Stop lording over others  - which will be an automatic byproduct of doing the previous steps
  • Dramatically simplify and revise Canon Law so that it’s aligned with the gospels keeping in mind that Jesus simplified 613 Mosaic laws to 2 – imitate that “KISS” principle (“keep it simple, stupid”)
  • Spend at least twice as much time with the regular folk as you do with your staff,  books, other clergy, or in solitude combined
  • Listen more than speak; learn more than teach; practice more than preach; give more than take
  • Hold yourselves and each other accountable – be quick to admit your shortcomings
  • Stop rewarding bad behavior
I think if improvements were made in even a few of these areas, the church’s leadership crisis would abate significantly.  Then we might genuinely have 70% or more of Catholics expressing satisfaction with the bishops’ leadership instead of 59% saying “eh…” and 71% being less than thrilled.


  1. Well said, but the Vatican and the American hierarchy will do anything but pay attention. I get something out of Mass every week, but don't especially like the new Mass changes. The changes strike me more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  2. Interesting statistics and observations. The more unsettled I become the more I feel that there is no way of changing 'them' - that's a matter for the Spirit; she's the one who can set the air on fire and chase fear away. The change has to be in me - to have the courage to be the one who listens and tries to live it out. Giving others authority over our faith give us permission not to take responsibility and someone to use as a scapegoat- maybe that is what needs to change?