ERIC HODGENS. Catholic Governance – A Challenge for Improvement.

A monarchical organization, powered by ideology, with promotion by patronage results in bad governance. The Catholic Church has a governance problem.  

Wilton Gregory has been appointed Archbishop of Washington DC replacing Cardinal Donald Wuerl. While there will be some disappointed faces amongst younger bishops in the USA, most Catholic commentators are positive about the appointment. At 71 he is old for the job and has only four years till official retirement age. One factor may be a shortage of younger bishops who are in tune with Pope Francis.

Therein lies the problem. A monarchical organization combined with appointment by patronage inevitably weakens an organization. The first rule of any Human Resources (HR) department is to get the best person for the job. This entails advertising the job, publishing an accepted set of criteria for the choice of the successful candidate, having a competent selection process to scrutinise the applicants, and a clear system of making the final determination. The more transparent this whole process the better will be the result. This is HR best practice.

The Catholic Church has not embraced this practice. It still works on the monarchical model of its past glory days. A monarchy is literally one-man-rule. The monarch’s advisors and administrators are answerable solely to him. They try to discover “the mind of the boss” and reflect that back to him. This limits the frank and fearless advice needed for wise decisions.

The monarchical system tends to spawn an inner circle of influence with accompanying intrigue. George Pell was such an eminence grise. As archbishop first of Melbourne and then of Sydney he used his monarchical power to sack Melbourne’s seminary staff and re-make Sydney’s in tune with the papal ideology – making them both academies of clericalism. He also used his Vatican position and contacts to influence Australian episcopal appointments. The two main dioceses are headed up by his proteges.

The Roman system is monarchical. The pope is the sole appointer of bishops. Likewise, in a diocese, the Bishop has the final say on all matters. This explains the mediocrity of the Catholic bishops of the world.

The 35-year regime of popes Wojtyla and Ratzinger was heavily ideological and centralist. It opposed Communism. It opposed any review of sexual mores – contraception, divorce, clerical celibacy, homosexuality, family planning. It was suspicious of biological research. It opposed women’s ordination. It reduced episcopal authority and changed the Synod of Bishops into a papal rubber stamp.

As identity politics became more mainstream across the world, the Wojtyla ideology became a network. Sympathetic bishops and academics built up think tanks such as the JP II Institute for Marriage and the Family, the Napa Institute in California, founded and funded by the controversial Timothy Busch, and the Catholic Institute of Italy, supported by Steve Bannon. Similarly, tertiary institutions like Notre Dame University Sydney were founded – in this case by George Pell. New publishers like Ignatius Press, founded by Joseph Fessio SJ, disseminated the ideology. Altogether a war with several fronts and a small, but tight-knit, and often wealthy, bunch of warriors. And – a million miles away from the pastoral vision of Jesus.

The essential pre-requisite for selection as bishop was complete compliance with this papal ideology. This eliminated many potential leaders and favoured conformists. When the full force of the sexual abuse crisis hit in 2002 this monochrome cohort of defensive bishops was singularly unprepared for it. “They’re after us; protect the show.”

Catholic services which answer to the wider society such as education, health care and social services do very well – but at some distance from the bishop.

However diocesan administrations are still based on the old monarchical culture. The bishop alone has full executive power. And even in those organizations open to public scrutiny the bishop still has enormous influence particularly in key appointments. Take for example the Director of Catholic Education in Melbourne archdiocese. Despite reservations being signalled to the bishop beforehand Steven Elder was appointed without any transparency as to process. He has recently retired his position under clouded circumstances.

Will his successor be similarly parachuted in? A host of people will be affected by the outcome but, under this system they will have no input to the result.

The appointment of Wilton Gregory effectively reaches back over the Wojtyla/Ratzinger period. He became bishop in 1983 under the patronage of Cardinal Bernadin. He has known a different era. Many younger bishops do not. He fits this bill, but the appointment method is the same. He is Bergoglio’s choice. That’s the system. Observers can only guess the rationale. It would be more legitimate if the appointment procedure was more transparent.

The governance of the Church is still locked into its monarchical past. That model is inefficient in today’s world with its diversity of specialisation, social science knowhow and technological sophistication and political structures. A wise incorporation of aspects of modern politics, including the separation of powers, would make it more effective in achieving its main goal – the pastoral care of all.

Eric Hodgens is a retired Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. 


Eric Hodgens is a Catholic Priest living in retirement. He writes for P&I, International Lo Croix and The Swag.

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9 Responses to ERIC HODGENS. Catholic Governance – A Challenge for Improvement.

  1. Couldn’t agree more except with one of your unqualified criteria – “appointments that are merit based”.

    Something extra is needed in the selection process – the inclusion of accepted criteria for appointing a successful candidate

    There has been a consideration of merit in the appointments over the last 40 years. Unfortunately those deemed most meritorious have been those dedicated to obedience to a moribund set of what Paul Keating would refer to as “nostrums” that in the Church enshrine nonsense and allow the incompetent to be promoted, indeed rewarded!

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Appointments, selection… these are what must go.
      Who appoints the appointed? Who selects?
      You speak of ‘patronage’… Never, even in Holy Mother Church, have I witnessed greater power allowed to Patronage than in the Australian Labor Party.
      Obedience – to/what/whose/why? Speak, instead & better, of Order – which defeats Chaos by use of Truth; and which marshalls itself by reference to its own-created and observed Constitutions and Charters.
      There can be no ‘Improvement’ in Catholic ‘Governance’ – there might be a deliberate, secular start?

  2. Peter Johnstone says:

    Poor governance by definition results in mission failure – governance is simply the means by which people collaborate to pursue an agreed mission. The mission of the Church is to propagate and practise the teachings of Jesus. The monarchical governance of the Church of its very nature rejects the teachings the Christian Church was established to propagate.
    Jesus taught love and humility; he rejected the hypocritical behaviour of the Pharisees which ironically reflects the essence of the modern Church’s monarchical governance.
    The cover-up of clerical child sexual abuse, and the protection of paedophiles with the resultant exposure of further children to abuse, has been but one scandalous result of this dysfunctional governance. New checks and compensation are essential but the real underlying issue is dysfunctional governance and incompetent leadership; that can only be addressed by insisting on accountability, transparency and inclusion (particularly ending the exclusion of women from the Church’s governance) guided by a culture based on Christ-like love and humility. Merit-based selection of bishops and gender balance in top leadership positions in the Holy See are necessary starting points.
    That is not too much to ask of a church established to propagate and practise the teachings of Jesus.

  3. Graham English says:

    The Church still works on the monarchical model. It tends to spawn an inner circle of influence with accompanying intrigue. This happens not only in parishes and dioceses but in the wider Catholic set up where until lately education systems were run by religious and ex religious (brothers mostly) many of whom hadn’t gotten over their belief that all the workers had a vow of obedience and so didn’t desire transparency or a real say in what was going on. The always lay people who came into this system, if they wanted to progress went along with this. Changing church governance is a mighty job and I can’t see it happening in my life time. I can only go in hope.

  4. I love it Rosemary.

    • Rosemary O'Grady says:

      Go, Jerry!
      D’you know : I found an article of yours (The West?) from the 1970s, in an old file – last weekend.
      If I can remember that far back I think it came out of my Strelley/Nomads file.
      We haven’t solved those ‘issues’ yet, either.

  5. Garry Everett says:

    I agree completely Eric. Transparency is not a criterion that Church embraces. When Bill Morris was “sacked” by Pope Benedict at al, I wrote my first ever letter to a Pope. I asked him to revoke his decision and employ a more transparent and just process. As usual, my letter was never even acknowledged.

    Recently a priest colleague of mine reminded me that clericalism was not the prerogative of the clergy. As an abuse of power and privilege, laypeople can be equally lacking in transparency and equally abusive in their use of power.
    The Royal Commission into Sexual Abuse nominated 3 characteristics of clericalism all of which support your thesis: lack of transparency, accountability, and engagement.
    Your analysis highlights these three aspects along with the failure to learn from past experiences.
    We would do well to recall those words from the lunar mission: “Houston we have a problem”. At least they knew what to next!

    • Trish Martin says:

      Garry, Bishop Long said of clericalism: it is the by product of a certain model of Church which he described as ‘a perfect society model, in which there is a neat, almost divinely inspired pecking order’ (RC Inquiry, 2017). It is the model that needs to be dismantled before transparency can work.

  6. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    If we talk about ‘governance’ and ‘reform’ and ‘plenary’ conferences we are talking about cobbling together the torn edges of the Catholic Church.
    This won’t work. (Speaking as a former corporate lawyer, I’ve had some experience with re-structuring bent systems!)
    I’ve had sleepless nights about my own negativities towards my former Holy Mother Church. This is what I’ve come up with: Vatican City should be returned to Italy or, better, to Europe, as an International Open City. It’s Government should be created as a possible model for a similar type of innovation for Jerusalem. Not backward-looking, of course.
    Visitors to the artefacts and treasures should be asked to pay sufficient to maintain the properties in good condition; with Italy making a sur-contribution on the basis of the revenues Italy derives from Vatican-related tourism.
    Those charged with governing the Holy City / should be elected to do so, and for a term, but not limited to that in the event of genius emerging.
    Frankly, I’m beginning to like this radical ‘solution’ which will not be welcomed by many, but which could, with careful planning, become a cultural treasure-house. The Forum, and the Vatican, our cultural inheritances in one place. The business of ‘religion’ (aka dogma) could be conducted elsewhere, absent the heavy weight of centuries of tradition. Just a thought. Different can be good.

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