Communities that communicate

At his inaugural Mass Archbishop Nichols spoke of faith building a community in which superficial differences are trumped by our unity in Christ. Certainly true, but I am always suspicious of the word “community” because it is easily said, and not so easily done. Does the Church act as a community? That is the test which turns an aspiration into a reality.

Some years ago we used to talk of two different models of the Church. One was a triangle with the pope at the apex, and descending through the ranks to the bottom line of the laity; the other was a circle, with the Pope at the centre and the members who, while offering different services and functions, made up the body centred on Christ. The triangle of course indicates not community but hierarchy; the circle is structured as community and capable of being one. The metaphor is simplistic but in a broad way it contrasts two fundamentally different views of the Church.

Let me take you back to the Clergy Review of July 1964 in which the late Professor Donald Nicholl, a great and holy man, used a revealing secular example. He reported on a study which a distinguished sociologist had carried out on hospitals. Professor Revans had been asked to find out why certain hospitals had a particularly poor record in retaining junior nursing staff. Closer investigation revealed that a similar high turnover was present at all levels, up to the most senior.

As a good scientist, Revans took a comparison group of hospitals which had low turnover of staff at all levels, and he examined a range of hypotheses which might throw up essential differences. The contrast turned out to be the quality of communication.

The poor hospitals were of course communicating, but the direction of communication was typically downwards. Each level treated the level below as idiots, and the final level of idiocy was the patients at the bottom of the heap. Virtually no communication travelled upwards, and, interestingly, there was very little lateral communication – that is, the different professional functions chose to insulate themselves from each other.

The good hospitals had an easy flow of communication upwards and downwards, and the professional groups worked comfortably together to maximise efficiency. In only one respect did the good hospitals have a higher turnover: the patients had shorter stays because they got better more quickly. It was as if the poor hospitals existed to maintain themselves, with the patients as no more than an unavoidable nuisance, while the good hospitals worked together, and with the patients, in the shared objective of healing.

In case you should think that 1964 is out of date, a study of 34 public hospitals in the United States, published in February 2009, showed uncannily similar results.

Communication, however, is not simply a matter of expressing views; it necessarily involves those views being carefully listened to (though not necessarily agreed with) and the appropriate dialogue and action being promptly taken. (The capacity to listen to subordinates is one of the major factors, identified in several studies, in effective leaders.) You only need, as a proxy, to look at the letters page in this newspaper (which has a long tradition of free lay comment) to read a range of, often, radical communication. But is anyone listening?

I hear tales of marvellous parish priests who lead their laity in the full work of the local Church. But I also hear of parish priests who are still stuck in the Middle Ages, who resent any lay “interference”, and simply ignore pertinent communication. No doubt many priests find a similar variety of reaction from their respective bishops. And the Vatican can often appear to be the nearest thing to a black hole this side of astronomy. Indeed, a group of visiting American canonists found that there was very little lateral communication within the Curia. One remarked: “There is more communication at my university than there is at this international headquarters.”

Do you think that the abuses which have taken place in Ireland (and elsewhere) would have occurred in a communicating Church? Do you think that the widespread sexual abuse by clergy of nuns (mainly but not exclusively in the Third World) would have occurred in a communicating Church? Do you think that the rejection of the Faith by so many of our children and grandchildren, and the dramatic fall in adult membership, Catholic marriages and vocations would have taken place in a communicating Church?

It was understandable that the Church closed ranks at the time of the Reformation, pickling itself in aspic. And notwithstanding Vatican II (which has brought about improvements continually contended by the old guard) it remains largely and institutionally pickled. Too many people have too much to lose by way of power and accountability to release the sheet anchor of comfortable security their personalities require. In this most fundamental characteristic of community, the concept remains no more than a pious platitude.

Who will change it? Both Professor Revans and the American study I have quoted are clear that the change must come from the top if it is to be thorough and effective. But we could at least make a start nearer home. Our new Archbishop of Westminster has the intelligence to grasp the situation, and the character to bring about change. He believes in community; now he has the opportunity – and it will be a long hard road down which he has to lead us – to turn his belief from aspiration into fact.

Which model of the Church do you prefer: triangle or circle? – and why. Do you think there is a clerical caste which hides itself behind its authority? Would a “communicating” Church lead to slackness in doctrine or even a loss of unity? Tell us about your good and bad experiences of communication in the Church.

If you want to read a pretty direct book on the question try “The Reform of the Papacy” by Archbishop Quinn, who was formerly president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Amazon uk has cheap second hand copies. Best to use a UK shipper

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Communities that communicate

  1. claret says:

    The best model of all would be of a triangle that is upside down! The Pope at the bottom , with the Bishops one tier above and the laity on top, with the other clergy totally absent!
    The plain fact of the matter is that what is dictated in the Vatican falters at the Diocesan HQ and then fails completely at the parish if the resident PP wants none of it.
    The Church is way behind every other kind of institution when it comes to community in the sense of allowing those who are the bedrock of a parish to actually run the place.
    Priests are virtually unaccountable to anyone ( although they like to use the word ‘accountable’ they have no concept of what it truly means,) except in matters of finance. Hence we have finance committees in parishes as a ‘Must’ but it is only a ‘recommendation’ when it comes to parish councils.
    Here I agree with Quentin in that would we have had these child abuse scandals had the pp and other clergy had to face an examining body every month?
    To some extent this is partly the fault of parishioners who don’t want to be involved anyway and are only too happy to do as little as possible themselves and leave as much as possible to the PP.
    But regretably any talk of accountability and ‘letting go’ and sharing, etc. etc. has always to be done on the terms set by the PP. The more enlightened ones set the more enlightened terms but they still are the ones to set them.
    The Church would rather die than relinquish its power over the laitiy.

  2. giton says:

    Like organised religion everywhere, the Catholic Church has, and needs, a heirarchy. Of its very nature it is not a democratic institution and has to have organisation.

    However, clergy are given too much power (and I agree with ‘claret’ that the laity are much to blame for this). But this phenomenon is seen in all organised religions; most fearsomely we see it in the Middle East where clerics (mostly Mullahs) have literal life or death power over lay people. Imbued with powers allegedly emanating directly from God, clergy have assumed the power of forgiveness of sins thus allowing avoidance of eternal damnation. On a smaller matter, it is generally accepted that ‘blessings’ are the competence of the cleric whereas, in tradition, they could be given by and asked for by anyone. The Jewish people retain this so it is not uncommon for a son to ask his father for a blessing and vice versa.

    It is my view that forgiveness comes from those hurt and from the community itself. If the community chooses to invest the clergy with the powers of forgiveness then it will pay the price.

    I recall attending a Midnight Mass at Easter in Manchester and the priest said in his homily that there were only two titles in the Church … priest and bishop, and all the others, monsignor, canon etc., were a nonsense. He is now a canon, by the way! And we see these differentials in the plumage … red piping, skullcaps, mitres and all manner of appendages which, for certain sure, Jesus would not have recognised (though, no doubt, the scribes and Pharisees would have had their distinguishing marks).

    There is much to be said for the Catholic method of ‘imposing’ a parish priest upon the parishioners. They must come to terms with the person who is their pp, warts ‘n all. But until the clergy themselves come to terms with their (limited) place in the community as advisers and participants in liturgy and sacrament, we are doomed to an everlasting ‘battle’. There is most definitely a clerical caste which hides behind its ‘authority’ (which, incidentally, it gets from itself).

    What sometimes happens is that we have the institutional Church bestowing, for example, a Papal Knighthood (and where did that come from?) on someone known throughout the world as a scurrilous bandit. A total disconnect between Church and People!

    I am now at risk of rambling on, so I’ll shut up!

  3. Horace says:

    There seems to be some confusion between ‘Community’ and ‘Communication’.

    I got into trouble at a recent meeting in our Diocese about “Passing on the Faith”; the lecturer was considering (under the heading of Catechesis) “Education for Community Life”. I assumed that he was talking about the difficulties caused by the fact that we live today in an assertively secular community, whereas he was talking about the necessity for pastors “to form genuine Christian communities” [General Directory for Catechesis. 06/02/03 – which I only discovered afterwards]
    Note “to live in community” – not as I had assumed “to live in the community”; the distinction is subtle!

    Communication – I have worked in many hospitals between 1950 and 1997 but the concept of difficulty, or ease, in communication does not ring any bells at all with me – I have no idea whether they were good or bad on these grounds, [Perhaps I am just too thick to notice] but hospitals then were run by a team of senior doctors with the assistance of the Matron and a Hospital Secretary.

    Do you think that the abuses which have taken place in Ireland (and elsewhere) would have occurred in a communicating Church? I my view the abuses in Ireland were as much the fault of the community (i.e. society in general at the time) as of the Church in particular.

    Comments.
    I thoroughly agree with claret – an upside down triangle!
    The Pope at the bottom supports the Cardinals, the Cardinals support the Bishops, the Bishops support the Parish Priests, and the Parish Priests support the Parishioners. [But then perhaps I am an idealist.]

    With regard to giton –
    (1) ‘blessings’; it has always worried me that instead of the traditional “I bless you in the name of Jesus Christ . .” we now always have the permissive “May Jesus bless you . . ”
    (2) “If the community chooses to invest the clergy with the powers of forgiveness . .”
    I don’t follow – does not the New Testament clearly indicate that Jesus says to his apostles “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”?

  4. Superview says:

    I was very hopeful, as Quentin was, that there would be a good debate about the ‘Communicating Communities?’ article, yet it doesn’t seem to have happened. Personally, I think the topic is so central and so problematic that I decided to wait and see what others thought in response to the article and questions, rather than, as a new contributor, convey a very jaundiced view about the Church as an organisation and as an institution. As I’ve got older I’ve come to recognise that all our human institutions are flawed and imperfect because humans are; but I am more dispirited reaching that conclusion about the Church and less sure-footed in my criticism because of, for example, the weight of history and the implied rejection of the central tenet that the Holy Spirit guides the Church. In fact, for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to think that the general Catholic view about how God has set things up and whether he intervenes with rudder adjustments is naive – if not completely contradicted by the reality of the Church’s history. I recently read John Polkinghorne’s ‘Questions of truth’ and find the approach there on the questions around God’s omnipotence and our freedom much more satisfyingly rational and open-ended, whilst impressively faithful.
    More specifically, the communication issue could not be more relevant in the current climate of confusion about what is going on at the top re Vatican II. At local level, where some priests (although only a minority it seems) are making changes, people are left bemused because there does not seem to be any attempt to explain or inform.
    Let me give you an example of how insidious it can appear at local level. A short time ago we lost from our parish, due to illness, a good, holy, man who communicated confidently and brilliantly, and he was replaced by a man who has, from what I can glean, spent most of his priesthood in academia as chaplain and lecturer. He has a much narrower view of his role, and in the last year or so has been making small changes without explanation and which now can perhaps be seen in the context of his hostility to Vatican II.
    In isolation the changes may seem trivial – he turned his chair from facing the congregation to sideways on to the altar; he doesn’t greet the people at the beginning of Mass; he no longer has the Eucharistic ministers on the altar; he confines distribution of the Host to himself; he has expensively renewed all the vestments with an archaic style; he has locked the sacristy door and removed access to a large parish room behind it (despite having an enormous presbytery); he has dropped the peace greeting from the weekday Mass; he doesn’t want an offertory hymn; he has brusquely cancelled coffee in the narthex after Mass on Sunday; he wants the choir to learn Gregorian chant; he won’t invite prayers for parishioners who are terminally ill; and, most distressingly, he has surrounded himself with a coterie of parishioners who don’t give eye contact and turn from other good people who have given decades of faithful service to the parish and who are bemused as to their offence – which of course lies in the opposition they have tentatively voiced to the changes.
    Six months ago I read the Exhortation on the Eucharist and realised where much of it was coming from, and courteously suggested we have a parish study group to discuss the Exhortation and other related documents. This was agreed, but it was announced as a ‘prayer and study group’ in the newsletter, and after two short meetings (with a third cancelled at the last minute) with a prayer format led by a new, young parishioner, and with a mysterious young man of university connections, also present, we have yet to discuss anything at all. He knows we are not stupid, so it is tempting to believe that he actually doesn’t care what conclusions we draw.
    Now, I confess that in the distant past, when we were younger, we as a family ‘shopped around’ and voted with our feet when we had a fire and brimstone parish priest who took his weekly theme from the Catholic tabloid headline. But this seems a disloyal thing to do now – even cowardly – with so many good people left behind. It is the frustration of the powerless, and very sobering it is too in the modern world.

  5. Michael Mahoney says:

    It should be astonishing, but I don’t think it is, at least not to those in command, that, in the twenty first century, the Church’s organisational structure is little different to that which Charlemagne would have approved of at the end of the Dark Ages. Indeed, he might have even envied the greater centralisation of power and relished the celebrity cult that now seems to be part and parcel of the papal image.
    The longevity of this structure probaby has more to do with the dynamics and paranoia of power and to the mighty persistence of human aspiration than to any divine puposes. And for that reason, it would be unrealistic to expect that radical reform of Church structure will ever come before the financial effects of Western disillusion begin to truly bite.

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