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