Two important documents have been published recently. One is an account of an interview given by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the other records a news conference addressed by the Swiss Abbot Martin Werlen. The documents are linked by a common theme of Karl Rahner’s image of the embers hidden under the ash. Cardinal Martini says: “I see in the Church today so much ash under the embers that often I’m hit with a sense of impotence.”
The abbot said: “The problems are known. Pope Benedict on occasion refers to them. But nothing concrete is done to solve them.” Martini continued: “[My first recommendation] is conversion: the Church must recognise its errors and follow a radical path of change, beginning with the pope and the bishops. The Church is 200 years behind the times. Why doesn’t it stir? Are we afraid? Is it fear rather than courage?”
Beyond the fact that these are the witnesses of two highly influential people, I give no further detail here. Their tenor is clear. My concern today is to look at the psychological reasons why the radical reform of a large and well-established organisation is difficult to achieve and long in coming.
It is tempting, but mistaken, to think of reform in terms of specific issues such as clerical celibacy or the admission of divorced or re-married people to Communion. Broader reform is concerned with creating the culture of a community in dialogue with itself and the Holy Spirit, in which the understanding of what may need to be changed or more deeply explored is a duty shared by all.
It is also a mistake to see reform as, for instance, reducing papal power or dismantling the hierarchy. The shape of chief executive and hierarchy is common to institutions which range in their culture from closed totalitarianism to open community whose members are distinguished not by rank but by function.
The classic description of contrasting approaches was given by Douglas McGregor in 1960. He identified two approaches to leadership. Theory X held that people are inherently lazy and unmotivated. The management approach is therefore one of close control exercised through stick and carrot. Theory Y held that people are naturally responsible and tend to work hard towards organisational goals. The management approach is to provide conditions in which people are free to exercise this responsibility and use it both for the good of the business and personal fulfilment – which are one and the same thing. McGregor argued that Theory X managers would, at best, get mediocre performance from their workers, while Theory Y managers would get superior performance.
It is not difficult to translate these two approaches into an ecclesiastical institution. Nor is it difficult to guess the immediate response; the Church is not a democratic society. It has a sacred authority to lay down what its members must believe and how they must behave. True, of course, but equally true of the secular organisation. This, too, must hold on to its mission statement and the core values which motivate it.
A second problem is fear. A Theory X champion will claim that a slackening of controls will lead towards chaos. He will perhaps point out the excesses which followed Vatican II. But the cultural change from Theory X to Theory Y is characterised by a degree of disorder, like a child who, having been over-strictly brought up, is suddenly released into adult freedom. It takes time for the intoxication to pass and the maturity of self-discipline to grow.
Another problem which obstructs change is that the current office-holders are likely to be, for the most part, temperamentally wedded to Theory X. Most of them will have been chosen as a safe pair of hands. They will have succeeded by passive conformity. It may be the only modus operandi they know. The penalty for non-conformity may be high and, in this case, dealt with by a justice system fundamentally unreformed since the Middle Ages.
A Theory X organisation under threat may produce a facsimile version of Theory Y. Typically, it will set up some form of staff council, but with so little actual power that no one of substance will become a delegate. The ecclesiastical equivalent was the disloyal failure of the Curia to open itself to the influence of the diocesan bishops. Or perhaps the episcopal synods, which Abbot Werlen criticised as “so influentially prepared and accompanied by the Roman Curia that nothing new can emerge”. Ironically at one such synod the delegates were asked to omit subsidiarity from their submissions. Even broaching the idea of the devolution of authority was apparently too threatening. A powerful “kitchen cabinet” is a reliable sign of X theory in full song.
And lastly, because I have emphasised the subject before, the Theory Y organisation is typified by the quality of internal communication. The Theory X organisation is characterised by one-way communication. It is an irony that the Mystical Body, with its message of life, should be so organised as to bear closer comparison in many respects to an old- fashioned Dickensian institution than it does to a successful modern business.
Pope John Paul’s criticism of those who treated the Church as a “multinational corporation” was unfortunate. Despite its sacred mission and sacred authorities, its members behave like any other corporation. To reject what the secular world teaches us about good corporate practice is simple folly. That we do not match up to many secular organisations in our capacity to create community should suggest a pause for thought.
Visit secondsightblog.com (which has 45,000 hits a year throughout the English-speaking world), with links to Cardinal Martini and Abbot Werlen, and say what you think.