I think that the Church is going through a time of great danger. This was illustrated for me by a remark made recently by a Catholic luminary. He spoke of a “major paradigm shift” through which the Church was sloughing off its medieval Catholicism and Counter-Reformation entrenchment. I suspect that he, and perhaps many others, has a limited understanding of how difficult it may be to change the culture of such an institution. Despite the refreshing breeze of Pope Francis, and his near universal acceptance by the secular world, there are big problems ahead.
While I remain concerned about the future, I am optimistic about what has happened so far. Francis understands the difference between leadership and management. He knows that not only are they different but also that the two are in some ways actually antipathetic. Indeed some aspects of his earlier career suggest that management is not his forté. But leadership undoubtedly is.
The objective of management is to preside, guide and direct complex operations. It is very practical, and focussed on the immediate situation. Leadership is concerned with the future – its eye is not on the hill in front but on the hill which lies beyond, and the hills beyond that. The Church is a pilgrim, and the leader must know its eventual destination. That is the vision he must communicate.
Within this vision he must establish the essential qualities which are absolutely required to take us on our way. We are not to be a Church of Pharisees, but a broken Church, replete with those who fail and are lifted to their feet – only to fail again. It is not a Church which finds itself in the grandeur of cathedrals or the purple of power but in the backstreets of the poor, and on the edges of society. Its members, from the highest to the lowest, do not preach, they prophesy. It does not exist to maintain itself, God has guaranteed that already: “Take courage; I have conquered the world.” Its function is to display Christ, and so offer the world what the world truly wants.
But fine words go nowhere without actions. Francis actually lives out his vision through what he does. What is a leader who does not lead the way himself? This is the secret of his impact. The practical changes he has introduced so far are few; he has largely confined himself to mandating the organs from which change may come in time. But he knows that all this will quickly falter unless his message first changes the way people think and feel.
And that is where the danger lies. Changing the structure of any well-established organisation is notoriously difficult. While inspired and charismatic leadership is the first essential, there are big obstacles to be faced. The structure has lasted for two thousand years, and it is strongly hierarchical. Moreover it has deeply grounded cultural factors such as its belief in its transcendent mission and in its fundamental immutability. And these core values are preserved by a sense of the sacred, which in a secular organisation would more properly be described as ideology. The briefest canter through its history, ancient and modern, reveals how often this ideology has led to policies antithetical to its true mission.
We have in effect had an early warning from the aftermath of Vatican II, arising from the reforms it introduced. One reaction to these was a near barmy response of extreme liberality represented by enthusiastic amateurs untouched by theological literacy. At the other, the reaction was to close down the hatches by championing extremes of triumphalism. Neither was helpful, and much remains to be resolved. But the message of Francis, consistent though it is with Vatican II, is much more threatening.
So we must expect a period of time – perhaps a generation or more – for the effects of this message to be properly digested. And over this period of unrest there will be many sincere voices which will attempt to slow down change for the good of the Church. If we assume that Francis will remain constant in his intentions, we cannot assume that his successor will do so too. Moreover, and notwithstanding the theoretical authority of a pope, there are plenty of ways in which change can be foiled without any need for overt defiance.
This is possible because, in the nature of things, the establishment of an organisation is the outcome of social evolution. That is, it attracts members who are suited to the culture which it presents, and discourages those who do not fit. The further they move up the organisation the more acculturated they become. Faced by change, the square peg, once secure in its square hole, must adapt its psychological girth to a new fit. It is unlikely to be happy. Once again we are faced by decades rather than years for an establishment suited to a new culture to be developed.
Two issues will be the instruments of success or failure. One is the question of subsidiarity: the principle that decisions should be taken at the lowest practical levels. And the second is communication which, as the word suggests, is the key to community. The Church has an appalling record in both these areas. Fortunately, Francis is already on the job. But I will on another occasion explore these in more detail, with proper attention to what we can learn from secular organisations. We will, I hope, discover that radical reform here, however difficult, will assist the Church in its pilgrimage towards living up to her own fundamental nature.