Perhaps we have all read, more than perhaps we wanted to, about clerical abuse and the summit of bishops led by Pope Francis , which ended on 24 February. So today I want to look at a more basic factor but which may have played an important part in the traditional behaviour of diocesan bishops. I am referring to the quaint arrangement which in effect gives complete disciplinary power to the bishop. I use the term ‘quaint’ because, unlike Victorian times, most successful secular operations nowadays not only listen to their staffs but deliberately look for communication and feedback. And of course, either by choice or by law, staffs have important rights.
There are some who would turn at this point to the powers given by Christ to the Apostles, and so to their successors. That closes the case. Or does it? The secular operations to which I have referred continue to have boards and bosses, and a range of executive levels. And necessarily there are rules and formal behaviours which are necessary for success and legality. They are neither democracies nor tyrannies.
Some 50 years ago Donald Nicholl, a leading lay Catholic at the time, wrote an article in the Clergy Review called “The Layman and Ecclesiastical Authority.” He quoted a sociologist, Professor Revans, who had conducted a study of communication in hospitals. Revans took a group of hospitals and compared those which had low turnover of staff at all levels and those which had high turnover. He examined a range of hypotheses which might throw up essential factors. 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 quicker. 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.
Hospitals and religious communities are different in many ways but both of them share imperatives. Both of them contain different functions which are nevertheless related. Both of them flourish through sharing responsibilities. Both of them are concerned with healing. Is it possible to have a Church in which communication and respect throughout is the key to presenting the life of Christ to the world?