Monday, March 16, 2009

CEOs, Fiscal Impropriety, and Catholic Bishops: Making the Connections

As I read more and more dismaying reports about the fiscal improprieties of the CEOs who have brought us to the brink of economic disaster, I begin to see strong connections between that story and the story of the Catholic church in the U.S. in this decade.

From 2002 forward, American Catholics have learned of shocking malfeasance on the part of many of our pastoral CEOs, our top leaders. We learned in 2002 that two-thirds of the Catholic bishops in the U.S. had knowingly protected and/or promoted one or more priests who had sexually molested minors.

During the same period, we have discovered that at least 85% of dioceses that chose to respond to a survey about embezzlement of church funds are reporting problems with embezzlement.

Both in the corporate world of CEOs and in the ecclesial world of bishops, these problems are rooted in systems that allow those at the top to escape responsibility for their actions. In the corporate world as well as in the church, we have systems that are not accountable to those at the bottom, and that do not value transparency.

It is perhaps not accidental that the problems with which the Catholic church is struggling now are fundamentally akin to those with which our economic systems are struggling. The horrific abuse of children by priests is rooted in a clerical system that places all ecclesial power in the hands of the ordained, and withholds power--any at all, in the institutional sense--from the non-ordained.

The clerical system leads, by its very nature, to abuse: it is a system oriented towards abuse in its very foundations, in its choice to deprive the vast majority of the members of the people of God of any power to participate in decisions of church governance or make changes in systems of church governance that are betraying the gospel.

It is no accident that the clerical system is also closed to inspection in the area of finances. This is part and parcel of the unjust way in which the Catholic church allocates institutional power. The abuse of minors by priests goes hand in hand with misuse of church funds by the ordained. Both betrayals of core gospel values depend on the lack of transparency and accountability that are built into the way the church is run, under clericalism.

CEOs and the ordained members of the church often seek to convince the rest of us that we should accept a lack of transparency and accountability by those with power because those at the top have been arrived there either through their superior merit or by divine fiat. As long as we permit leaders of economic and ecclesial institutions to convince us that they deserve to be shielded from responsibility, we become part of the problem, and can expect more and more revelations about the abuse of power and resources.