Saturday, October 16, 2010

U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Corporate Model of Pastoral Leadership: A Few Reflections

As some of you have said in comments responding to my recent posts about the choice of Catholic bishops to divert funds to mean-spirited political attacks on gay persons while bishops close churches and schools and (along with major Catholic organizations) cut back on funds for works of mercy, it's hard to understand what the bishops are thinking, as they proceed down this path.

Here's my tiny stab at understanding--at understanding at least a portion of the thought process underlying these choices on the part of the hierarchy today.  I suspect that much that the bishops are doing at a strategic level in diocese after diocese in the U.S. today is largely determined by the advice of lawyers and corporate business leaders, who now have the ear of bishops far more than any other advisers do.

They have bishops' ears because, increasingly, bishops are chosen for two qualities that mesh extremely well with the corporatist world view: they are loyal company yes-men; and they view the pastoral leadership of their dioceses as an extension or ecclesial replication of corporate leadership of a business institution.  Bishops are seldom chosen at this point in the history of the church because they have theological expertise, intellectual ability, or pastoral acumen.  Many of the career ecclesiastics who have risen in power under the last two popes have, in fact, business training or business degrees.

And what's the advice that bishops hear from lawyers and corporate leaders?  It's to think of the operation of their diocese in cost-profit terms, in terms that try to minimize expense by consolidating parishes and services, while writing off some losses as necessary losses in the leaner and meaner running of their ecclesiastical machines.  Why do bishops spend money to attack gay folks while closing parishes?

They do so because 1) they know that they can get away with the former, and 2) they have written off the losses they incur by this activity (the loss of gay members and of others angry at this misallocation of funds) as negligible losses counterbalanced by what they gain through the attacks.  There is, in the thinking of the top leaders of American Catholicism right now, a cynical calculation underlying the attacks on gay folks.

The calculation is that this will consolidate their leadership among those most likely to keep funding the church, along with those most likely to fill the pews on Sunday.  And when the loss for these gains is negligible--when it's easy to demonstrate (as many bishops appear to assume) that gays are merely enemies of the church who don't deserve pastoral consideration--the profit appears to outweigh loss on the ledgers used to reckon profit and loss, as bishops determine whether their pastoral strategies are effective.

There's another factor at work in this ledger-keeping, as well: this is that many of the legal professionals and corporate leaders advising bishops to make these calculations come from legal and business environments in which homophobia and male domination are taken for granted.  Many of the corporate leaders who have the bishops' ears have learned how to deal with the increasing pressures of inclusivity in the business world by making small gestures towards inclusion of gays and lesbians, while essentially holding the line in their corporate structures so that men continue to have predominant access to power and the rewards of the workplace, while women and gays and lesbians are kept at a second-tier level of influence.

When this works, and when profits remain steady, then the calculations used to justify these practices appear to be sound and capable of replication in other organizational structures that parallel corporate structures--e.g., in dioceses and parishes.  So why have bishops in recent years so frequently refused to meet or deal with those abused by priests when they were children?  Because lawyers have advised them to behave this way, to safeguard their corporate assets and images.  And because they can behave this way and get away with it, legally if not morally.

Why have bishops chosen to expend enormous amounts of time and energy on gay-bashing when that time and energy would appear to be needed, on the face of it, to keep Catholic institutions alive and functioning?  Because corporate leaders have advised them that the cost of this exercise is far outweighed by the benefits they reap through the exercise.  And that closing churches and schools even as they shell out money to bash gays is good fiscal management--a manifestation of the leaner, meaner business style that the hard-nosed approach to the gays signals in another way.

And why add attempts to rein in religious women to the cost side of the ledger at the same time?  Because religious women represent perhaps the most significant and organized lay voice left in the American Catholic church, which strongly challenges the corporatist playbook by which the bishops have chosen to run their church. 

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