Recent ethical and legal scandals in the American church pose a perplexing question. How could intelligent and generally good persons have been sucked into such a mess? The same question arose when the recent business scandals were studied. What has been learned from analyzing business scandals can be of help to the American Catholic Church.
In large and powerful organizations, good character is not enough. Ethics is a social matter from the start. Individual decisions regularly require the light and strength of others who are willing to act together for good. Studies in the ethics of large and powerful corporations have long attempted to identify the specific structures behind ethical failures. While results of the studies differ somewhat, the list of root causes frequently revolves around three structures: 1) the loss of an outward-focused organizational purpose, 2) the failure of effective concern for diverse stakeholders and 3) the suppression of internal dissent. I would like to suggest that these three structures could help explain the ethical lapses of powerful church organizations on the diocesan, national and international level.
When James Burke, the chief executive office of Johnson & Johnson in the 1970’s, was faced with the unprecedented crisis of cyanide tampering with some Tylenol capsules in the Chicago area, he and his management council discussed several face-saving alternatives before coming to the decision to recall every box of Tylenol in the United States. The decision was extremely risky, but it became a classic example of fine crisis management. Burke later wrote that the decision was motivated by the company’s credo, which described its commitment to provide reliable products to the medical community.
The contrast with Enron is striking. There the rhetoric of management was entirely geared toward the internal good of the company. Profitability and market growth are the lifeblood of a business, but when strategic decisions are totally absorbed in these internal goals, a business loses its ability to deal with the unforeseeable, its perspective or reference point needed for product improvement and certainly its moral courage to deal with ethical failures. The outward-focused purpose allows a company to see its product always in terms of a customer service that in itself is valuable for others. This purpose explains why it is worthwhile for the company to exist. Companies with such a sense of purpose are often extremely profitable in the long run and are always capable of high ethical decisions.
With the Gospel as its product, the church should not have a problem with this structure. Of all powerful organizations, the church especially should be conscious of the brilliant light its service offers others and the reason why it is worthwhile for it to exist. Yet it is quite clear that the effort of many bishops to protect pedophile priests was motivated by a concern to protect the organization and its personnel. This, a natural instinct, is also a powerful one when shameful acts appear within a social entity. Women in an abusive marriage, even when the children are seriously harmed, are often reluctant to reveal the dirty secrets. Their instinct is to protect the social entity.
When this instinct is activated in an organization that is already turning in on itself, the results can be very bad. I am not suggesting that the American church as a whole has lost its sense of purpose. The bishops’ pastoral letters on economic justice and war are brilliant demonstrations of a sense of mission. On the local diocesan level, however, attention seems directed primarily to internal matters of survival. Church development now is almost synonymous with improving the financial health of the parish or diocese, instead of the involvement of others in the life of the Gospel. The shortage of priests in the church could be a matter of survival, but talk of the vocation crisis tends to center exclusively on personnel needs for current job positions in the diocese. A broader focus on the needs of our culture and the diversity of individual callings might offer unexpected alternatives.
On a deeper theological level, the issue might be the very ability of the diocese to function as a missionary unit. The national episcopal conferences have some autonomy to act in this way and are addressing issues larger than the local church. To the degree that a diocese is simply an administrative unit of a larger church, its primary task will be to deal with internal affairs, leaving the definition of its product to higher authorities. But such a view seems to be bad ecclesiology.
In any case, becaused they focused on the internal level the bishops failed to see the moral alternatives in dealing with the pedophile priests. Only an outward-focused sense of purpose gives the courage to risk it all. Despite the provisions of canon law regarding the discipline of the clergy, there is no cookbook answer to this problem. This is a matter of prudence or practical wisdom that calls for a creative, intelligent and courageous decision. Only an intense adherence to purpose allows prudence or practical wisdom to function.
Before their profitable buyout by Häagen-Dazs, Ben and Jerry’s deliberately operated with the sense that management decisions need to balance the concerns of customers, employees, the community and the suppliers along with those of the shareholders. The balancing act is difficult, yet many companies succeed financially that place the shareholders last on the list, in the conviction that profits will come if the company does right by the customers, the employees and the community. Apart from theoretical issues about fiduciary responsibilities, the issues here are those of practical care and the balancing of interests.
While Roman Catholic ecclesiology has advanced in its understanding of itself as the people of God, the practical issue for Catholic bishops in the United States is to think beyond clerical interests. The reckless reassignment of pedophile priests can be understood only as a kind of obliviousness to the children in the priests’ new parishes. To their credit, bishops think of themselves as spiritual fathers of their priests. Instinct would move any father to protect his wayward child. Why did the bishops not think of themselves as parents also of the molested children in the parish? Even the sudden reversal to zero tolerance by the American bishops appeared motivated more by liability issues than by concern for the diverse stakeholders.
Children, young married couples, singles, older families, workers and professionals, the homeless and the affluent are all distinct stakeholders in the church. Our worldly culture is calling for spiritual meaning. Apostles are needed to the business community, the entertainment industry and politics. Can the church fold the interests and values of these diverse groups into its decisions?
Again, on a theological level the issue is the recognition of the church as the people of God, with rather porous boundaries. To the extent that we clericalize the church, this problem of stakerholder consciousness will grow worse. To the extent that we stress the boundaries of the church in an effort to define ourselves by excluding others, we will neglect the missionary responsibility to our own culture.
Handling Internal Dissent
Cynthia Cooper, the internal auditor of WorldCom who eventually exposed the criminal activity, had to conduct her work in secret when she found out what happened to other uncooperative employees. The vice president for corporate development at Enron, Sherron Watkins, feared for her job when she pressed the issue of financial integrity. Michael Vines tried to spread the word about questionable accounting practices at HealthSouth, but at every turn his disclosures were ignored. Such dissent within corporations is discouraged in the name of being a team player and of being loyal to the company as family.
In retrospect, after criminal activity is exposed, we can easily see the mistake made by not listening to such employee objectors. The difficulty lies in distinguishing the whiner from the intelligent critic while ambiguity still reigns. Executive will can be worn away by a steady stream of conflicting voices. Every decision in a large organization is a power play, in some way suppressing the disagreeing voice.
Yet the potential whistle-blower is one of the most valuable voices in a company. That person will tell you of your weaknesses and the mistakes that can kill you. To silence the objections of those who are in fact fully committed to the organizational purpose is to welcome delusions that could be either trivial or fatal. High ethics firms inevitably have some form of open-door policy, where no threat of punishment hovers over those who are willing to report what they perceive to be wrongdoing or just plain stupidity.
The lack of accessibility from below may be one of the single greatest vulnerabilities in the American Catholic Church today. Why was no voice heard disagreeing with the reappointment of abusive priests? Why were not parishioners asked by bishops about their satisfaction with the pastor?
The problem consists in the absence of an adequate vehicle in the church for dissenting voices. Lay discussion groups and planning committees exist in many dioceses, but critical topics are often not on the agenda. An archbishop in the Midwest allowed a vocal lay group into the discussion only when they assured him they would not suggest anything contrary to canon law. Adherence to the Vatican agenda appears to steer the appointment of new bishops as well as their ascent up the ecclesial ladder.
The theological issue of dissent is overwhelmingly complex. Some dissent can be harmful, demoralizing or at least a waste of time. The challenge is to find some form of opendoor policy on all levels of the church so that insights can be discerned, even in the more disagreeable voices. The bishops have a serious role in this discernment, but a theology in which truth streams from the top down distorts this role and leads to the isolation of leaders surrounded by yes-men.
A sense of purpose larger than the organization, a sense of responsibility to diverse groups within and outside the organization and a willingness to listen to disturbing information are three patterns or structures vital for the maintenance of an ethical culture. In business or in the church, leaders need the support of such a culture in order to institutionalize ethics. Would it be demeaning for the church to learn from business in matters of ethics? A really wise person can learn from even a foolish one.