How Do You Solve a Problem Like Church Reform?

"The church is in need of reform."  This is one of those statements that is true, but obviously true in such a way as to have limited value.  The church is always in need of reform with regard to something,   Augustine went so far as to say that "ecclesia semper reformanda est"--the church is always to be reformed.

But "reform" is not a specific enough concept to be useful.  Before you can reform something, you must figure out what needs to be reformed.  This is always a tricky and controversial bit, and often reform agendas never get off the ground as a result of fights over what to change and what to keep.  But even if you were to get consensus on what to do, there is the other tricky question of how to go about accomplishing these reforms.  Because, of course, reforms are not self-executing, and many a reform movement has sputtered and died as a result of execution problems.  The Catholic Church spent the better part of the Middle Ages attempting to rein in clergy corruption, unsuccessfully, only to get things (sort of) under control as a result of the focusing of the mind after the Protestant Reformation.  These things are hard.

Because they are so hard, it is interesting to see that two of the most prominent international Christian leaders--Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby--are both engaging in reform programs.  What is especially interesting about these two is that their approach to implementing these changes appear to be polar opposites.

Let's begin with Archbishop Welby.  One of the interesting things about Welby's background is that prior to entering the clergy, he was a business executive in the oil industry.  As a result, given his age and experience, Welby is keenly familiar with one of the most prominent, and yet mostly unknown and unmentioned, ideological systems of the late 20th and early 21st Century--the ideology of management theory and management consulting.

For those not familiar, allow me to provide a brief primer on management consulting.  The basic idea is that large companies and institutions pay very significant sums of money to bring in management consultants to tell them how to improve their business or institution.  The management consultants don't actually know anything about the business itself--in other words, if a sandwich shop hired management consultants, those consultants would not know anything about making sandwiches.  That's a feature, not a bug, since the management ideology says that making sandwiches is not what makes a sandwich business successful, and getting too deep into the weeds of the proper mustard to mayonnaise ratio only serves to confuse the real issue.  Instead, it is the processes and systems which structure how you make sandwiches that make a sandwich business successful.

Management theory is perhaps the best example of what post-modern philosophers call a "totalizing metanarrative."  The core commitment of management theory is that these processes and systems are, in principle, universal, so the same structures that can help a sandwich business be successful can make Exxon be successful--which is why you pay very significant sums to the management consultant to provide you with these processes and systems.  As a result, the what of what you are doing becomes completely swallowed up by a consideration of how.  "What" is completely interchangeable, as there is no real difference between making sandwiches and pumping oil, since they both ultimately reduce to an analysis of the degree to which these endeavors are following the dictates of management theory.

Because it is a totalizing metanarrative, it was probably inevitable that someone would decide that management theory was the solution for what ails the church.  And, given his background, it is also not surprising that Archbishop Welby would be that person.
Or, at least, that's in essence what Rev. Martyn Percy accuses Welby of in this piece.  Rev. Percy's basic objection to the reform program on the table for the Church of England is that it has no theological grounding whatsoever, and is instead "pragmatic, organisational and financial."  Said another way, it is not based on the things that make the Christian church a church, but is instead based on this detatched metanarrative about how to run organizations.  Again, this is classic management theory--it doesn't matter whether your product is sandwiches or oil or God, they all work according to the same, higher set of rules.

The core problem with management theory, in my view, is that it is based on a fundamental untruth.  Sandwiches and oil and God are not, in fact, the same.  By abstracting out the things that make them unique, you end up with a tedious, soul-destroying, dystopian sameness.  Percy, entirely rightly in my view, fears that a church that goes down the road of management theory becomes yet another indistinguishable "product" with a "brand" that must be cultivated and marketed, vacating the Christian message of any transformative (and culture-critiquing) power.  Ultimately, Christianity is about an individual and wholly unique person having an entirely idiosyncratic encounter with the Divine.  While structures and processes can assist people to have that encounter (or, conversely, throw up roadblocks to that encounter), they cannot in themselves make that encounter happen.  You can program your way to a certain market share, but you can't program your way to Christian discipleship.

So, basically, I think Rev. Percy is completely correct to be suspicious of thinking that reform in the church can happen entirely as a result of structural change.  But I would counsel anyone thinking about the question to avoid over-steering, to a view that structural change is irrelevant or unnecessary.  And it is here where Pope Francis comes into the equation.

Pope Francis has identified a problem, and that problem is "clericalism."  "Clericalism" means slightly different things to different people, but he gave a pretty good list of some of the symptoms in a recent speech to the Mexican bishops.  Pope Francis has given similar denunciations in the past to different groups, and one notices in he always focuses on personal attitudes, behaviors, and points of view.  All of this is fine as far as it goes, but it is beginning to become clear that this message is acting as a substitute for, or at least has priority over, structural reform of the Catholic Church.  The sense you get from Pope Francis is that if everyone stopped being jerks and had a better attitude, then this problem of clericalism would just go away.

What we are not getting is any sort of sustained discussion of the ways in which the institutional structure of the Catholic Church encourages and facilitates the attitudes and behaviors that Pope Francis decries.  To take a singular example that I know I harp on--if you set up a structure where a bishop has no connection with or accountability to either the laity or the priests of his diocese, it is not an enormous surprise that you will get a number of bishops who demonstrate "proud self-sufficiency," "conceited schemes of careerism," "aloofness and clericalism," and/or "coldness and indifference."  Hectoring bishops to "suck less" only gets you so far if you don't change the incentive structures that foster these attitudes.

We have seen no indication that Pope Francis has any comprehensive plans for institutional reform.  Indeed, the only concrete things Pope Francis has actually done is to add new bureaucratic structures in Rome, in the form of the economic secretariat and two new offices ("Laity-Family-Life" and "Justice-Peace-Migrants").  That's not exactly reducing the clericalism.  Even the much ballyhooed decentralization measures, if isolated from other structural changes, will simply relocate the source of overbearing clerical power from Rome to Washington (in my case), not change the basic problem.

In a sense, you might say that Archbishop Welby and his team are arguing that structural reform will produce personal conversion on its own, and Pope Francis arguing that personal conversion makes structural reform unnecessary.  But I don't think one necessarily follows from the other, no matter which way you point the arrow.  What you need is both.  Archbishop Welby might take better care to think about how and why people actually come to trust in God (along the lines Rev. Percy sketches out in his article), without completely putting aside the idea that some organizational changes might help people come to that trust.  Likewise, Pope Francis should continue to yell at bishops for being jerks, but he should also do more to make sure that the people who become bishops in the future are not encouraged or allowed to become jerks.

I don't envy either of these two guys in their jobs.  Reform is really hard.  But it is much harder if you only have one tool in your toolbox.  


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