September 20, 2005

Running the Catholic Church as a Business?

I often joked that when it comes to tithing, the Catholic Church is no different than the mafia: they want their percentage off the top and they want it now. And that's about the extent of my joking capabilities when it comes to the finances of the Catholic Church. Because you have to have knowledge to make a joke about something. An uninformed joke isn't funny. A Catholic might know about what's being done in their parish, but when the money starts going up the ladder, well, you just don't have a clue as to where it goes or how it's spent. Nor is it supposed to be any of your business.

So it was with great curiosity that I read this article in Forbes, (Registration required) because not only does it get down to the nitty gritty of the money matters, it also highlights how this is yet another extension of the heterodoxy v. orthodoxy battle that is taking place within the Church currently.

{...}What would a turnaround artist do with an $8.6 billion (sales) organization with 133,000 employees, falling market share and a mountain of multimillion-dollar lawsuits?

You can't break it up into pieces or sell off the whole shebang. This, after all, is the American Roman Catholic Church. But Geoffrey T. Boisi, a veteran Wall Streeter and devout Catholic, has an answer: Rationalize the assets and look for a better return, just as you would in any business. First, says Boisi, 58, "we're recommending a rigorous analysis of how all parishes and dioceses in this country are being managed. The laity is now offering up its expertise to help the Church through a very difficult time." But ultimately, he concedes, "we have to face the realities that some parishes will have to go. Some schools will need to be shut down. There is no other way."

A pitched battle is shaping up between reformers and traditionalists within the U.S. Catholic Church. On the one side are businesspeople like Boisi and former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. They have few if any disagreements with the Pope on matters of dogma. But they are openly defiant of the Church authorities on matters of money. The rebels argue that better financial management by an informed laity is the only way to reinvigorate the fallen-away faithful. "How could anyone in Rome argue it wouldn't be better if the Church were run more efficiently?" asks Vincent.

On the other side of the aisle are powerful organizations like Opus Dei, which has a direct line to the Vatican, and large donors like Domino's Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan. They see any change as a direct threat to the long-established order of things. "You don't need modern management techniques," says William Donohue, president of the Catholic League. "You need a return to orthodoxy." This is a struggle over authority and money--and the outcome will change forever the lives of the 65 million Catholics in the U.S.

No one denies the American Church is in trouble. Over the past four decades regular attendance at Mass has collapsed from 75% of those who professed to be Catholic to 40% today. Nearly one in five churches doesn't have a resident priest. In those that do, parishioners are increasingly likely to hear Mass said in thickly accented English by a prelate from Nigeria or the Philippines. Many parishioners are still furious about the sex-abuse scandals--as well as the coverups and sizable payouts that followed--comparing their impact to the shock of Sept. 11. "Once that blew up, Catholics realized just how little say they had in their churches, and they were incensed about it," says Robert Beloin, the Catholic chaplain of Yale University.{...}

Forget about the laity having any say about Church teachings, certain orthodox Catholics wouldn't want the laity to help with the money problems, even when it's apparent that the Church could use some financial guidance because they've got income troubles, big time.

They have expressed their rage with their pocketbooks. On a household basis, Catholics, who are now just as well-educated and upwardly mobile as Protestants, donate less than half as much to their parishes: $550 a year, compared with $1,300 for the typical Protestant. Since the pedophilia cases broke in 2002, annual giving at the parish level has inched up an average 4.6% a year to an estimated $6 billion. But bishops have been hit much harder. In Boston, giving to the archdiocese dropped 43% from $14 million in 2002 to $8 million in 2003. The Spokane, Wash. archdiocese, saddled with a reported $77 million in sex-abuse settlement claims, saw donations to its annual appeal plunge from $1.9 million in 2002 to $45,000 a year later. In the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., the bishop's take fell 28% to $7.3 million after a 2003 grand jury report found the diocese protected abusive priests by shuffling them from parish to parish. {...}

So, one would think that the fact a bunch of Catholic big wigs who know how to run businesses want to help the Church with this problem would be a Godsend, right? Nope.

{...}He has drawn an impressive following. Among his acolytes: William P. Frank, senior partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Frederick Gluck, former managing director of McKinsey & Co.; Thomas J. Healey, onetime partner at Goldman Sachs and Assistant Treasury Secretary in the Reagan Administration; Jonathan O'Herron, partner at Lazard Frères; Gerard Roche, chairman of Heidrick & Struggles International; and Richard Syron, chief executive of Freddie Mac.

What do these guys want? A reorganization of how the American Church is run, from requiring annual reports and five-year strategic plans in each parish to SWAT teams of lay accountants, lawyers, psychologists and consultants to deal with crises and other management problems. Among the goals:

  • Establish better recruitment and training of the nation's 31,000 lay ministers--80% of whom are women--as well as annual performance reviews.
  • Encourage more lay involvement in parish finance committees, whose decisions would carry weight with priests and bishops.
  • Streamline dioceses, which control parishes, even if it means closing redundant churches, seminaries and schools.
  • Cut costs by, for example, buying Bibles, paper towels, candles and clerical garments in bulk.
  • Introduce "best-practices" programs, like those of the Chicago archdiocese, to achieve accountability in the other dioceses.

There's really nothing revolutionary there. All these guys are saying is that there is benefit to running the Church like a business. You have a lot of money coming in, and even more of that money in some dioceses is going out---the books are unbalanced and here are some ways you could straighten this problem out. But just the fact these guys are speaking up, well, that's troublesome for some of the more orthodox members of the Church. These men have been labeled as "liberals and dissenters." They're actually anything but, but you'd never know that to listen to the orthodox members whine:

{...}For an organization as hierarchical as the Church, run by a man who is (according to doctrine since 1870) infallible, the talk about "customers" borders on heresy. "The Church is not a business, and Catholics in the pews shouldn't be considered customers," insists Denis Coleman, onetime chairman of Covenant House and a former director at Bear Stearns. He says he's not against transparency. But, "if you follow Boisi's logic, then Catholics ultimately can choose who becomes a cardinal--or even the Pope." Other powerful conservative Catholics are lining up on Coleman's side. Among them is Father C. John McCloskey, a former stockbroker for Merrill Lynch who is a leading cleric in Opus Dei, and Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb. The call for reform, they fear, is really a Trojan horse to subvert the authority of the Church. "If Boisi and his group are anything like Voice of the Faithful,"says a prominent member of Opus Dei, referring to a group calling for more financial disclosure and lay involvement in running the Church, "that would be a sign of their intent for a putsch, a takeover." Voice of the Faithful, whose motto is "Keep the faith, change the Church," denies that characterization.{...}

Now, I put that quote in bold print for a reason. The "prominent member of Opus Dei" used the word "If". As in "If Boisi and his group are anything like..." then this "prominent member" goes on to compare this group to another "liberal" group, well of course they're intent on a "putsch." (Which is a nice word choice, eh? I think we've all heard that one before and it's generally a term associated with Adolf Hitler.) But that "If" is very curious, isn't it? If these guys are anything like this group, well, of course they're intent on taking over. Like, duh. Yet the use of the word "if" signals that this prominent member doesn't know that they're like the Voice of the Faithful. The "prominent member" is just assuming they are because they're not toeing the orthodoxy line.

Do you think that if I said to a member of Opus Dei, "Well, geez. From what I've heard you guys sacrifice goats under the full moon. So you should be locked up because you're a bunch of nuts!" they wouldn't have a problem with that? That they wouldn't call me "uninformed" and "uneducated" about what their mission and their practices are? Of course they would. And they'd have every right to do so. But apparently prominent members of Opus Dei are willing to vilify those who would disagree with them simply by comparing them to their enemies. Which is baloney. I'm sure your mother told you that to "assume" is to make an "ass" out of "u" and "me." I know mine did. It doesn't seem as if that message filters down from the Opus Dei moms, though, does it?

There is so little faith going on in this organization designed to promote faith it's just baffling.

Posted by Kathy at September 20, 2005 01:42 PM | TrackBack
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