Catholic Church: changing the institutional model

Sacrosanctum Concilium,

The Catholic Church cannot avoid institutional change much longer because its institutional model, at least in the West, has passed its “use-by” date.

One of the dominant models of perceiving the Church is the model of institution.

This model’s decision-making structure is more oligarchical than collegial, and its approach to contemporary questions is preservationist rather than integrationist.

Whether we like it or not, the Western Church’s operating model as a hierarchical edifice is challenged by the forces of institutional collapse.

Its failure is seen in the continual struggle to manage the collapse of our diocesan and parish infrastructure through “pastoral” workarounds.

However, the clarion call to change is the scandal of abuse by clerics because this, more than anything, exposed the institutional decision-making processes that enabled this institutionalised behaviour.

Secular states, victims’ groups and lay Catholic groups are leading the hierarchy by the nose through the humiliating process of change as they challenge the substance and value of hierarchy and magisterium.

In many Western societies, “Rainbow Rights” evangelize the Church by calling for significant theological change to the anthropological underpinnings of the institutional model’s understanding of humanity, sexuality, gender, morality, ethics, salvation, sacramental mediation, and more.

We are hearing the call for a new ethos or worldview because the Church’s institutional place in life or in the world has radically changed.

In these instances, the Church’s self-understanding as God’s institution is being questioned even by loyal Catholics.

These are forces of theological and anthropological renewal.

We are now at a crossroads: do we continue to feed the dinosaur of the current institutional model or do we change? And if we change, which elements of the current model do we retain?

Identifying crisis experiences and managed workarounds

Across the Western Church, the institutional model is breaking down because our organisational infrastructure is collapsing; for most people in the pews, the absence of a priest in the sanctuary is the most obvious example of this collapse.

This experience is called an “identifying crisis experience”.

While the impact might be seen in 2022, the roots of the crisis are much older.

An identifying crisis experience is a “slow burn” event whereby individuals and communities slowly realise that they are living in an ongoing experience of crisis.

The most profound and interlinked “slow burn” experiences have been the continual loss of practicing Catholics since the 1970s and the lack of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

For local Churches—as in New Zealand—that were founded during the 19th century by European clergy and migrants and are now being re-missioned by clergy and migrants from South-eastern Asia and India, the collapse of institutional infrastructure at diocesan and parish levels is a genuine concern.

Faced with identifying crisis experiences, we have initiated “managed workarounds” to slow the structural collapse.

While each workaround maintains the façade of institutional stability, in a perverse sense, it actually contributes to the infrastructure’s collapse because it functions like scaffolding around a crumbling stone building.

As in restorationist architecture, the scaffold holds up the roof and stops the walls from falling in. The scaffold gives the preservationist time to figure out how to blend new grout with old grout and keep the wall standing for another few years.

When the builder finds the stone has lost its substantive strength, the restorationist must decide whether to rebuild the wall to look as if it is original, introduce new materials that show change, or demolish the wall.

The agendas of the restorationists and preservationists conflict because the preservationist approach expresses a dysfunctional sense of obligation, while the restorationist approach is a deep, melancholy romanticism.

Trigger events: the abuse scandal

Trigger events are abrupt, earth-shattering events that breach an institution’s walls and expose the institutionalised thinking and decision-making processes that created, enabled, and maintained the infrastructure’s deceit. Like an earthquake, a trigger event moves the organisation’s tectonic plates, creating rift valleys where once there was the sea.

The abuse of minors acts like an “event” insofar that it exposes the organisational mindset that placed the institution before everything and everyone else.

In the Church, “child abuse thinking” is an example of a deep-seated preference for the institution over people, which has spawned a host of dysfunctional organisational workarounds.

Because trigger events lay bare the organisational thinking underpinning institutional structural systems, they put the institution at risk and lead to a dramatic decline in public confidence and heightened negative public scrutiny.

These events require serious and strategic mitigation because they can alienate previously loyal parishioners and members of the public.

Once people see the darker side of an organisation’s thinking and how it is used in managing the institution, they also see the institutional incapacity to change.

Regarding the Church, both the baptised and society onlookers question everything the Church teaches.

They challenge the Church’s right to represent the divine authoritatively.

The abuse scandal, acting as a trigger event, has exposed a deep-seated preservationist mindset that drives our response to the institutional crisis.

I suggest that the same mindset is operative in managing our collapsing institutional infrastructure.

In this context, the abuse crisis is not a moral problem to be solved or a sin to be forgiven but a critical indicator of a more profound structural crisis for all Catholics.

Changing people: the way to a new institutional infrastructure

The collapse of any institution’s organisational infrastructure impacts everyone associated with it.

Those impacted respond in various ways, from hurt and resignation to joy and excitement, depending on what they stand to lose or gain.

Generally, organisational structures and infrastructure reflect the needs of the members of the organisation who are its beneficiaries.

Members design organisational structures to deliver the organisational outputs they have previously decided.

In charitable organisations, the challenge is to give the person receiving help what they want and need rather than what the organisation wants to give them.

How change happens is complex.

Vested interests show themselves under different guises.

In terms of the Church, those who have benefitted from a preservationist mindset because it maintained their desired status quo have the most to lose and are generally the loudest critics of the change. Those who seek change also do this for their advantage; concupiscence is always a factor.

The different approaches depend on personalities and their understanding of the depth of change necessary and the best way to achieve it.

Where there are still change agents in the Church—and this is not to be presumed—some will seek to change the mindset from within the organisation and others from outside.

The distinction between these two approaches is evident in the synodal process and the difference in the approach of episcopal and lay groups.

Challenging the institutional model of Church

Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the institutional model offered a reliable, robust ecclesial identity.

Its hierarchically structured visible society was the means of salvation that offered a respected and dominant magisterium and an ordered sacramental mediation and preaching system.

It was an unassailable organisational structure where everyone had their place in the hierarchy, and it worked as long as everyone kept the adage “keep the rule, and the rule will keep you”.

No one looking at the present state of affairs can avoid questioning the institutional thinking that has contributed to the current situation.

Neither can they propose an enduring solution without addressing the “institution” and its need for reform.

The current situation begs the question: “how did we think ourselves into this mess?”

Part of the answer lies in accepting that, in both instances (abuse and crisis), the hierarchy placed the institution before anyone else.

We did this because we believe more strongly in the Church as a hierarchical reality that provides spiritual services to people than in the Church as the People of God, in a communion of faith.

Consequently, our crisis identifies us as a group that accepts an exaggerated understanding of Holy Orders and for which ordination justifies incompetence.

Society evangelizes the Church

Covid has recently taught us four things about organizations, infrastructure, workarounds and people.

  • First, organizations must communicate with people through various media and channels. Those who run organizations must use a post-Covid paradigm.
  • Second, infrastructure needs to be mobile, adaptable and accessible because these are the foundations of contemporary, globalized, technological existence.
  • Third, workarounds have a limited value. They do not work as an ersatz for human community, touch and physical proximity.
  • Fourth, people need to be given agency in their ecclesial life.

We need to change our operating model of the Church.

The ethical, anthropological and sociological values of contemporary people (secular and religious alike) are being forged in a context of religious irrelevancy.

The irrelevancy of magisterial teaching for Catholics and the irrelevancy of God for a large and growing number of people are driving the change in our operational model from institution to some blend of institution, communion and servant.

The pressure for change from society groups, the media, royal commissions, and court cases is not going away soon because these are the only tools capable of breaking through the fossilized institutionalist mindset that created this problem.

While we don’t like them now, in years to come, Roman decrees will begin: “from the earliest times, and in keeping with the Church’s oldest tradition, the Church is a communion of people sharing hierarchical unity.”

  • Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. His latest book is: Liturgical Lockdown. Covid and the Absence of the Laity (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment, Special, Synodality2.

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