Article in New York Times: Catholicism Inc.
By BILL KELLER
Behold a global business in distress — incoherently managed, resistant to the modernizing forces of the Internet age, tainted by scandal and corruption. It needs to tweak its marketing, straighten out its finances, up its recruiting game and repair its battered brand. Ecce Catholicism Inc.
Yes, the business of the church is saving souls, but it is nevertheless a business: a closely held conglomerate with a work force of more than a million, 1.2 billion more-or-less regular customers, 10 times as many outlets as Starbucks, more real estate than Donald Trump dreams of and lobbying clout to rival that of any secular industry. Now its C.E.O., physically and mentally depleted at age 85, is stepping down, creating an opportunity for a serious relaunch.
The problem is with the management
Catholicism is mostly a service industry — Canyon Ranch for the spirit, if you will — and its deliverables have stood the test of millenniums: instruction in how to live a good life, sacraments to consecrate major milestones, comfort in times of distress, the cleansing therapy of confession, penance and absolution, a sense of place in the universal order and the promise of a celestial payoff. The fundamental problems are not in the catalog. There is still a robust market for the faith. The problem — evident in the waning confidence of the customers as well as the rising market share of evangelical start-ups and none of the above — is with the management.
As we wait for the ecclesiastical board of directors to fill the Chair of St. Peter, I’ve been asking professional consultants, including some who work with the church, what Catholicism Inc. might learn from the temporal business world. After all, while the church adapts at a glacial pace, it does adapt. The church’s teachings have evolved not just on the liturgy but also on issues as fraught as priestly celibacy, slavery, money-lending, war and peace, wealth and poverty, divorce and the role of women; even that most divisive of issues, abortion, was not always defined as strictly as it is now.
For starters, my experts generally agree, it would help to have a pope with the drive and charisma to reboot the mission, someone with the gift of persuasion, a bit of media savvy and enough years ahead of him to follow through. “I don’t want to make it all about age, but wouldn’t it be nice to have somebody who was closer to 60 than to 80?” said a consultant who has helped reverse the fortunes of a major airline and a global fast-food chain. (Like some of my experts, he preferred to speak on background.) Pope John Paul II became pope at age 58, and before his papacy sank into scandal and Parkinson’s, he was a beloved, globe-trotting dynamo. Benedict XVI was 78 at the start, and he felt a bit like a caretaker.
First, a purge of those responsible for the abuses and the cover-up.
Second, unstinting disclosure to investigators, waiving any privileges.
Third, appointment of a compliance officer with impeccable credentials, ethical tenacity and conspicuous support at the top
The first major task facing Benedict’s successor will be to get past the lingering horror story of predatory priests, to restore the trust of the faithful and the respect of the general public. The business world has much to teach about surviving scandal. Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School, told me the church might learn from the way Warren Buffett cleaned up Salomon Brothers after a bond-trading scandal and Ed Breen revived Tyco International after its chief executive went to prison for theft. The remedies were bold and effective. First, a purge of those responsible for the abuses and the cover-up. (“Managing out,” as it is called in the corporate vernacular, has been a major weakness in the church, so it was heartening to hear the Vatican spokesman say that Benedict’s retirement could “open the door for a potential wave of resignations.”) Second, unstinting disclosure to investigators, waiving any privileges. Third, appointment of a compliance officer with impeccable credentials, ethical tenacity and conspicuous support at the top. At Tyco, the new leadership went on a high-profile road show of the company’s outposts to drive home the reforms.
“Can you imagine,” Useem said, “if the new pope went on a tour, and at every stop he met with the local clergy and said: ‘It’s a new church. We’ve been at it for a couple thousand years, and at this point we need to uphold the principles we all hold dear, and here are my 10 steps for making that happen.’ ”
Once the new pope has dealt with the legacy of past disgrace, it will be time to look ahead. Ted Stenger, a corporate turnaround expert at the consulting firm AlixPartners and a devoted Catholic, pointed out that most big companies assemble their executives every few years for an intensive strategic review. The last time the church took stock was the Second Vatican Council, half a century ago. “The mission of the church is not going to change,” Stenger said. “But how you set objectives and tactics to deliver on the mission may in fact change.”
One question on the agenda might be, to borrow a Michael Useem analogy, does the Vatican want to be Nokia or Apple? Nokia’s strategy is to sell everyone on the planet a $20 phone. Apple’s is to market a much pricier product to a more elite, high-income market. Does the Catholic Church change its standards to be more inclusive, or does it hold its dogmatic line and appeal to a smaller but loyal base? Or can it strike a balance? Either way, it’s time for a reckoning.
A second big question might be how much latitude to give to the more than 220,000 parishes. McDonald’s has a basic menu that is consistent around the globe, but it gives local franchises license to adapt to local preferences — wine with your Big Mac in France, vegetarian dishes in India. You will find Catholic parishes in cities like New York and San Francisco where gay couples are warmly welcomed, women participate in the liturgy, and the sermons and music are joyously unconventional. You will find others that favor the Latin mass, incense and everything by the book. Rome could encourage the parishes to be laboratories of worship. Useem notes that in business (and in the military, by the way), giving field officers freedom to execute the mission produces creative solutions and “it’s also just a tremendous energizer.”
Another headache the new pope will inherit is recruiting, especially in North America and Europe. In the United States the Catholic work force is shrinking by 50 priests and 175 nuns every month. One parish in five has no pastor. An obvious solution is to ordain women and let priests marry. The monopoly of celibate males, after all, is a long-established custom, but it is not core Catholic doctrine. Then again, if the church decides to be smaller (the Apple model), it won’t need so much ministering.
As you might expect of an institution that measures time in centuries, the church has been slow to join the digital world. Pope Benedict, tweeting as @Pontifex, has 1.5 million followers, which is pretty good, but he has tweeted exactly 35 times — and the messages read like boilerplate composed by a dutiful intern. Bill Derrough, a specialist in corporate restructuring and a fund-raiser for Catholic charities, said that if parishes simply got the names of their members into the computer, they could organize meet-ups, share best practices, spread news. “If the pope wanted to send a message to all parishioners, I don’t know how he’d do it,” Derrough said. Learning from product marketers and political campaigns, “I think you could drive an increase in attendance. I think you could drive an increase in collections.” My wife’s church has hired an online collection service, called ParishPay, to put the Sunday offering on digital autopilot, but most churches still pass a basket.
Finally, and obviously, the church could use some public relations help. Its stock response to criticism from without or dissent from within has been to drop into a defensive crouch, stonewall or go negative. That can come across as bullying and arrogant — in other words, not very Christian. One of the costliest examples of dumb messaging is the tendency of church defenders to treat nuns, and women in general, with condescension. (Did the Vatican really expel an order of nuns from their cloister so the place could be refurbished as a suite for the retiring Benedict? Whose idea was that?)
I realize that many devout Catholics recoil from suggestions of change, especially if the suggestions come from deserters like me. But troubled enterprises often benefit from a little outside counsel. And in the unlikely event that a new pope wants to bring the church closer to the 21st century, he will need all the help he can get. “This is a far tougher turnaround than the ones I have led,” said an executive who has helped save more than one foundering Fortune 500 company. “You might need to tap the guy that turned water into wine!”