Best of 2013: Advice for the Pope on reforming the Church


'Geraldine and Francis', by Chris Johnston. Geraldine Doogue whispers advice to Pope FrancisThe Church isn't offering many endearing images to its stoic believers of late. But one will stay with me for many years. That wonderful moment in March when Jorge Mario Bergoglio walked out onto the Vatican balcony with his simple but inviting Fratelli e sorelle, buona sera! — Brothers and sisters, good evening! — still sends a thrill up my spine.

Along with the rest of the watching crowd in St Peter's Square, I thought he'd seemed rather stunned, almost overwhelmed just prior to this emergence. Then came this incredibly pastoral moment followed by the next, his appeal to all of us to pray for him. You could have heard a pin drop in the packed square as people delightedly complied, an unforgettable moment.

In the intervening six months, I've wondered: where will he take believers? His recent analogy with the Church as a busy public hospital dispensing vital services was one of the most eloquent for some time from an ecclesiastical leader. Is he re-imagining our Church, amidst its terrible predicaments? I wonder how much he seeks to draw the lay world inside the structure, to tap its wisdom, its experience of these revolutionary times of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Forgive some tilting at windmills. But I wish he'd invite me to be his temporary consultant, to offer him advice for his next 500 days.

The laity has a lot to offer.

Some of us have lived inside big secular institutions that have experienced their own existential crises. Many of their established systems were found wanting, their whole mission seeming in peril.

And various organisations have fought back, their social-licence-to-operate restored after major setbacks. Think BP after various environmental challenges, Westpac in the 1990s, political parties who re-invent themselves to be fit-for-purpose (hopefully). Believe it or not, the US Army post-Vietnam bears close analysis for its rebuilding skills.

The institutional Church must re-earn trust in similar ways. Maybe it should even consult some of the specialist disaster-managers employed at these times, who focus on calamity plus public expectations plus internal ethics, that is, more than mere 'spin'.

Indeed the relationship between these secular organisations and their 'consumers' altered profoundly during their dark nights.

So what would I suggest, as Pope's consultant? Fairly smartly, I'd propose a substantial, largely public, Vatican-led inquiry, into why the Church has been so troubled by sexual abuse across various countries. Was it due to priestly formation, celibacy, parish structure, sexual orientation, lack of ongoing sexual counselling, bad theology or other issues? Answering all of these core questions from within would not only satisfy the public but would genuinely set the Church up better for future service.

Any decent consultant would have to ask herself: does the Church have the capacity to change? Does it have the management, the processes, even the supply chains to deliver new messages to itself, let alone the world? I suspect it has, which gives me hope.

While nothing is directly comparable, the experience of the US military after Vietnam is an epic model of change. Here was an 800,000-strong standing Army representing the mighty USA, humbled and embarrassed after being bundled out of a small developing Asian country. Could this lumbering giant really reform itself, the sceptics of the time wondered, and continue to serve the national interest, militarily and socially?

Under the title 'An Army Transformed' Lieut-Colonel Suzanne Nielsen outlined how it did just that, in a 2010 article for the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College:

During the two decades preceding the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the US Army went through tremendous reform and rejuvenation. First, leaders within military organisations are essential. Second, military reform is about more than changing doctrine ... an organisation must have appropriate training practices, personnel policies, organisations, equipment and leader development programs.

Third, the implementation of comprehensive change requires an organisational entity with broad authority to craft, evaluate and execute an integrated programme of reforms. Fourth, the process of institutionalising complementary reforms can take several decades. The consequences, for good or ill, could be quite significant in terms of resources, lives and the national interest.

Whether or not you approve of US military objectives, the organisation is vastly more relevant than its earlier iteration, widely regarded as the most effective institution in the country and one of the best deliverers of training and dignity to some of the poorest Americans.

Another interesting model is the New York Times, which spent ten tough years recovering from what's known as the Jayson Blair disaster, the young reporter who lied, faked and cheated his way through the venerable paper's news room, trashing the brand mightily when discovered ... by the paper itself eventually.

Provoking agonising self-reflection, it is still clearly a touchy subject. In an interview with the AFR in May, Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, described the climb-back:

After the scandal and a thorough internal analysis, the NY Times management put safeguards in place. One was the role of the public editor — I am the fifth — to give readers a direct place, independent of the Times' editing structure, to take complaints about journalistic integrity. Another was the creation of a full-time standards editor, an internal position within the newsroom hierarchy. Still another was a program to thoroughly and regularly evaluate journalists' work.

According to the current editor-in-chief Jill Abramson, one of the greatest lessons of the Blair scandal was 'how concerned, hurt and angry our readers were, because this was contrary to everything we stand for — the trust and authenticity that people attach to the Times'. Sound familiar?

There are other less dramatic examples. The NSW Police Force embarked five years ago on a significant program of cultural change. Under the leadership of Commissioner Andrew Scipione and Assistant Commissioner Catherine Burn, the force set itself up to abide by a Customer Service Charter, meticulously researched within the community and broadly interpreted.

In a recent Customer Service Association magazine, the two police executives described how they moved beyond merely answering the usual complaints about force personnel to addressing root causes.

'The front-line officer needs to understand that 99 per cent (of work) is about the community, only 1 per cent is law enforcement and interaction with actual criminals,' said Burn. 'Why do I see customer service as being important? Because serving customers means investing in the safety and security of communities. And so I see this whole notion of improving customer service as being the driver for us to deliver the leadership that the community right across this state is seeking today,' said Scipione.

In essence, this amounted to big, pastoral thinking. It arose out of a problem-solving mode, ventured into process matters, but emerged way beyond that, with refreshed core values.

In all these cases, venerable institutions were humbled, experiencing a type of grief, followed by an impressive step-by-step commitment back to offering service. They drew on stamina, perseverance, fidelity and courage among their followers: the Virtues, which ultimately led back to good service.

Finally, to an area where my thoughts are still forming: should core mission for the Church be re-introducing believers and non-believers to the beauties and depths of the culture? In the past, the Church virtually represented culture, they were joined at the hip. The Enlightenment and Reformation ended that and hooray for that.

However with the decline of confident religion generally, and the rise of confident science, a seismic gulf has opened up in modern communities about ritual and symbolism ... even memory of its own cultural inheritance. A range of commentators like Hugh Mackay for years now, have openly yearned for big, new cultural stories to emerge to fill gaps in meaning within modern culture.

Whereas former NSW priest and judge Chris Geraghty believes the contemporary Church has overlooked the sheer power of its back-story. 'We've got a bloody good story, terrific heroes, a wonderful storyline, wonderful metaphors and beautiful narratives. It's a story full of myths and legends. There are lots of bad things — crusades, wars of religion — but the story is an epic one. Atheists and agnostics don't have a story to tell.' (Compass research, April 2013)

I'm not so sure about that any more. But maybe we do need to re-assemble the stories of our past, including the great characters whose stories dovetail so neatly with highly significant cultural developments in art, music and politics. It is not always a pretty story about the Church, but certainly eventful and laden with heritage.

We could use modern communication tools to refresh our cultural inheritance, to re-position the Church back into the familiar territory of handing on a Grand Narrative, even if this trumps the purely theological. It could even be a form of reparation to the wider community for the scandal of sexual abuse.

Lord Rowan Williams has recently said that 'art is sacramental: it uses the material world to arrive at the spiritual world — even ideas are spiritual' (Tablet, 13 June 2013).

As Fr Andrew Hamilton wrote in Eureka Street in May, handing on a tradition, whether a Church or a nation, represents an acute challenge these days. 'In Western societies today communal allegiances are weak. They are not automatically handed on but need to be chosen,' he wrote.

Maybe the Church's mission is to prompt that conscious choice, towards more robust identity in modern communities. It could be healing and redemptive in every way. For me, personally, it is the sort of re-imagining that offers genuine hope of renewal.

Geraldine Doogue headshotGeraldine Doogue hosts Compass on ABC1 and Faithlines on ABC News 24, every Sunday. This is an edited version of her Catalyst for Renewal address titled 'The church re-imagined' (Sydney, 1 September 2013). It was originally published on 23 September 2013.

Topic tags: Geraldine Doogue, Pope Francis, Catholic Church, Rowan Williams



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Existing comments

Why Geraldine Doogue when there is Cardinal Pell and G8 Cdls plus more Cdls this week?

Father John George | 14 January 2014  

John George, thank you for your provocative remarks. But, just in case you were serious, I think the answer is that she shows rather more profound spiritual insight than George Pell.

Peter Downie | 14 January 2014  

Dear Geraldine - when Francis eventually calls you in for advice, please remind him that there are really two parts to St. Francis's message. One is the poverty (and the related capitalism agenda) to be addressed - and he's started to do a fine job there. But the other is the 'care for creation' one, to which Pope Francis is giving only the slightest attention. These two are deeply interrelated. If we see signs - and it looks more and more likely - of Paul Gilding's 'Great Disruption' scenario this decade or thereabouts, the poor, as well as all of us who can't adjust are in for a very torrid time. But quite apart from the effects on humans from such a scenario, the rest of nature as told in God's 'first book' , the story of the universe' will suffer unspeakable degradation. Francis has to put this story up-front.

Len Puglisi | 14 January 2014  

Father JG your question is tantalising. As my English teacher would have said, "very good John, but would you please expand on that?"

Martin Loney | 14 January 2014  

Why not Geraldine Doogue? She is a deeply spiritual person who provides gentle leadership in our community. Comparisons are odious, as they say, so I will say no more.

Peter Downie | 14 January 2014  

The analogies with US Army,NYT, and NSW police are wellcome and thought-provoking, but raise difficult questions.National defence; trustworthy reporting; peaceful law abiding communites for end-users are the respective need- satisfying benefits which these organisations provide. The analogy would suggest the question:What the do catholic Catholic end-users need from the organised Church? They are manifold and in tension. Who are the internal and external stake holders:directors,managers, staff, enablers;other players in the practice,and the role incumbents in enveloping national states? What is the analogue of military or police or journalistic professionalism? To begin the dialogue would require tolerance of dissent and, realstically, will any Vatican 1 conservative concede the degree of acknowleded ignorance required to back- track on papal infallibilty by admitting we got it wrong on more than the Cathars, crusades, and slavery and jewish deicide of Jesus,but perhaps also even at least in part or in some ways on apects of special cases of euthanasia, homosexuality, or contraception? If the church is an organisation,it is the mother of all multinationals and perhaps too big to "self" examine ?

David Ardagh | 14 January 2014  

#The can-do-no-wrong Pope Francis spotted the enormous talent of Cdl Pell as adviser on his g8! # Even NCR canonised said Cardinal: "Cardinal George Pell of Sydney may be a solid doctrinal conservative, but during the pre-conclave period, no one was more outspoken about dysfunction in Vatican management. He famously said of the Benedict years, "Governance is done by most of the people around the pope, and that wasn't always done brilliantly. #"And of course His Holiness' "Evangelium Gaudium" embraces ecclesial reality, versus Geraldines' corporate BP /Westpac/ NSW Cop Shop /post Vietnam revivifications, #But neither Geraldine, Geraghty or Scipione can compete with 'Evamgelii Gaudium ' strategy -a veritable hermeneutic of continuity #Scipione research is not on the same page as massive present global research of His Holiness! #"Climb back" is in RCC DNA #As GK Chesterton once quipped, " 5 times in church history, the church had to all intents 'gone to the dogs',but in each instance the church came back gloriously, and the dogs died!"

Father John George | 14 January 2014  

I grant,in fairness, Evangelii Gaudium was promulgated a month after Geraldines' September article; and in November 2013, the Pope's massive global church pew survey was launched

Father John George | 14 January 2014  

Peter Downie, I'm not convinced that being a deeply spiritual person" is a prerequisite for church leadership. The current pope fits that description but I don't feel the Spirit moving in our Aussie Catholic hierarchy at the moment. The church seems dead from a national perspective.

AURELIUS | 15 January 2014  

Len Puglisi, well before Pope Francis,the Vatican shone as the greenest state on the globe.

Father John George | 16 January 2014  

"There are lots of bad things — crusades, ... " I'm glad you're not sure about that, Geraldine. What was wrong, in principle, with the crusades? To put it in PC terms - wasn't the Pope about "protecting sacred sites"? Like, it's only OK when non-Catholics do this stuff? So touche, Geraldine...if that's your point.

hh | 16 January 2014  

The pin dropping when the Pope spoke does not happen at Mass here where children are allowed to talk and move freely - the solemnity of mass which we was is not more and drives people away to their silent prayers - we are denying our children the gift of respect and contemplation at the centre of our faith - the Eucharist.

LYNNE DUNCAN | 24 January 2014  

The Catholic church is a religion and has nothing to do with being Christian, that is why it is plagued with sex crimes and does little to help the poor, it billions of dollars are its power not their trust in Jesus Christ.

Terry Sexton | 31 January 2014  

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