Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


We need a pope who can handle the truth

  • 11 March 2013

Much of the pre-conclave discussion by media commentators, commenting on the comments allegedly made by various cardinals and other commentators, focuses on the qualities of the prospective pontiff and expectations about his agenda, especially a reform agenda for the Vatican bureaucracy.

Everyone has a point of view and the more a particular perspective is recycled and repeated by various media outlets the more 'authority' it has. There is an almost insatiable thirst to find something to satisfy media demands. Cardinal Pell's comment about a governance agenda for the new pontificate was quickly, and unfairly, exaggerated into a purported criticism of Benedict's qualities as a governor.

There seems to be an assumption that the next pope needs to be a first rate pastor, theologian, teacher, media personality, administrator and diplomat while being humble and holy.

No single human can be expected to be good at everything. This is why, learning a lesson from the world of corporate governance, the effective chief executive is the one who has the skills to work with collaborators who are better at most things that he or she is.

The next pope does not have to be the best theologian. He needs to be able to identify and collaborate with the best theologians, communicators, diplomats, and administrators. He needs to have the strength of character and confidence to surround himself with those who will not merely defer to his status but tell him the truth.

Awareness of the need to tell the truth, and less inclination to say what might please a superior, is at the heart of good bureaucracy. My suspicion is that some of the clerical culture that can pervade church life stumbles when confronted with this choice.

Without the checks and balances of civil bureaucratic processes, where one can appeal against a failed application for promotion and where there are set criteria and defined position descriptions, church bureaucrats feel they are at the mercy of a superior's whim. Promises of obedience inhibit giving frank and fearless advice.

Some have suggested that recent pontificates have not been good in identifying the right collaborators. From this distance it is impossible to assess such a claim. There is a well established axiom that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done,