House of card(inal)s

House of card(inal)s
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The spreading scandals in the Roman Catholic Church provoke the question: could the church collapse? I worked as a management consultant to some of the largest companies and government entities in America for nearly 50 years, and served in the White House. I was a member of the church during that period and served on various church boards and councils. Bottom line: the institution of the U.S. church could collapse, suddenly and unexpectedly.

The problem is that the current scandals reflect corruption of clergy, leadership and the institution itself, going far beyond the sexual abuse alleged. The roots of the corruption were sown as the institution that evolved from a tribal guerrilla movement that the Roman empire co-opted, to a militant state, to an empire and, finally, to adapt to modern demands for specialization and efficiency, to a corporate institution. It has departments that handle communications, finance, product and product development, brand management, marketing, recruiting, training, and human relations. It also has legal, public relations and political arms that protect and defend its brand and the institution itself.

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The problem is that, as it “corporatized” and specialized, it made the mistake of many companies — it began to focus on protecting the institution, rather than meeting the needs of the customer, in this case, the “faithful.”

It is an ancient curse that absolute power corrupts absolutely. When you represent the “word of God” on earth, it is a slippery slope to begin to take advantage of the power and trust conveyed with that role. Clerics focused on their pastoral role of caring for the spiritual health of church members can exercise that power to the great benefit of the faithful. But clerics and bishops in the secretive, bureaucratic setting of the church may be tempted to exercise that trust and power in a more opportunistic fashion, leading to arrogance and abuse, cover-ups and denial, focusing on hiding the problem rather than protecting the victims.

It is certainly possible that the U.S. church is largely out of touch with its members. Using estimates provided by The Economist and other sources, of the estimated $170 billion operating budget of the U.S. church, $100 billion is hospitals and health care, $50 billion is colleges and universities, $10 billion is churches and parishes, $5 billion is charity — note the relatively small proportion devoted to pastoral work of spreading the gospel and helping parishioners, though of course schools and hospitals could be considered pastoral or charitable in some cases.

Health care and education are businesses that have limited margins and high capital costs (read fragile), parishes are a money loser, and, of course, charity is run at a loss. Facing billions of dollars in settlements for sexual abuse, it is little wonder that the dioceses have needed to engage in significant liquidation of key assets. Thus, the bottom line above: The organization could quickly go the way of Merrill Lynch, Arthur Andersen, and the Roman empire.

Arguably, the collapse is under way. There are 70 million Catholics in the United States, representing 20 percent of the American population. But that is down from 24 percent six to seven years ago, a 20 percent decline. And that number actually would be 14 percent (nearly a 50 percent decline) if it weren't for the dramatic inflow of Hispanic immigrants over the past 10 years.

The important point is that the corruption appears to be systemic and may go far beyond sexual abuse. Where there is this much smoke, there is often hellfire. It is hard to believe that the corrupt culture of cynicism, arrogance, and lack of leadership and judgment was limited to sexual abuse. It would be a miracle if a secretive and tightly controlled organization with a $170 billion operating budget did not have other hidden scandals.

A secondary problem is how the pope and leadership are dealing with the crisis. For example, in a recent homily the pope suggested the devil is behind the accusations of sex abuse by clergy and its protection by bishops. Such thinking spells doom for the church.

The problem is that the pope is a product of the socialist, revolutionary theology, Latin American wing of the church. He is under extreme pressure from the sex abuse scandal and internecine warfare with church conservatives. As a socialist cleric, his tools are controlling communications, silencing dissent, spending other people’s money and, under pressure, cloaking himself as “God's voice on earth.”

Unfortunately, he has adopted the favorite strategy of authoritarian socialist leaders when the heat is turned up: resorting to extreme nationalism and creating external “threats.” Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez and Cuba’s communist revolutionary and former president Fidel Castro went for “American imperialism.” Pope Francis is going for “the devil.” The problem for socialist leaders is, when their economic and political foundations crumble, such nationalistic trope never works for long.

It is unclear whether there are leaders in the church who have the skill to lead in this crisis, but the approach and judgment of the pope and leading cardinals does not bode well for the temporal future of the Catholic Church. Serious alarm bells should be ringing in the towers.

Grady Means is the author of books and articles on business, politics and religion. A retired corporate strategy consultant, he was a White House assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and was a Catholic leader (parish council — Holy Trinity Georgetown, Knight of Malta, and board member of Jesuit Volunteers International) for more than 50 years.