Posted by: mutantpoodle | April 4, 2010

The Survival of the Corporate Church

It looks like all sorts of people are walking back their remarks about the Catholic church these days.

First up was the Pope’s preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who apologized for saying that the bad publicity the church is getting these days for, you know, protecting child predators, “remind(s) me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism.”

As Robert Farley said over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money:

Blood libel against the Jews and accusations of pedophilia against Catholic priests? Pretty much exactly the same, without any notable difference that I can think of.

Yesterday, it was Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who committed the classic Michael Kinsley definition of a gaffe: he accidentally told the truth. Now, the headlines were that Williams had said that the Irish Catholic church had ‘lost all credibility’, but here’s the entire quote:

I was speaking to an Irish friend recently who was saying that it’s quite difficult in some parts of Ireland to go down the street wearing a clerical collar now. And an institution so deeply bound into the life of a society, suddenly becoming, suddenly losing all credibility—that’s not just a problem for the church, it is a problem for everybody in Ireland, I think.

If only Emily Latella were here to say “never mind.”

Still, Williams apologized (“for difficulties which may have been created by [my] remarks”), and while that’s a lot more of an apology than the Catholic church would have gotten from me, were I in Williams’ shoes, that’s probably one of many reasons that Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury and I am, um, not. Given the Vatican’s announcement last fall that it would make it easier for Anglicans who were uncomfortable with openly gay and (gasp!) female clergy and bishops to convert to Catholicism, I imagine my response would have been a bit more tart. Especially on Easter – a celebration of an event in which women play no small part.

When I was in high school, one of my favorite teachers used to say that once a bureaucracy encompasses five people, its first task is always to protect itself.  I’m not sure if five is the threshold, but the sentiment is spot on.

If anything explains the Catholic Church’s handling of the sexual abuse scandals that have rolled, in waves, through the various dioceses of the church, it’s a sense of corporate self-preservation.  How, really, are the church’s actions on this matter different from Toyota’s plan to “handle” NHTSA with respect to the unintended acceleration issue in several of their Toyota and Lexus models? Or, if you want to get cataclysmic, Enron’s stonewalling of its financial difficulties in 2001?

Compare that to Johnson and Johnson, which, after seven people died due to product tampering with Tylenol, recalled all the Tylenol in the United States, offered free replacement tablets, and relaunched the brand with tamper-resistant packaging. All this for a crisis that was not, by any stretch, the result of their own malfeasance.

The irony, of course, is that had the church acted forthrightly way back when, this would not be an issue for them at all.  The scandal would have been about a small group of Priests who, after committing heinous crimes, were defrocked and turned over to civilian law enforcement.  Or, had the statute of limitations passed, at least defrocked, with an apology from the church.

Instead, you get the unseemly attitude of Catholic church as victim, complaining about persecution, explaining away their behavior, and, in the case of some apologists (not affiliated with the Catholic church), minimizing the crime or blaming homosexuality.

The Catholic church faces a choice. It’s not poetic to look at them as a corporation struggling for survival, but they are. It’s well past time that they could, like Johnson and Johnson, use a forthright acceptance of responsibility to emerge stronger from this crisis. That moment passed decades ago. Their best hope is to be like Toyota, which will spend years repairing its image but will, in all likelihood, never regain the full lustre they had in their high-quality heydey.

I think they’ll avoid an Enron-type collapse, although if it were an institution without the deep history and enormous reservoir of good will and faith among its practitioners towards it that the Catholic church does have, I think they’d be gone already.

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