The New York Times columnist and former executive editor of the publication, Bill Keller, has recently written a piece titled, “Catholicism Inc.” The gist of the column is that Keller sees the Church as — at least analogously, but in many ways literally — a global corporation that should be imagined as such. His starting point is that there are many ways in which the Church (here understood, as Keller uses the term, to refer to the Roman Catholic Church and its ecclesiastical leaders-as-managers) needs to update and upgrade its marketing. He begins by explaining: “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.”
To be fair, there are indeed many ways that this analogy holds true. There is in fact a fiduciary dimension to the Church’s daily life, a hierarchical structure of leadership not unlike that of global corporations, and a certain — albeit more complex than Keller really allows — sense in which the Church could be understood as “mostly a service industry” as he says later on.
I rather appreciate his interest in trying to imagine ways that the Church can respond to “the signs of the times” (Vatican II’s phrase, not his) in light of the Gospel in our contemporary, globalized, and hyper-communicative age.
But there is also something a bit off-putting about the business-consultant model he uses. Keller draws on the varied wisdom of those who are regularly consulted for just these purposes in the business world. He explains: “I’ve been asking professional consultants, including some who work with the church, what Catholicism Inc. might learn from the temporal business world.”
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…
“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.’ ”
I like this idea very much. Despite the “re-branding” stigma of stereotypical business planning, the sentiment is well-worth considering. Yes, the church-as-global-business, if that’s a model worth proposing (what would Avery Dulles, whose classic Models of the Church categorized several “models” or ecclesiological frameworks that still remains very influential), could use some “re-branding” in the public imagination. Those who are not Catholics or have little familiarity or regard for the Church might have an overly negative view of the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Similarly, those who have a too uncritical view might benefit from the reality check of human finitude and inevitable imperfection.
Ted Stenger, another consultant, is quoted as saying: “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.” And, to Keller’s credit, it is true that this has shifted over the course of nearly two millennia. As the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has famously explained, from the beginning of Christianity there has been both continuity and discontinuity, united according to koinonia, which is after all what distinguishes the Church from Coca-Cola or McDonalds, among other more obvious characteristics.
Keller proposes three themes worth considering and each of these themes have their legitimate ecclesiological counterpart. Whether his business analogies and consulting advice is helpful or not is unclear, but that he gets these concerns on some larger level is interesting. The first follows the tension set out by none other than Pope Benedict XVI when, right before and early in his pontificate, he talked about the possibility of a “smaller, leaner” church. His concern wasn’t about numbers, many said, but about orthodoxy and commitment. Keller has this take:
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.
Obviously, the Nokia-Apple analogy falls short of adequately capturing the moral and ecclesiological concerns that are also intrinsically at play in discussions about the mission and visible dimensions of the church. Nevertheless, how curious is this that Keller would pick up on this?
Keller, clearly not abreast of certain ecclesiological concerns about the relationship between the local vs. the universal church, does identify the tensions that are intuitively perceptible today.
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.”
He closes his piece with this final and, to me, most important observation. Public relations.
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…
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!”
Change isn’t the problem. Keller’s correct to note that the Church has, does, and will change. Benedict XVI’s decision to retire is just one example as is the Second Vatican Council, whose 50th Anniversary we recently started celebrating. What should or could be changes is the real question. How the leaders of the Church engage the rest of the Body of Christ and the world more broadly is certainly something that should and could change, as “corporate” as “public relations” sounds, the Church has largely been bad at effectively getting its point across in a world that is not used to lengthy Vatican documents and arcane procedures for communication.
Perhaps part of the “New Evangelization” has less to do with gathering the “lost sheep” or other such metaphors and more to do with how to express one’s faith in the most cogent and understandable way today.