Is the Catholic Church a capsizing ship?

Every modern institution faces crises. What differentiates great organizations is whether and how they react.

Pope Francis, left, meets Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI before opening the Holy Door to mark the opening of the Catholic Holy Year, or Jubilee, in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 8, 2015. Photo by Max Rossi/Reuters

(RNS) — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recently likened the Catholic Church to a capsizing ship.

Benedict’s use of the phrase came in an elegant tribute to Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Germany, who died recently. In it, Benedict praised Meisner’s faith and “conviction, that the Lord does not abandon His Church, even when sometimes the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.”

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Conservatives in Catholic cyberspace jumped all over that phrase, seeing it as Benedict’s coded critique of Pope Francis. After all, Meisner and others had cast doubts on the theological soundness of Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia,” especially its call for more robust engagement with divorced and remarried Catholics. Benedict must be agreeing! Francis is the misguided captain who is capsizing the ship!

Well, Benedict’s closest confidant, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, immediately debunked that sinister interpretation as a “fantasy” being peddled by “stupid people.” He should know what Benedict intended: Benedict had entrusted the letter to him.

Pope Francis, right, talks with Archbishop Georg Gänswein as the pope arrives to lead a special audience for Catholic Action members in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on April 30, 2017. Photo by Tony Gentile/Reuters

But if the faux controversy arises from nonsense, it nonetheless illustrates a very real problem that is hobbling the Catholic Church.

Yes, the Catholic ship is taking on water, as Benedict put it. Our challenges include declining participation in the sacraments, meager engagement with young adults, clergy shortages in the developed world, and trouble conveying our message convincingly to a secular, relativistic modern world.

Gänswein recently cited Benedict as being worried that “the substance of the faith is about to crumble, above all in his homeland.” And Pope John Paul II, decades ago, proclaimed the “urgency” of finding new ways to reach out to the modern world.

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Well, every modern institution faces crises in this complex, chaotic century. What differentiates great organizations is whether and how they react, specifically their ability to galvanize a robust, united response to their challenges. Faced with urgent crises, healthy organizations rally together to save the institution they love. Unhealthy organizations play the blame game.

Pope Benedict XVI leaves Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 24, 2012. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

I lived through all that as a longtime managing director in a global investment bank that was regularly racked by tumultuous change. Crises often erupted, and our first impulse was to pillory scapegoats and attack rivals.

But in time, we invariably realized that our circular firing squad was solving nothing and weakening our collective ability to respond. Meanwhile, our collective house was catching on fire (or, to use Benedict’s image, our ship was taking on water).

Rallying together to fortify our ship became more important than tarring internal rivals. Urgency was key, as were creative solutions to new kinds of problems.

We understood that we would have to enlist colleagues further down the ranks, apprise them frankly of our challenges and quash their own blame-game tendencies: Part of any leader’s job is to lift subordinates above internecine disputes by articulating some compelling strategy that all can embrace and feel part of.

Unfortunately, that isn’t happening in the Catholic Church. The recent Benedict contretemps is not an exception but part of a long-standing, destructive pattern.

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Indeed, Catholics have by now settled into their own little progressive and conservative tribes, each with their own favorite bishops, websites, religious orders, periodicals and litmus test issues.

It feels great to be able to scratch one’s ideological itch, but that hasn’t solved any of the church challenges enumerated above. Rather, those problems have continued to fester, now for decades. It’s time for us to wake up, and grow up, and to begin revitalizing the church we love.

(Chris Lowney is author of “Everyone Leads: How to Revitalize the Catholic Church.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)

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