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Friday, April 16, 2010

Organizational intelligence in the Roman Catholic Church

One of the ideas I am trying to investigate about organizational intelligence is that it enhances the viability, sustainability and survival chances of an organization. Is this idea contradicted by the existence of some extremely old institutions, such as the ancient universities and the Catholic Church? Or do these institutions possess some form of intelligence that is not always apparent from their observable behaviour?

Firstly, we may note that very few mediaeval organizations have survived to the present day; so the fact that a few wealthy organizations have survived through centuries of social and political change could be attributed to a combination of wealth and luck, rather than intelligence. Not just material wealth but also social capital - a good reputation, together with a large network of supporters and sympathizers. Such wealth may be diminished during periods of crisis, and replenished at other times: thus an extremely wealthy and well-positioned organization may be less dependent on organization intelligence for its survival.

The Roman Catholic Church has faced many crises in its history, and has had periods of innovation as well as periods of stasis. It is currently facing a crisis in relation to its handling of child abuse cases, and this crisis shows some interesting aspects of organizational intelligence.

The first point is the apparent ability of perpetrators of these crimes to disable the intelligence loops of the organization that might have prevented them from committing and repeating these crimes, sometimes over extended periods.
  • Event signals are suppressed. The victims are persuaded to remain silent. Allegations are fragmentary and can be disregarded.
  • Sensemaking is misdirected. The perpetrator surrounds himself with the tokens of respectability, and creates a confusing network of relationships, often including the victim's family.
  • Decisions are ambiguous and weakly enforced. Perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt. Guidelines intended to keep perpetrators away from future victims are understood as merely providing protection against "false allegations".
  • If the volume of suspicion becomes too great, perpetrators have sometimes been merely relocated, where they have been able to start afresh. This appears to represent a serious failure of collective memory.
  • Communication channels are suppressed.
  • Thus it is difficult for any meaningful learning to take place.

The second point is the muddled and counter-productive way in which the Vatican now faces these problems. In an article for the BBC News website, Gerard O'Connell (editor of the British Catholic newspaper The Universe), identifies the following problems.
  • Accusations not being fully answered or firmly rebutted in timely fashion
  • Never knowing ... caught completely off guard on several occasions
  • Absence of a coherent media strategy ... missteps that fanned rather than moderated the media frenzy
  • Sparking tensions with Jews ... offending victims' organisations ... enraging the worldwide gay community.
  • Fr Lombardi, the chief Vatican spokesman, has no mandate to coordinate the Vatican's media strategy. He has not even spoken with Pope Benedict about the abuse crisis since it broke last February.

Paola Totaro (@totts) adds
"Unlike modern multinationals or big government bureaucracies that would employ communications specialists to manage a public crisis, the Vatican appears to have been paralysed by its own byzantine structures. It has been unable to explain or make its own case in public, this despite the strangely modern decision to Twitter some public statements as well as use its traditional media, principally the L'Osservatore Romano, to rebut and argue its case." Benedict at sea in a world of hurt (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 April 2010)

Meanwhile, there is a good article by Thomas Reese SJ, asking what European bishops can learn from the U.S. sexual abuse crisis. He writes that
"... from the beginning, the American bishops underestimated the size and gravity of the problem. ... The biggest miscalculation the American bishops made was to think that the crisis would pass in a few months. Hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass is a failed strategy."
Between 1985 and 1992, the American bishops started to discuss the problems of child abuse and admitting their mistakes in handling these cases (at least in closed session). According to Father Reese, incidence of child abuse went down during this period. But in 1992, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a series of best practice (in other words voluntary) guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse, and the situation worsened again. It took another ten years before the bishops, with Rome’s consent, imposed binding rules requiring zero tolerance of abuse. Father Reese calls this a "long learning curve", and says the European bishops "need to travel the same ground very quickly".

So this could be a good test of the Catholic Church's organizational intelligence. For his part, Anthony Grafton hopes for innovation and renewal to come from the margins of the Church rather than from its central institutions, as has happened several times in the past.
"Over the centuries, the central institutions of the Church have often worked in counter-productive ways, emphasizing the powers and prerogatives of the institution over the spiritual life of the faithful. Again and again, Catholics have proved astonishingly resilient and inventive, and have come forward to offer what the hierarchical church was not providing."
On this view, intelligent renewal comes not from popes but from saints. Grafton mentions Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola and Angela Merici. "Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero."


A person or organization with limited intelligence can do excellent work within a stable and predictable environment, but struggles to cope with unexpected complexity, and takes a long time to learn new things. So an organization can be highly successful in Business-As-Usual, but may struggle with change.

So some questions in relation to an institution such as the Catholic Church would be
  • what challenges has this institution faced, and to what extent has it succeeded in responding promptly and appropriately to key events?
  • what kinds of learning and change has this institution been able to carry out in response to changes in the outside world?
  • how has the organizational structure and culture of this institution helped or hindered its ability to respond appropriately to emerging complexity?
  • what are the likely consequences of this on the long-term prospects for this institution?
If we were to carry out a detailed analysis, we might well come to the conclusion that a different organization structure would result in more effective learning and change, but we might equally conclude that higher levels of intelligence might be achieved without radical alteration to the existing organization structure, so I shouldn't want to prejudge this.


Declaration of interest: I am not a Catholic. My analysis is supported by a number of pro-Catholic sources, and I presume these are people who want the Church to survive and thrive.


Andrew Sullivan, The Third Strike (The Atlantic, 10 April 2010)
Jonathan West, The Times and Ealing Abbey (Confessions of a Skeptic, 10 April 2010)
Richard Dawkins, The pope should stand trial (Guardian 13 April 2010)
Paul Behrens, Why the pope can't be tried (Guardian 13 April 2010)
Gerard O'Connell, Why the Vatican media strategy is failing (BBC News, 14 April 2010)
Anthony Grafton, The Pope and the Hedgehog (New York Review, 20 April 2010)
Thomas Reese, Taking Responsibility (America Magazine, 26 April 2010)

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