The impossible job: God's CEO on Earth

The impossible job: God’s CEO on Earth


For several days after being elected in 2005, Pope Benedict – as he chose to be called – spoke as if in shock. At his first public Mass, he asked: “I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this?”At a meeting with fellow Germans the following day, Benedict surprised his well-wishers by likening the experience of being elected in the Sistine Chapel to getting dizzy as he watched a guillotine blade fall upon him.
Poverty haunts many Latin American congregations, too, but the Church’s main challenges there are the deep inroads made by evangelical and Pentecostal churches into what was once a Catholic bastion. These Protestant churches offer livelier services, practical help for the poor and an upbeat message more attuned to the continent’s growing economies than the sacrifice that Catholics are taught to endure.
The numbers quitting the Catholic Church have been dramatic. In Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, just over 65 percent of the population is Catholic now, a steep drop from the 92 percent recorded in 1970.
Miriam Vargas Nunes, 35, a mother of two from Niteroi near Rio de Janeiro, left the Church a decade ago after visiting a Baptist church with friends. “I felt more welcome than I ever did in a Catholic Mass,” she said. In Argentina, Claudia Valenzuela, 26, joined an evangelical Bible study group two months ago after losing her job and finding nobody at her Catholic Church to console her.
Much of this change has come with the migration of rural workers to big cities and the drift shows up among US Latino communities as well. A Gallup poll last year tracked Catholics at 54 percent and falling, and Protestants at 28 percent. Latinos with no religion rose to 15 percent from 11 percent in 2008.
A clerical cliff
There is also an increasingly urgent shortage of priests, particularly in Western countries; so many are near or beyond retirement age that the Church faces a ‘clerical cliff’ there. Catholicism is centred on sacraments, especially the eucharist at Mass, that only ordained men can administer. Without priests, local churches or parishes cannot operate.
The ranks of the clergy in Europe and North America began to thin out in the late 1960s as discontented priests left and fewer men entered the priesthood. Those who stayed are dying off and new vocations are not sufficient to replace them. In the United States, for example, there were 58,632 priests in 1965 and only 38,964 last year.
Ireland, once a major exporter of priests, saw only six ordinations while 55 priests died in 2010. Poland was the only European country with positive figures, showing 516 ordinations to 285 deaths. But even there, the deaths are accelerating while the ordinations slow down. Even in Africa, a boom in new priests is not keeping up with growth in the Catholic population.
This means a growing workload. Priests often have to serve more than one parish to make up for missing colleagues. Parishes are being regrouped into larger units to share staff. In Latin America, where there is only one priest for more than 7,000 Catholics compared with one for every 1,500 in Europe, the shortage is cited as one reason so many have found evangelical movements more welcoming.
Curing the curia
Inside the Vatican, the new pope will have to face up to the Curia, a centuries-old bureaucracy dominated by Italian clerics, which can make or break a papacy because it can block or delay papal projects.
Most cardinals outlining their priorities for the future put “governance” or “reform of the Curia” high on their list, saying other reforms can flow from that.
The “Vatileaks” scandal last year showed corruption and in-fighting at high levels, and the Curia is not known for efficiency in its ranks. At the Vatican, which spawned the modern term “nepotism” because Renaissance popes gave jobs to their unqualified nephews (“nipote” in Italian), hiring is not always on merit.
The Curia’s influence within the Church is surprising, because it has only about 2,000 staff, and they usually leave work in the early afternoon. There are no cabinet meetings, and internal coordination between the departments – allocated such tasks as upholding Catholic doctrine, naming new saints, or promoting Christian unity – is patchy. A serene atmosphere of old-world courtesy prevails.
Weigel, the US theologian, has named a series of reforms a determined pope could make, including introducing a 40-hour work week, turning the staff from an Italian fiefdom to a truly international team, and creating an executive staff for the pontiff. But no structural reform will work, he said, if the staff just have a manager’s mentality rather than seeing themselves as missionaries working for the pope.
“The Curia is still deeply influenced by Italianate work habits and that’s problematic,” he said. “If you look at the rest of this society, it doesn’t happen to be functioning very well.”
(Source: Reuters/


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