Viewpoint: The pope as CEO

Statue of St Peter on St Peter's Square, the Vatican, 1 March The pope's authority goes right back to St Peter

The new head of the oldest corporation on Earth - the Catholic Church - should have the skills of a chief executive officer, argues Reverend Robert Gahl.

Many people focus solely on the pope as spiritual leader or even policy maker, but several cardinals have suggested that the Catholic Church needs a pope with management expertise. They have also pointed to a pressing need to reform the Vatican Curia, the central offices of the Church.

To appreciate the enormous task facing the next pope, secular comparisons fade in contrast with the demands of leading the oldest and largest institution in the history of the universe. The Catholic Church is 2,000 years old, has more than 1.2 billion members, and aims to reach the entire world.

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[The Pope] is accountable to a board of directors: God Himself, the Blessed Trinity”

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Of course, the Church is a religious institution. She organises worship, private and public, and offers spiritual formation. But she is much more. She is a humanitarian relief organisation and a global array of educational and healthcare institutions, serving Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

She is also a catalyst for countless research institutes and think tanks. Especially striking, in contrast with other religious communities, the Church's headquarters is based in its own sovereign state, with its own territory, diplomatic corps, judges, tribunals, financial institutions and, of course, sovereign head of state.

Thus, the Vatican coins money, prints stamps, recognises citizenship, offers passports and driver's licenses, and has embassies and other diplomatic missions with 179 sovereign states.

Following the edifying example of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the qualified candidate to be the next pope must be a spiritual leader, an internationally recognised moral authority, and a man of prayer.

Rev Robert Gahl

Rev Robert Gahl
  • Associate professor of ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome
  • Member of the Catholic Church's Opus Dei organisation

He will also need to be capable of carrying out the executive duties of running the institutions of the Church, governing the Vatican City State, and negotiating bilateral and multilateral international accords.

The pope also speaks as a head of state in the UN. He actively participates in international accords regarding climate change, arms-trafficking, human-trafficking, intellectual property, border disputes, peace negotiations and bioethics.

A long and rich theological tradition prizes the need for spiritual shepherds who also excel in management skills and the virtues of leadership. Recent developments in theology converge with components of contemporary management theory.

Theologians increasingly emphasise that configuration in Christian holiness involves a three-fold office called tria munera that consists in governance, teaching and sanctifying.

While all the baptised enjoy this three-fold office, pastors must especially excel in their leadership. To fulfil the demands of his office, the supreme pontiff must enjoy the special expertise in governance and management needed to take charge and direct the flock and therefore manage all ecclesiastical organisations, from the local parish in Papua New Guinea to the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican.

The Church can be compared to a publicly traded corporation. She is a body and is incorporated in Christ. Both canon and civil law recognise her as a corporation. The Pope has complete executive, judicial and legislative authority because Jesus gave the first pope, St Peter, the keys to loose and to bind in Heaven and on Earth. In fact, the Pope runs a corporation and enjoys more executive powers than any other CEO.

Pope Benedict XVI bids farewell to his cardinals in Vatican City, 28 February Pope Benedict XVI is seen here bidding farewell to his cardinals in Vatican City

But he is accountable to a board of directors: God Himself, the Blessed Trinity. Indeed, Benedict decided to resign after prayer, that is consultation with the board. And, in leaving his corporate chair empty, Benedict has assured the members of the corporation: Don't worry, you are in Jesus's hands. I have not left you without a leader at the helm.

With a divine board of directors and an autocratic CEO, the Church's corporate structure may seem very old-fashioned, and it is. But it also includes modern components of participatory governance - the more than one billion shareholders.

The shareholders can request that the pope report regarding organisation, mission, financials, growth, and future expectations for development. Indeed, although Benedict did not need anyone but God to accept his resignation, he also chose to give an account of his resignation to all of the shareholders with an update regarding corporate performance. Benedict did just that in his last audience, the day before he formally stepped down from office.

Many have commented that the Vatican's central offices, even aside from the scandal of Vatileaks, need an overhaul, and that the most urgent task for the next pope will be organisational reform.

The cardinals will be considering who will be the most capable of demonstrating personal union with God and ability to teach the faith, but also to reform the Vatican in order to implement some of the efficiencies taught in today's best business schools.

The Vatileaks episode offered a glimpse into some of the disfunctionality, normally due to petty squabbles among internal factions within middle management, but also drew attention to the traditional feudal structure of governance within and among the offices, and how the current structures and attitudes impede the distribution of information to facilitate efficient governance, thereby hampering the Church's mission to evangelise.

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The Rev Robert Gahl took part in a BBC World Service discussion On The Next Pope on 15 February

The culture and the attitudes of governance tend toward the antiquated vertical structures of authority found in Italian public universities, not to mention Italy's notorious criminal organisations. Advancement depends upon loyalty to one's superior, who is traditionally expected to defend the department's turf from internal rivals to safeguard career advancement, often awarded more on account of seniority and credentials than for professional performance.

The next pope needs to be someone knowledgeable about the curia and its language and ready to open up the channels of information flow and decision-making to free the dedicated, talented men and women working in the Vatican to more effectively serve the pope and the Church's mission of evangelisation.

Such reform will require more effective communication, external and internal, greater transparency, and a more flexible managerial structure.

Confidentiality must be respected and safeguarded when dealing with matters of conscience. But in the governance of behavioural affairs, the officers serving the pope need to be free, at all levels, to co-operate in concert.

Many of the cardinals hope that the next pope will be able to bring managerial efficiencies to the Vatican to empower all of those dedicated clerics and lay people who give their lives while serving behind those ancient walls.

Given the need for reform, no-one should be surprised if the next pope, while drawing from his own managerial talents, were also to rely upon experts in managerial consulting while taking on organisational reform so as to better serve the mission entrusted to him by the board of directors.

Rev Robert Gahl is an associate professor of ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and member of the Catholic Church's Opus Dei organisation

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