In early April of this year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Council of Women Religious.

Among other evidence of doctrinal inadequacy in the LCWR, the Congregation cited the Systems Thinking Handbook, a training document subtitled ‘An Opportunity to Act for Systemic Change’. The Handbook, as of this writing, is still on the LCWR website, even though the Congregation has ordered that it be withdrawn from circulation.

For the most part, the conservative bloggers and writers ignored the Handbook, apart from the odd belch of sarcasm about its title – little more than the equivalent of a “LOL”.

It seemed odd to me that the Handbook should be the only document specifically ordered withdrawn by the Congregation, even before Abp Sarasin, delegated to implement their programme of reform, started his work. I knew something about Systems Thinking, and it didn’t seem that controversial a discipline. What was going on?

What is Systems Thinking?

I first encountered Systems Thinking in the mid-1970s, at university, though back then it was usually called Systems Dynamics. The great exponent of the discipline back then was Jay W Forrester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The basic idea was simple: the feedback models on which a lot of electrical engineering was based could be applied in other areas – social systems, in particular.

A friend developed a Systems Thinking model for hog production. He provided the model with data such as the number sows the farm started with, the breeding rate, the gestation time and the mortality of nursing piglets. He punched these parameters onto IBM cards – this was back in the Early Cretaceous era of computing – and he eventually received a “printout” showing the production of his modelled farm over time.

Two things made these models distinctive: first, they were characterised by feedback loops. In the hog model, for instance, an increase in sow mortality during pregnancy affected the number of replacement gilts (female pigs before their first litter). Second, these systems operated with significant delays. A change in the system at one point in time might not have impact until much later.

Delays and feedback loops matter. Suppose that it is a cold winter day and you are on the fifth floor of a building. The water boiler is in the basement. You decide to take a shower, and you turn the control to WARM. The water begins to run, but the pipes are cold and nothing but icy water pours from the tap. So you turn the control to an even warmer setting, but the water is still only tepid. Now you turn it to HOT. Before long, the water coming from the tap is far too hot for comfort, so you turn it back to WARM. Unfortunately, the plumbing is now full of hot water, so it remains unpleasantly hot and you turn it to COLD. Eventually, nothing but cold water is coming out of the tap, and the cycle begins again.

The example may seem trivial, but similar failures to recognise feedback systems and delays have contributed to a host of social and business problems: traffic congestion, oversupplies of materials followed by famines, arms races, runs on banks. Systems thinking, as it was first conceived, was all about getting people to use the tools of electrical dynamics to understand and avoid these problems.

The movement got a boost in 1990, when Peter Senge, also from MIT, published The Fifth Discipline, a popular book that introduced the idea in a simple and intuitive way. Senge broadened the concept beyond simple system modelling to include what he called ‘The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization’. The idea was to help groups see how large social systems (a company, for instance) are interconnected and affected by gradual processes such as environmental change. Senge listed eleven ‘laws of systems thinking’:

1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s “solutions.”

2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

3. Behaviour grows better before it grows worse.

4. The easy way out usually leads back in.

5. The cure can be worse than the disease.

6. Faster is slower.

7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

8. Small changes can produce big results … but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

9. You can have your cake and eat it too – but not all at once.

10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

11. There is no blame.

Some of these ‘laws’ have gone considerably beyond the world of hog models and electrical feedback loops. And indeed, the Systems Thinking movement later became more philosophical, exploring more ‘organic’ models of the world promulgated by thinkers such as Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Nonetheless, the core insights did not change. As the ‘laws’ and the example of the bath water suggest, many aspects of Systems Thinking are ‘conservative’, because they emphasise the interconnected nature of a large system, the difficulty of bringing about rapid, radical change and the importance of patience.

Somewhat inspired by Senge, the Systems Thinking movement began to emphasise dialogue within organisations. Systems Thinking people started to work on group interaction and communication, teaching such skills as careful listening, attention to the way a question or comment is framed and balancing ‘advocacy’ (making a point) with ‘enquiry’ (asking how others view the situation). Dynamic models were increasingly seen as tools for facilitating dialogue rather than as oracular predictors of the behaviour of social systems.

What bothered the Congregation about that?

Modeling and good listening. Hardly subversive disciplines; in fact, disciplines that could be useful in most organisations, including religious orders. Why did the CDF single out the Systems Thinking Handbook?

According to their assessment, the Handbook

… presents a situation in which sisters differ over whether the Eucharist should be at the center of a special community celebration since the celebration of Mass requires an ordained priest, something which some sisters find “objectionable.” According to the Systems Thinking Handbook this difficulty is rooted in differences at the level of belief, but also in different cognitive models (the “Western mind” as opposed to an “Organic mental model”). These models, rather than the teaching of the Church, are offered as tools for the resolution of the controversy of whether or not to celebrate Mass. Thus the Systems Thinking Handbook presents a neutral model of Congregational leadership that does not give due attention to the responsibility which Superiors are called to exercise, namely, leading sisters into a greater appreciation or integration of the truth of the Catholic faith.

The Handbook indeed presents such a situation as a case study. It is not clear whether the case is real or fabricated. In brief, a congregation is planning a Saturday afternoon prayer service for their annual meeting, seven months in the future. The service is the culmination of a weekend of celebration honouring the congregation’s founder.

The planning committee has devised a Rite of Celebration for the event rather than a Mass. They note that Masses will take place the following Sunday morning. Nonetheless, the committee has received complaints that the founder would have wanted a Mass, that a Eucharist is the best sign of unity, and that a small number of ‘those who object to priest led liturgies’ has dominated the planning committee. The complainants call for a vote of the entire community.

The Handbook suggests asking such questions as: What is the issue with which we are dealing? What is our hope for how things might be in the future, related to this issue? What systems, or parts of systems, are at work on this issue? Without judgement or evaluation, what are the values, goals, assumptions and needs of each system? What similarities and differences do you note?

The case study then attempts to uncover the assumptions underlying each group – the sisters who prefer a Mass at the Saturday prayer service, and the planning committee, who don’t. The Handbook analysis of the underlying positions seems a bit tendentious to me, but not obviously in error. It identifies the more traditional sisters with a ‘Western’ tendency ‘to think in linear, dualistic and hierarchical ways when dealing with problems, organizing ideas or work, and in structuring society, church, or our religious congregation.’ According to the authors, this ‘dualistic, hierarchical framework of thinking is no longer adequate for interpreting our experience.’

In contrast, there is an ‘Organic’ model; it is harder to describe, but it ‘values a holistic, organic view of the world rather than the more analytical and mechanical view reflected in “the Western Mind.”’ This mental model prefers to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances. It sees reality as ‘dynamically organized and intricately balanced “systems,” interdependent in every movement, every function, every exchange of energy and information.’ The Organic model

values chaos, connectedness, process, inclusivity, relationship, and a non-linear expression of authority. Process, liberationist and feminist theologies develop in this kind of a milieu. Some sisters, schooled in these theologies and situated within this mental model, believe that the celebration of Eucharist is so bound up with a church structure caught in negative aspects of the Western mind they can no longer participate with a sense of integrity.

The Handbook has some good things to say about the ‘Western’ model; for example, it ‘helped people sort out and organize the various aspects of their lives and gave them a new sense of order and control. Modern science found its origins in this way of thinking.’ It is clear, however, that the authors’ sympathies lie with the ‘Organic’ model.

Many sisters, according to the Handbook authors, ‘move back and forth between the “Western Mind” and the “Organic” mental models. They value beliefs and practices flowing from a stable world of fixed relationships characteristic of an earlier time, as well as the insights of process, liberationist and feminist theologies grounded in a more organic model. For them, cherished beliefs about Eucharist co exist with a haunting awareness of patterns of ecclesial exclusion.’

What did the sisters do?

The case study goes on to describe how the sisters’ leaders used Systems Thinking to address the conflict:

In our response we

1) resisted the temptation to ‘fix’ the situation

2) provided information by sharing our understanding of what the planners had in mind

3) attempted to clarify both our own and the congregation’s identity at this time, by stating our belief that our current situation of differing understandings about the Eucharist and differing ways of celebrating Eucharist not only create uncertainty and frustration, but also offer new opportunities for the Spirit to lead us in life giving patterns of prayer

4) attempted to strengthen relationships by thanking the writers and at the same time voicing our support for allowing the planning committee to do its work as it saw fit

5) tried to honor all the voices by receiving without judgment each one’s uncertainty and frustration around the Eucharist question facing the Congregation; and by affirming the desire in each of us to have the best possible celebration of our founder.

6) invited a broader discussion of the Planning Committee’s proposal at our open representative Governing Board meeting a month later where the tensions around the issue were aired, and the authority of the Planning Committee was respected.

In other words, they made a concerted attempt to let each side speak and to understand the positions taken by each side. All of this follows the precepts of Systems Thinking as they have been developed since the early modelling days. The jump into ‘Western’ and ‘Organic’ models, in fact, feels like a bit of poorly executed Systems Thinking, since – like the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ it risks reducing an opposing point of view to a caricature. Nonetheless, the steps followed by the leadership group in the case seem reasonable to me. Especially when Mass follows the next morning, I cannot see why a Eucharist is the only way or even the best way to celebrate the life of a congregation or to honour its founder. Some would argue, I suppose, that the opposing sisters’ view – an objection to ‘priest led liturgies’ – was heretical and that this alone was reason enough to insist on a Mass rather than a prayer service. But that move seems to instrumentalise the Mass, to use it as a disciplinary tool.

What did the CDF think the sisters should have done?

The assessment doesn’t say how the case study should have ended. Was the right move for the superior simply to order the planning committee to hold a Mass? To allow for a congregational vote? To issue an anathema against anyone who objects to ‘priest led liturgies’? They condemn the Systems Thinking Handbook but don’t offer an alternative.

Should the religious superiors in the case have refused to listen either to those sisters who asked for a Mass at this particular liturgy or those who didn’t want one? Is a listening posture inevitably a ‘neutral’ model of congregational leadership?

I wonder what the CDF assessors would have said to Pope John XXIII, when he decided that the Second Vatican Council would have a different style than its predecessors. From his opening speech to the Council:

In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.

We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.

In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.

Or the pastoral letter of Cardinal Montini, later Pope Paul VI

Therefore, the Church celebrating the coming council is planning to get in touch with the world. Think about it carefully: this is a great act of love. The Church will not only think about herself, the Church will think about the whole of mankind. … For this reason she will try to become sister and mother to mankind: she will try to be poor, simple, humble and lovable, in her speech and attitude. For this reason she will try to be intelligible, and provide people of our times the ability to listen to her and to talk to her using an easy and ordinary language.

Or the admonition of St Ignatius Loyola, which seems to have anticipated many aspects of Systems Thinking by several centuries:

…let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbour’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.

The CDF assessment ordered that the Systems Thinking Handbook be revised. What parts of it should be changed?