Guessing How Pope Francis Might Treat the U.S. Sisters

It’s anybody’s guess how Pope Francis will handle one problem he inherits – a severe Vatican crackdown on the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) under Pope Benedict XVI that turned out to be a PR disaster for the hierarchy. The general public poured out much support for the sisters, and the Vatican came in for a lot of criticism.

Some look hopefully to Pope Francis’ “abrupt change in style” as a sign he’ll take another course. Others recall that as a superior general of the Jesuits forty years ago, he took a quite traditional view of religious discipline.

Asked about the Vatican-LCWR problem, Cardinal Dolan gave hope that Francis might bring a change of course:

We’re on this journey together. We can speak openly to one another. We both have things to learn. We both have changes we need to make and let’s serve one another best by being trusting and charitable yet honest to one another.

But Cardinal George, on the other hand, said he didn’t expect any major shift in the process.

Read the AP story here.



  1. There are two issues of substance that will be critical to the future of Pope Francis: 1) the sexual abuse scandal (e.g. does Finn remain in office) and 2) the Nuns (is the investigation basically scrapped or at least forgotten about?). These are both issues that many people within the Church and outside the Church expect that there will be substantial change.

    Will Pope Francis be a Jimmy Carter Pope?

    Jimmy Carter came into D.C. with a lot hope. He walked down Pennsylvania Avenue for the Inauguration as a clear sign of the end of the “imperial presidency.” He was a sincere and religious man, our first president who was a “born again Christian.” I worked for the Federal Government on a research fellowship at that time. It became quickly clear that Carter was no match for the vested interests in Washington which could run circles around him. Taking over the reins of the Federal government has never been easy for any president, and it has also been clear that taking over the reins of the Curia has not been easy for any Pope. JP2 said that the Curia does not have to work well, it is sufficient that it works.

    Where Benedict was a withdrawn absolutist, Francis is an engaged pragmatist

    “He listened to my views with a great deal of respect,” said Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights leader and theologian who wrote a tough letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and, to his surprise, received a call from him less than an hour after it was delivered. “He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.”

    Francis style as an engaged pragmatist might buy him approval on issues like gay marriage, birth control, priestly celibacy without him actually changing anything. (People may want the Pope to change but they do not expect him to change on these issues). However I think if he tries style (rather than substantial change) with regard to sexual abuse and the investigation of the Nuns, many Catholics as well as the Media will dismiss him as all style and no substance. That dismissal will also have a strong effect upon his style campaign on other issues.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #1:
      Carter was an engineer with the soul of a judge (Hoover was our other engineer-President). He was in the wrong branch of government. He could have been a brilliant administrator of the judicial branch, I suspect. But we should remember that, until some point in 1980 (for me, it was the botched vote at the UN, but for more Americans it was the botched rescue mission), it was *not* obvious that he would lose reelection. Reagan barely got a majority of the popular vote (we forget that nowadays). Carter’s failed presidency was only obviously failed towards the end. And he was right about some things (his warnings were prescient about the desire of the American people to avoid hard choices, a desire Reagan happily exploited with a tremendous increase in deficit spending so that middle and upper class Americans got a lot more while paying less); he also appointed Paul Volcker, lest we forget, and it was Volcker who administered the hardest medicine of the era. And it was Carter’s administration that was the key pivot towards de-regulation and a more accommodationist anti-trust policy.

  2. Fine post, Jack Rakosky.

    I wonder if the business theorists who study organization have any advice for new brooms such as Francis — specifically, advice for getting rid of entrenched bureaucracies. If you fire everyone, does the organization fall apart? What about firing the top levels? Or moving them laterally, or what? They can’t be kicked upstairs, that’s where they are.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #2:

      Robert Greenleaf who wrote Servant Leadership (1977) spent his working career as the “kept revolutionary” of AT&T then the largest corporation in the world. He wrote his book ten years after retirement, mainly because of the troubles in the universities. However, Greenleaf was very interested in religion and did some consulting for women religious.

      From his chapter “Servant Leadership in Churches” on John XXIII:

      For a brief moment in history, many literate persons in the Western world felt a lift of spirit, they became more significant as persons, they gathered strength to contend with the forces that were grinding them down.

      Some lament that John had so few years for his great work. I do not share this view. The day he died I was teaching a class of bright, young, ambitious executives. We spent half our class talking about the implications of his work… I noted that a young person, in any field, would not be likely to exert the influence that John did at eighty.

      The Catholic Church in the United States is a minority religion but I regard it as potentially the largest single force for good. It fails to realize its potential for good in society because it is seen as predominantly a negative force. The issues on which the church is in opposition, such as birth control, abortion…are specific and precisely defined. The issues on which the church is affirmative such as peace, justice, and charity are broad idealistic generalities, and the actions are sporadic and imprecise.

      One must oppose those things that one believes to be wrong, but one cannot lead from a predominantly negative posture. One can lead an institution or society only by strong, specific, sharply aimed affirmative actions. As a non-Catholic I was lifted by Pope John’s regime because an affirmative building leadership seemed to be emerging and this gave a new hope for the world.

  3. Jack ==

    Is Greenleaf saying that a message that people trust is more effective in making needed changes than a structure which implements policy? I have trouble seeing how this can be so. Words and images/visions don’t implement policy all by themselves. ISTM there must be a strong connection between vision and policy implementation, between the leader (the Pope) and his bureaucracy (the Curia or some other second in command.

  4. Ann: there must be a strong connection between vision and policy implementation, between the leader (the Pope) and his bureaucracy (the Curia or some other second in command.

    Greenleaf had a lot to say about these things:.

    First, he thought that there had to be a balance in an organization between the operators and the conceptualizers. Operators are executives who take care of day to day matters requiring interpersonal skills, sensitivity to environment, experience and judgment. Conceptualizers take the whole in the perspective of history, state and adjust goals, analyze operating performance, and foresee contingencies a long way ahead.

    Second, Greenleaf located the conceptualizers at the Board of Trustees; they had to be out of the day to day operations; his boards would not include anyone with operational control of the organization, and his boards had to have independent data. Their job was to define the business of the organization, and its goals, then let it up to the operators (senior management) to run the organization.

    Third, Greenleaf was against hierarchical management, the CEO model where everyone reports to one person; rather he advocated a primus inter pares council model both at the Board of Trustees conceptualizer level and at the senior management operations level.

    Fourth Greenleaf saw leadership and followership as two sides of the same coin. Leaders needed to be servant leaders and followers needed to follow only servant leaders.

    His test for servant leadership: Do those served grow as persons? Do they become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And what is the effect on the least privileged in society?

    Greenleaf’s book is very interesting. It can be found both in the management and in the spirituality sections of book stores. It did not sell much when it first came out, but has increased each year since then.

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