Preserving the Vision?

I recently sent out a short piece called “Corporation Sole” accusing the bishops of substituting a corporate definition of Church for the definition of Vatican II.  The Council definition I am referring to reiterated the traditional understanding that the “Church” is a loving community inspired by the teaching and example of Jesus to imitate the generosity of “God.” 

One reader, who felt my condemnation of the entire hierarchy was over-generalized, declared that there are differences among bishops, and intimated that in this regard, the bishop of Brooklyn is not like others.

I disagree.  I have been informed that at the June 12th annual bishop’s “convocation” with married priests, many of whom had been forced to resign, that when questioned about the documented voluntary withdrawal of over 200,000 Catholics from the Brooklyn Church, the bishop responded:  “hey, we’ve still got 1.5 million.  We can live with a quarter million less.”  I was shocked, but not surprised.  Concern for the “salvation” of those who left, or questions as to why so many would feel impelled to leave, were not even considered.  Apparently the fact that the remaining constituency was still large enough to guarantee the Diocese’ corporate status, was enough to allay any misgivings the bishop may have had.  The only thing that seemed of concern to him was corporate strength and conti­nuity, not the loss of almost a quarter million “souls” or the implication that perhaps something was lacking in the category of “loving community” to account for it. 

The fact that such attitudes mirror those of the CEOs of major corporations is usually excused as the unfortunate but inevitable by-product of “efficient management.”  But, I’m sorry, this is no harmless technical foible.  It must be seen squarely for what it is.  It is the crass substitution of the goals, structures, motivations  and operating dynamics of a commercial business enter­prise for a community of the followers of Jesus who function on the unique loving motivations inspired by his teaching and example.  We are not dealing with a moral question here, it’s much deeper, and much more important.  It’s a question of fundamental identity.   Just what are you?   Are you a Christian community concerned about your people, justice, widows and orphans  …  or are you a corporate commercial enterprise concerned principally about your buildings, their occupancy, utilization and remunerative “productivity”?

Last November (2011) the same Brooklyn Diocese published a “Strategic Plan 2011-2014” for Catholic Schools.  The language used in that document reflects this corporate commercial mindset.   It is called  officially, “Preserving the Vision,” and it can be found on the Brooklyn Diocesan website (http://dioceseofbrooklyn.org/ ).   It includes the announcement that all Catholic Schools in the Diocese will be converted into “academies” by 2017, thus completing the privatization of all parochial schools and their final separation from the parish and any semblance of a “loving Christian community.” Education for the paying elite (regardless of religious affiliation) will be the official order of the day — the “product” the Church sells to whomever can afford to buy.

The mission statement for the “strategic plan” includes this following bit of jargon, I’m sure you will find it familiar:  Goal #2: “Increasing enrollment through effective marketing and outreach to the diverse communities within the Diocese.”  Effective marketingDiverse communities?  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what is being proposed here.  Catholic schools never had to be “marketed” to Catholic people; you “market” when you are out to find new customers and clients.  “Diverse communities” obviously refers to non-Catholics, presumably those who appreciate up-scale “Catholic Academies” and are willing to pay for it. 

Are we to suppose this is part of the Diocese’ missionary mandate to spread the gospel to all nations? … or are we seeing a clever and lucrative way to avoid providing education for the hundreds of thousands of immigrant poor that now make up more than ½ of the Diocese’ Catholic population?  Catholic Schools were originally the main tool of the early 20th century strategy of supporting the immigrant populations from Europe that were Catholic:  Irish, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian.  Catholic schools kept them “catholic” and prepared their children for success in a hostile sectarian environment.  They were poor, but the “Church” always found a way. 

Apparently the current flow of immigrants no longer merit such efforts, and one wonders, why?  Are they any less “Catholic” than our people were?  Are they any less in need?  Are they any the less in danger of “losing their faith”?  They are not able to pay … but neither were our people And the church always found a way.  What explains why these particular “Catholics” are now passed over for education in favor of non-Catholics and non-Christians who just happen to have money and a recognition of the “value” of not sending their kids to public schools.   If this is not explained by a new commercial priority for the church, please tell me what does explain it.

“Marketing” isn’t the only “buzz word” that reveals the commercial nature of the ecclesiatical endeavor.  There are many more that emerge from the whole section on “marketing.”   The following (p.13) are a good example.  They are strategic goals for the “marketing” effort.  Notice the commercial language and the real goal behind “preserving the vision” — building utilization:

Goal 16. High priority will be given to effectively marketing Catholic schools and acade­mies within the Diocese of Brooklyn in order to build a strong educational brand through­out the Diocese and increase K-8 enrollment by 10% each year so that buildings are fully utilized.

Strategies

16.1 To maximize effectiveness and clarity, marketing and branding messaging at the dio­cesan and local school and academy levels will be presented to all diocesan constituencies in a “single minded” manner and delivered with “one voice.” Schools, academies and various offices within the diocese will work collaboratively to ensure this consistent branding and messaging.

16.2 Specific marketing resources will be identified and committed to fund an integrated marketing communications program of branding Catholic education within the Diocese of Brooklyn and to support individual school and academy recruitment activities.

I found that these ideas and this use of terminology curiously coincided with a similar anomaly of speech uttered by Cardinal William Levada, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when he commented on his recent June 11th meeting with the nuns of LCWR:

“Too many people crossing the LCWR screen, who are supposedly representing the Catholic church, aren’t representing the church with any reasonable sense of product identity,” Levada said.[1]

Am I the only one appalled at this talk of “branding” and “product identity”?  The fact that this non-religious terminology is used in such disparate and unconnected circum­stances gives rise to the suspicion that the Church managers, generally, are now defining the Church as commercial corporate enterprises … everywhere.  They are spontaneously using words that reflect that self-identity. 

The only time Jesus really lost it and might have set in motion the reactions that ultimately were to cost him his life, is when he encountered the money changers in the temple.  The remarkable fact is that what they were doing was not “immoral.”  But the fact that they had converted the Jewish relationship to the nameless “God” of Sinai into a commericalized enterprise centered on animal sacrifice (standard practice throughout the Greco Roman world) was more than he would tolerate.  It suggests that what we are dealing with in the commericalization of religion is not immoral … it is worse!  “Sin,” as we know,  was no big deal for Jesus.   But “turning my father’s house into a den of thieves” was more than his patience would abide. 

I doubt that further research will uncover any glaring difference between the Church bosses and the Church businesses that vie with one another for clients and paying customers in the “diverse market” on whichever side of the East River they may be located.

Tony Equale


[1]John AllenVatican official warns of ‘dialogue of the deaf’ with LCWR,” NCR June 12, 2012

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2 comments on “Preserving the Vision?

  1. rjjwillis says:

    Tony,
    Right on! But I would add that the Church doesn’t know the first rule of business: work to satisfy your most valuable employees. Oh, I understand that it may say that its most valuable employees are the folks that toe the Vatican line and keep others in line below them, like foremen over the working bees. If that is so, then it just reinforces your comment. But I am talking about those Church professionals who are most capable of carrying out the proclaimed mission of the Church: evangelization, the declaring of the Good News.

    I left the Jesuit Order forty years ago today. When I left, I had been a member for nineteen years and been ordained for six. I had numerous degrees, including a masters in Philosophy, an S.T. M. in Theology, licentiate degrees in both, plus a doctorate in Psychology. In addition I had worked with Jesuit provinces across the United States and Canada as well as training Jesuit English-speaking provincials from around the world in Rome. I detail all of this for only one reason: on the face of it anyway, I should have been counted as one of “those Church professionals most capable of carrying out the proclaimed mission of the Church.” In addition, as a member of an Order dedicated to education and especially to higher education, I should have been a most valuable asset to the Order.

    When I filled out papers to leave the Order, papers that were forwarded to the Congregation of Religious as well as to the Jesuit Generalate in Rome, the emphasis was on declaring that because of my moral weakness I was unable to live the vows, particularly the vow of chastity with it encumbrance of celibacy. I dutifully toed the expected line, especially after our assistant provincial told me that “since I was pretty well known that the Vatican would delay my laicization for at least eighteen months.” However, he went on to comment, “If you get married, it will probably come through earlier as you would be a cause of scandal.” [As it turned out, even though I did marry, I got the papers just eighteen months later!]

    Aside from this, no one from the Society of Jesus and no one from the Church hierarchy ever contacted me to learn from me why I was leaving or left. It seems that the presumption was that I just couldn’t take it or that I was another case of someone:”losing his vocation” through negiigence at best, sin at worst. Even when I wrote a book, a memoir detailing my life both before the Society and during it, no one, even out of curiosity, came around to discuss with me what happened and how the Society and the Church might do better in keeping their promising members.

    Even the most secular of C.E.O.’s wants to know, especially through exit interviews, where the organization failed, a failure obvious in the departure of any valued and valuable employee. And with that information, a good C.E.O. changes what needs to change in order not to lose other employees in the days and months ahead. Therefore, if the Church is going to use secular organization as its role model, I would hope that it managers would at least learn to be capable at functioning as such. To date I see little that convinces me that the Church is either good at evangelization or secularization.

    My best regards, Bob

    • tonyequale says:

      Bob,

      Thanks. It’s always stimulating to get your poignant and pointed comments. I think the sentiments you express represent the feelings of many of our generation whose work was not appreciated and whose exit was openly welcomed. There was a strange confluence of interests here: we left for the very reasons they did not appreciate our work and wanted us gone. (Talk about win-win!) What were those reasons?

      They are not interested in the “gospel.” That’s not their “product.” Jesus’ disregard for social normalcy was an embarassment to them from the beginning. What they are selling is their institution, “The Church,” a socially respectable replacement for what I call “the void” — the black hole of indeterminacy that churns like a raging vortex at the center of human life — the source of our transcendent humanity and the object of Jesus’ deeply poetic Jewish understanding of life. Like Dostoevsky’s Torquemada, they arrested Jesus for “disturbing the peace” locked him in a cage and presented their church as his “Mystical Body” brazenly declaring that it was all you need: not love but “The Church,” not forgiveness but confession, not a banquet of sharing but the mass.

      In such a scheme, to talk about the “gospel” is to talk to the wall. They have already re-defined the gospel as “The Church,” and obedience to its managers is the price of continuous incorporation. In such a scheme, there is only one sin: disloyalty to The Church. Everything else is forgiveable or even ignored. Child abuse, silence in the face of genocidal holocausts, complicity in conquest and enslavemment, crass alliance with wealth and power — it’s all OK.

      So why would it ever even occur to them that you may have some information about “evangelization” that they ought to know? Controlling the gospel was the problem that got them started. “The Church” was their solution to the embarassment. The last thing they want to know is how to proclaim the gospel … it would put them out of business.

      Tony

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