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Beyond the Conference Room Solution

March 25, 2013

Organizational Bureaucracy and the Papacy

A recent atricle by Rachel Donadio and Jim Yardley in The New York Times offers an interesting view of papal bureaucracy that is certainly not unique to the papacy and plagues most, if not all organizations

The authors write, “changing the style of the papacy is far easier than changing the Vatican — an ancient monarchy in which the pope is treated like a king, branches of the hierarchy are run like medieval fiefs and supplicants vie for access and influence.  For decades popes have tried, and often failed, to change the Vatican.  “There have been a number of popes in succession with different personalities, but the structure remains the same,” said a former superior general of a Roman Catholic religious order, who spent more than a decade in Rome. “Whoever is appointed, they get absorbed by the structure. Instead of you transforming the structure, the structure transforms you.”  While the power of the pope is absolute, the vested institutional interests and vast bureaucracy of the Vatican are powerful, too.

“The cardinals are accustomed to being treated like nobility,” said Jason Berry, author of “Render Unto Rome,” a book examining the finances of the church. “The cardinals have de facto immunity. Under canon law, they are never punished. The other problem is that popes are very, very reluctant to shake up the political culture that elected them.”

Critics of the Curia say these traditions have nurtured a hierarchy of promotions and positions based on personal favoritism and connections. That structure is at once unwieldy and uncoordinated, they say, while being overly centralized, stirring resentment for the nontransparent and nondemocratic ways in which it renders judgments.

Even insiders complain that communication among various departments is slow and fractured. When the Vatican announced a plan to enable traditionalist Anglicans to find a home within the Catholic Church, it surprised even Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official overseeing the church’s relations with Anglicans. The announcement occurred while the cardinal was out of town.

Benedict became the first pope to use Twitter, with the handle @Pontifex, but the Vatican is lagging in many other respects. As in Italy, faxes remain the preferred means of correspondence. Vatican landlines do not have voice mail and not all employees have an e-mail address. Responses are slow in coming.

“It takes months!” to accomplish things, said one Vatican official.

“When you come from a diocese, you are used to doing things quickly,” he added. “Here, the Roman mechanisms are designed to prevent people with a good idea from carrying it forward.”

Recently, the official became frustrated because the Vatican could not issue a fast, coordinated response to bishops around the world asking for advice on how to offer communion wafers during flu season. Delays occurred because too many Vatican departments demanded consultation, he said.”

Think of the last important project you were involved with. Now consider the following questions to evaluate the overall success of the project. The final grade you assign is likely an indicator of how most projects work within your organization.

  • How long did it take? Was the duration longer than ideal?
  • How many people were part of the effort? Was this number adequate?
  • Were all necessary people identified up front as part of the team?
  • How clear, quantitative, and focused was the mandate? Was there even a mandate?
  • Was there consensus as to what needed to get done?
  • Was there a formal kickoff to announce the project?
  • How involved and supportive was senior management?
  • What percentage of chosen team members’ time was dedicated to the effort? Was this adequate?
  • Were necessary adjustments made regarding team members’ other duties to accommodate adequate focus on the project?
  • How much time was spent in meetings rather than out in the field?
  • Was the team fully supportive of the final recommendation?
  • From the time the recommendation was made, how long did it take before implementation began? Did implementation even occur?
    How would you grade the overall success of the project?
    A    B    C    D    F


Most people who have taken the survey grade their organization a “C.”  Why, because just as with the Vatican, change is extremely difficult.  Yet the paradox is that change is essential to healthy growth and economic vigor, and this axiom is more relevant in this second decade of this second millennium than it has ever been in history. The ability to embrace industry changes, technological advancements, and evolving customer demands opens up an organization to opportunities that your competitors fail to see. It’s a chance to shed your skin and explore new and profitable innovations. It’s how an organization thrives now and long into the future.

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