How to Make the Church Accountable
Pope Francis says the Church must be exemplary and beyond reproach, especially on the part of those who hold important roles of responsibility. Patrick Kelly proposes a stewardship model for ensuring greater accountability.
The challenge posed by Jesus in the parable of the steward, “to give an account of your management”, has gained increasing prominence ever since the sexual abuse and finance scandals — and their cover-ups — in the Catholic Church began making world headlines 20 years ago.
This challenge is currently being amplified in light of the emphasis Pope Francis is placing on synodality, which is a call not only for the leadership of the Church to be accountable but for all of God’s people to be stewards of the Church — a higher level of accountability.
The traditional institutional arrangements in the Church do not lend themselves to accountability. Power is concentrated in the male, secular clergy, based on the principle that the pope is the successor to Peter, who was appointed by Christ as the leader of the nascent Christian community. The pope appoints bishops, and bishops ordain priests and assigns them to parishes.
Levels of accountability
All levels of the Church hierarchy have a high degree of autonomy — over 3000 bishops report to the pope on what is supposed to be a five-yearly basis (not a practical management model). Parish priests report to the bishop, but there are few prescribed procedures for how this should happen. Since the reforms to Canon Law in 1983, priests are required to report on parish finances to a pastoral council or finance committee comprising lay parishioners. But this is a small concession that does not fundamentally change the official “consultative and accessory” role of the laity.
This concentration of power leads to clericalism which the Association of US Catholic Priests has described as “an expectation, leading to abuses of power, that ordained ministers are better than and should be over everyone else among the People of God”. A strong culture of clericalism provides little incentive for the clergy to be more accountable.
Accountability comprises three key elements: firstly, there must be clear expectations of certain performance or actions; secondly, information on how the expectations have been met must be provided; and finally, there should be enforceable consequences for failing to meet the expectations.
For accountability to be realised, transparency is essential. Transparency facilitates knowledge of the expectations, adequate detail of the performance, and visibility of the consequences. The quality of transparency is in the eyes of the receiver and is a function of the relevance of the information provided, its accuracy and how understandable it is.
Lack of accountability has significantly eroded the credibility and trust of the Church in the eyes of the faithful as well as the world. This credibility gap reduces the Church’s ability to spread the word of God and be a beacon on the hill for the world to look up to. The importance of impeccable behaviour was emphasised recently by Pope Francis when he said that “the Church must be exemplary and beyond reproach, especially on the part of those who hold important roles of responsibility”.
A stewardship model
Improving accountability and transparency in the Church is certainly necessary to rebuild trust, but alone it is insufficient. As God’s people we are each called to stewardship of the Church. Stewardship requires us to care for our common resource, the Church, by offering our unique talents and gifts, in accordance with St Peter’s guidance: “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
A report commissioned by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, titled “Light of the Southern Cross”, states unequivocally that “stewardship is integral to the mission of the Church, it is a fundamental tenet of the Church’s spirituality. Stewardship does not suggest ownership but a responsibility for service that aims to nurture a gift from another”.
Stewardship requires a commitment to building the Church in whichever way our particular gifts enable us. Its starting point is that we are all equally created in the image and likeness of God and we therefore have a collective responsibility for the life and health of the Church. But that responsibility differs according to our role. There is no doubt that the clergy and others who devote their lives to God will take on more responsibility, but this does not reduce the need for accountability, it rather raises it.
Stewardship therefore promotes a culture of belonging and collaboration which is enhanced by mutual respect, credibility and trust advanced by accountability and transparency.
Some practical ideas
While stewardship is the goal, improving basic accountability and transparency is a key step. At parish and diocesan level, financial statements can be made available through printing a summary in the parish newsletter or posting them on the website. Similarly, abbreviated minutes of pastoral council meetings can be shared with parishioners to keep them updated.
Parish priests should agree on their responsibilities with the parish representatives and even invite feedback from their community on homilies, liturgies and other functions. Efforts should also be made to promote consultation and participation of all members of the community, particularly women, in parish activities, especially taking the opportunity of synodal processes.
Patrick Kelly is a chief director at Statistics SA. He delivered a presentation on accountability at a recent Johannesburg Archdiocesan Leadership Conference.
Published in the February 2023 issue of The Southern Cross magazine