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Power reimagined in the Catholic Church

Last month, Pope Francis met with bishops and cardinals from around the world to address the child abuse scandal that has devastated countless victims, rocked the faith of practicing Catholics and drawn outrage and disbelief from the global community. Several weeks earlier, we learned that for years clergy had been sexually abusing nuns. And recently, headlines revealed that gay priests, faithful to their vows, are being stigmatized as child abusers and that secret housing exists for infants and children from clergy’s illicit or consensual sexual relationships.

Something has got to change.

In addressing the nun’s abuse scandal, Pope Francis dismissed the notion that the abuse represented “temptations of the flesh,” but instead pointed to “clericalization,” clergy’s abuse of power due to their privileged status. I would wager we could expand that analysis and see power’s influence in all the sordid details shaking the church at its core.

As a Catholic nun from 1969 to 1991, I knew firsthand the ecclesial pecking order, with nuns playing back-up to the featured act: clergy forgave sins, developed and imposed doctrine, changed bread into the body of Christ. At one point of my career, I served as leader of a community of 13 sisters. Post Vatican Council, a sister who formerly had been deemed a “mother superior” was now called a “local coordinator,” a term meant to emphasize the collaborative nature of governance. We had monthly “house meetings” to make decisions together about the mundane (upkeep of the house, cooking and other responsibilities) and the visionary (our local community goals, our outreach in the parish or justice issues we would commit to). As the local coordinator, I was one of many voices; my role was to tap the energy and talents of the sisters with whom I shared a home and community life. Together we came to important decisions. This took time and dialogue, but the outcome was always worth it, as we discovered common ground to build on. It wasn’t perfect. It sometimes got messy. But that approach reflected who we were as a community.

That model was mirrored at the macro level of decision making as well. When major congregational issues were discussed, groups of sisters across geographic regions where we served would gather to share insights and discern possible paths forward. Results of these meetings were collected and reviewed by our president and council, and decisions were based on input from us as well as the leadership team.

Little did I know at the time that our collaborative approach was almost subversive given the Catholic Church’s reliance on hierarchical organizational structures. For clergy, clear lines of authority and top down decision-making made this model more straightforward. Information housed at the pyramid’s top was distilled for general consumption, kept within the upper echelon or buried altogether. Perhaps this was why, as a sister, I felt a part of the church, but somehow separate. We sisters had a private sphere where different rules applied.

In today’s organizational categories, the nuns’ structure has many qualities of what Forbes terms a “flatter” model.

While flatter organizations retain some hierarchical components, systems are in place to ensure collaboration and access to information. Today, technology plays that role; for the pre-internet sisters, regional and local community gatherings made this possible. Executives of flatter organizations value the expertise of their members and share authority. As sisters, we enjoyed a distributive leadership model well before the phrase came into vogue, an approach that empowered individuals and harnessed the wisdom of collective thinking. And that participatory model continues today. As congregations discern new ministries, reorganize to leverage resources, or reevaluate current practices, collaboration and reflection form the bases for their decisions.

As more sisters, priests, laity and others challenge ecclesial culture, the church’s internal decision-making structures, safeguarded by those whose unbridled power is at stake, must be reimagined. What if individuals with relevant expertise, including priests, grappled with the celibacy requirement? How would parents confront clergy child abuse? How might women and nuns envision a more inclusive priesthood? What could the LGBTQ community contribute to redefinitions of family?

If the church is to survive, this moment demands action, not bureaucratic hoops and logjams. Nor the occasional lay person or nun assigned to a commission that has no authority. The summit opened with Pope Francis’s plea: to hear “the cry of the little ones asking for justice.” Justice for the little ones is only the beginning.

Patricia M. Dwyer is a professor at the Notre Dame of Maryland University; her email is

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