Examination of Conscience as the Way Forward to Win Credibility Back for Catholic Institutions

Credibility of the Catholic institutions seems to be waning in the public eye. This issue can be looked at from different points of view. In this article, I am seeing it as a leadership crisis. This article suggests some leadership qualities and approaches that could help in stopping the decline of credibility and to win it back.

Anyone who observes the Kerala society closely can understand that the institutions are under ruthless social audit. By institutions, I mean organizations, establishments, foundations or the like devoted to the promotion of a particular cause or program like education, health, governance etc. In this sense a government is an institution; a hospital is an institution and a college is an institution. All levels of governments, hospitals and educational institutions are under social audit. The youth is in the forefront of this social audit and social media is their platform of protest. Print media and television media, in an effort to compete with the speed and reach of social media, sensationalize such protests without any ethical measures.  

Legitimate social audit on institutions is good. It shall ultimately lead the institutions to do a reality check and take corrective steps if they have faulted. Unbridled social audit without any ethical framework is a destructive thing as it shall destroy the public trust in all institutions, even the good ones. It is naive to assume that life can proceed without institutions. People cannot govern themselves without political institutions nor earn an income without economic institutions. We are witnessing the revolution of expressive disorder as happened in 1960s in West. This middle class revolt was an attack on boundaries of all kinds – gender differences, limits, certainties, taboos, roles, systems, styles, predictabilities and traditions. This in the West led to widespread erosion of the legitimacy of traditional institutions like Church, business, government, education and the family. If the energy of the current revolution in Kerala is not directed well, it can transform Kerala society into a highly individualistic society like the Western society of today. The principal agents of directing this revolution to good ends are the institutions like governments, universities and hospitals. Interestingly, these are the agents that are under attack. Only if these institutions earn back the lost credibility, then only they will be able to help directing this revolution to the good ends

A radical change from welfare state concept into economic rationalism in government policies in Kerala has resulted in the decay of many institutions. This allowed many for-profit groups to enter into the service sectors like health care and education which were once provided through public and non-profit institutions alone. One of the grave errors in the public policy is allowing for-profit institutions to be part of service sectors like education and health care where the objective is to help the flourishing of human being. No system that focuses merely on money or in forming merely correct policies as business and government respectively can do justification to this objective. Even if they start with having the human person at the centre, in the times of economical difficulties and cost cutting, the first thing both business and governments alike will do is shifting their focus from human person. In such a difficult economical scenario, for-profit institutions will start focusing on the economically profitable class to make sure that money is coming in even in the crisis times. Governments will try to satisfy the needs of its vote base. In such scenarios the first victims are always the poor who neither have the economic nor political strength. It is where non-profit institutions like Catholic hospitals and schools have at least in principle a role to play. A for-profit, when faced with an unproductive service, will focus primarily on the bottom line. An authentic not-profit, on the other hand, will evaluate the service in light of its mission, and if it is seen to be important, every creative effort will be made to find ways to pay for it.

With the entry of for-profit educational and health institutions, non-profit institutions are forced to incorporate business principles, managerialism and profit mantra into its running. In such a system, expecting human persons to be kept at the centre of activities of an institution is day dreaming. In this context, Peter Drucker made this classic observation: “A business has discharged its task when the customer buys the product, pays for it, and is satisfied with it. Government has discharged its function when its policies are effective. The ‘non-profit’ institution (Catholic institution) neither supplies goods or services nor controls. Its ‘product’ is neither a pair of shoes nor an effective regulation. Its ‘product’ is a changed human being (in the image of God). The non-profit institutions are human-change agents. Their ‘product’ is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adult; a changed human life altogether.”

Catholic institutions from a legal point of view are non-for profit institutions which have a commitment to the community it serves and to the Church. These institutions were established in a social context where the founders saw a huge gap between their vocation to the vision of Jesus Christ and the reality in the society. From then onwards these institutions have contributed tremendously in the upliftment of the Kerala society. They were able to do this because they kept the flourishing of the human person as the image of God at the centre of their actions. In the West, this movement of keeping person at the centre of a system is called Personalism. Personalism was proposed as a movement of humanization as a response to dehumanizing elements of collectivism and individualism of nineteenth century. As the government’s commitment to a welfare state declined with the introduction of economic rationalism, many for-profit institutions have entered into the service sectors and as a result of isomorphism, not-profit institutions have started to implement business principles in their management and the attention from the person quickly moved to profit. This is inevitable to an extent. For example, if a non-profit hospital continues its attention to the person, especially the poor and marginalised, a major chunk of its profit will have to be directed for charity care and community benefit. Besides, a Catholic hospital for the same reason of commitment to the respect for life cannot provide some profitable services in the hospital, especially in the reproductive area. This will hinder the hospital from investing for newer technology and consequently the hospital shall struggle to attract best doctors and it leads to decline of patient base. At the same time, the for-profit hospitals which are not bound to this mission toward the poor nor to the life understood in its authentic sense, can spend all its profit for technology and thus attract best doctors. This is why non-profit hospitals follow the style of for-profit in bringing economic discipline and eventually person at the centre of all activities ceases to exist. If governments are serious about access and fairness in the service sectors like health care and education, they have to encourage an environment where non-profit hospitals like Catholic hospitals can flourish. That does not happen.

When the credibility of the institutions is questioned, the leaders of the institutions respond in different ways. Some enter into a denial mode. Leaders do not know how to deal with a cultural downturn, so they pretend it is not happening. They go into denial. The culture in the institution is broken, but the leaders and in some cases the members of the institution as well pretend that everything is fine. The leaders will be unwilling to see or admit a truth that ought to be apparent and is in fact apparent to many others. In other words, denial is seeing but not seeing. How many times we hear from politicians when asked to respond to a crime that happened, “The attack is an isolated one. By this, one cannot say that law and order has deteriorated in the state.” Church leaders tend to say, “this is just one case. Why don’t you look at many good priests instead of focusing on just this unfortunate incident?”

Some others become nostalgic. This is the temptation to respond to the criticisms based on the glorious past. This is very much present in the Catholic Church. One of the arguments made by the Church leaders at the face of recent criticism at its self financing institutions was to look at what the Church has contributed to the social reformation in Kerala over the years. This is a classic example of going nostalgic mode at the face of criticisms. But no good done in the past can cover up the wrongs being done in the present.

Another method used by the leaders of the institutions at the face of social audit is rolling the ball in others’ court.  This defence mechanism is also very strong in the Catholic Church culture. In recent times, the Church spokespersons use frequently the following argument: “Let the law of the land takes its course and punishes the culprits if there are any.” This cannot be consistent with the position of the Catholic Church. The Church has always maintained that the law of the land is to be respected and followed as far as it is not against the dignity of the human person. Since law can be made by a government based merely on populist interests, it may not be morally right always. John Paul II says, “If, as a result of a tragic obscuring of the collective conscience, an attitude of scepticism were to succeed in bringing into question even the fundamental principles of the moral law, the democratic system itself would be shaken in its foundations, and would be reduced to a mere mechanism for regulating different and opposing interests on a purely empirical basis.” In such cases, Church has always called for the conscientious objection. Church based on its rich social and moral teachings, has been able to create internal legal structures that respect the human person and has gone ahead of the times and laws. In such a scenario, rolling the ball into the court of law is not a good idea and is not consistent with the Church teachings.

Scapegoating is a method commonly used at the face of protests to shift the focus from the accused institution to another institution. The accused institution may successfully target the policies of another institution like government or police or politics which may have lesser public credibility compared to the accused one.

Still another method of response at the protests is covering up the face with a few instant solutions. This is just saving the face of the institution by taking some simple but visible steps to calm the protesters and media. This is done through suspending a few members of the institution or changing a few policies just to give an impression that the institution has acted. Calling PTAs as soon as the credibility is questioned and creating immediately a compliance cell are examples of this type of mechanism.

These are all defensive mechanisms which do not initiate a process of change in the root problem that led to the protest against the institution. Analogous to personal sin, there are structural sins present in every institution. Sinful structures can develop and be supported by the actions of ordinary persons. Through compromising with evil in small ways people contribute to wider structural evil; finally, structural sin becomes something taken for granted. John Paul II has opined that the structural sin enters into an organization through concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove. Pope Francis has from the start of his papacy been very critical of the structural sins of the Church as a whole and of its institutions. Only prophetic leaders can see these sins and initiate a change. Unfortunately, many of the Church leaders in Kerala Church are competent managers rather than prophetic leaders. For managers, systems and structures are the most important, and change is not integral to their role. The prophetic leader, however, challenges the status quo to face up to a change in environment; the manger bows to status quo. There should be people with managerial skills in an institution. They should be helping the leaders who have prophetic qualities. The manager administers; the leader innovates. The manager is a copy; the leader is an original. The manager maintains; the leader develops. The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people. The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust. The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective. The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why. The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon. The manager imitates; the leader originates. The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person. The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing. Leaders should be like the prophets of Israel who were creative, dynamic and questioning memory.

The presence of structural sin can be very difficult to identify especially by the members of the institution. This occurs since the structural sin has become the official culture of the institution. This is why only a leader who has the prophetic courage, reflective skills and clarity, can listen to the institutional conscience. Institutional conscience is the sum of the mission, vision, value statements and founding story of the institution. For a Catholic hospital, these elements are inspired by the social and moral teachings of the Church which in turn are reflections of the gospel values. Institutional conscience, like personal conscience, is the inner voice of the institution that guides the institution to the good ends. When leaders are able to listen to it clearly and reflect on it constantly, the sins present in the structure shall be clear to them. As the voice of personal conscience can be suppressed by the sins that have become habits, the voice of the Institutional conscience can be suppressed when structural sins become part of the culture of the institution. The primary task of every leader of a Catholic institution is having focus on the institutional conscience and empowering its members in the key roles to exercise an examination of institutional conscience regularly. The structures that demean human person, whether staff of the institution or the students or patients coming for services in these institutions shall be changed only if this approach of examination of institutional conscience is undertaken regularly in the institutions. All the other above mentioned responses of the leaders of institutions do not touch the structures and the wrong behaviours of the members shall come back sooner than later.

Examination of institutional conscience is like the examination of conscience done prior to the confession. Just like an individual reflects on his life against the gospel and commandments, leaders reflect on the life of the institution against the mission, vision and values. For a Catholic institution these are reflections of the social and moral teachings of the Church reflected in the gospel values. Just like an individual in such a process recognizes the sins committed and the circumstances that led to the sin, the leaders identify the structural sins namely injustices in wages,  asymmetric relationship among different subcultures inside the same institution, bullying, oppression of the freedom of students, treating the patients without dignity etc. This identification of structural sins must lead the leadership to make resolutions that such structures shall be abolished and replaced with fair ones that are committed to the dignity of human person. These are implemented through new policies that are made as dignity of the person at the centre. When the top leadership makes sure that this new policy is implemented, an inner conversion of the institution has already taken place.

For this to happen, institutional leaders should have the competencies of servant leaders along with prophetic qualities. There are four types of leadership styles other than servant leadership style, namely, charismatic, transactional, transformational, and situational. Charismatic leaders exemplify extraordinarily powerful leadership characteristics that inspire and direct followers by building their commitment to a shared vision. Transactional leaders engage in a process of social exchanges involving a number of reward-based transactions with followers. Transformational leaders inspire followers to share a vision and empower them to attain the vision by providing the necessary resources to develop their full personal potential. Situational leaders use the most appropriate approach to match their particular situation and/or environment that can encompass one or more of the above mentioned leadership styles. Servant leaders, based on the example set by Jesus Himself, place their followers’ interest before their own, emphasize their followers’ personal development, and empower their followers. Servant leadership is a new paradigm characteristic of a paramodern culture. It is built on two way process that is to be ongoing: the servant leader expects to receive honest feedback as well as to offer it to those served. This evokes trust and people grow and become creative in such an atmosphere. This reception of feedback element is lacking big times in the leaders of the Catholic institutions. It is time for these leaders to include at least one social media troll about Catholic institutions in their daily meditation to realise the thinking of a huge number of expressive faithful who are at the margins of the Church for many reasons.

With this style of servant leadership coupled with prophetic qualities, environments that are conducive for feedback to leaders even from the weakest member of the institution shall be created. Even the weakest shall feel empowered. Even they will feel their worth as human persons and members of the institution. If the leaders of Catholic institutions can create an environment of dialogue and possibilities of examination of conscience of the institution, that could be a very promising starting point to win back the credibility of these institutions.


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