Roman Catholic lay leaders announced the formation of an organization Monday that would offer professional guidance to America's bishops on how to run the church.
As its first act, the nonprofit National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management issued an 80-page "Report of the Church in America Leadership Roundtable 2004" in Washington, with 48 recommendations to overhaul administration, personnel policies, finances and governance.
Perhaps the most controversial item seeks changes in the way bishops are nominated, though this would not affect the power of the pope and Vatican officials to make appointments.
The report was mailed to all U.S. bishops last week. Roundtable leaders will meet on Tuesday at U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Washington with three bishops who will be the hierarchy's liaison with the new organization.
"The flavor was one of cooperation, of bringing resources forward" to help the bishops and the church, said one key participant, Francis Butler, president of an alliance of Catholic donors.
The report said the church suffers from "deep-seated ideological divisions" among members, "a pervasive culture of secrecy," clergy-dominated operations, "weakening influence" for its doctrinal and moral message and a decline in religious vocations.
Though dioceses are autonomous, the report noted, taken as a whole they hire more than a million employees and have operating budgets of nearly $100 billion, making the U.S. church the equivalent of a major business corporation.
Geoffrey Boisi, vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase and a prime organizer of the roundtable, said the scandal of clergy sexual abuse "was an impetus for action" and "a wake-up call to lay leaders and church leaders to start working together," but an increase in such lay involvement was inevitable anyway given the church's problems.
He said the roundtable would not take sides on internal church disputes - a concern conservatives raised after organizers' preliminary meetings - and would focus on management and operations.
"We're quite hopeful that this is a major step forward, and some might say a historic step forward," Boisi said.
On bishop appointments, the roundtable recommended that a committee of the U.S. hierarchy work with human resources experts to improve the process by clearly defining qualifications, adding face-to-face interviews with candidates and encouraging "well-informed nominations" from priests and lay parishioners. Such changes would not affect the power of the pope and Vatican officials to choose bishops.
Though U.S. bishops have advisory bodies of lay members in dioceses and at the national level, it is generally agreed that these often lack influence.
The roundtable said the bishops' National Advisory Council, which includes the laity, should have the power to initiate proposals, be given a permanent staff, meet regularly with leaders of the hierarchy and identify "experienced leaders of stature" to become members.
The report also said dioceses should rely more on experienced financial professionals, conduct strong performance reviews for all staff members and issue "reader-friendly" annual reports. Each parish is asked to examine itself and develop a five-year strategic plan.
The group's report summarizes discussions at a closed-door conference last July at the University of Pennsylvania business school.
The 170 participants included two members of the National Review Board, which monitors the bishops' new policies to stem clergy abuse, business executives, lawyers, university administrators and professors, a dozen bishops and 41 priests, nuns and brothers.