In the 1970s, during the heyday of the chaos that followed Vatican II, a French bishop, when asked why he did not more firmly address the crisis, replied, “What can I say? I wasn’t chosen because they thought they might find a prophet in me, but just an administrator.” The Church has always struggled to find good leaders (especially bishops). However, as recently as a hundred years ago, bureaucratic structures did not dominate its life as they do today. What happened?
In 1941, James Burnham published The Managerial Revolution, which might help shed some light on the situation. Burnham was a former Marxist who claimed that Western nations were transitioning from a capitalist society to a “managerial” one in which power would pass from owners of capital to managers who controlled the instruments of production. Though he hardly mentions the Church, there is something to be learned by the comparison. Like every other institution in western life, the Church is run on a daily basis by those who control the means—of communication, funding, and the like—to accomplish the ends for which they are constituted, rather than those who are responsible for its end. In the Church’s case, this means the salvation of souls often takes a back seat to bureaucratic inertia.
Episcopal conferences are the focal points for much of this bureaucratization. The first national conference was founded in Switzerland in the 1860s, but the paradigm for those institutions has long been the U.S. Bishops’ Conference. Founded as the National Catholic War Council in 1917 to represent Catholic interests in Congress and coordinate with the federal government during WWI, its founders changed its name to the National Catholic Welfare Council, with the intent of continuing its activities. Yet some bishops and some in Rome worried this would erode the powers of individual bishops and of Rome itself. Such opposition nearly scuttled it altogether; in 1922, Benedict XV was ready to squelch the promulgation of the decree allowing its creation before he died. Pius XI signed it, though its name was changed to “conference” to indicate its merely consultive function.