In any organization or institution, isolated leadership, cut off from relevant facts and feedback, can be a serious problem for both the leaders and the led. From Watergate to the decision to go to war in Iraq, the White House and the nation have often suffered its unhappy consequences.
But the isolation of leaders is a problem not just for the imperial presidency. As more information comes to light about the origins of the economic crisis, it's increasingly clear that some top figures in business and finance were operating inside a self-referential corporate cocoon that cut them off from reality.
Isolated leadership also can be a problem in the Church. Catholics, to their dismay, have been forcibly reminded of that in recent weeks, as a firestorm of criticism swirled around Pope Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunications of four ultra-right Lefebvrist bishops, including a Holocaust denier.
Voices have been raised here and there in this controversy protesting what one papal defender calls "beating up on the pope." In fact, there's been a lot of that. No one at all familiar with Benedict XVI can possibly imagine that this man is anti-Semitic or is soft on Holocaust denial.
Suggestions to the contrary border on the obscene.
What's more, some reactions reflect a woeful lack of charity toward the Lefebvrists — not just the four bishops but their several hundred thousand followers whom Pope Benedict hopes to reconcile with the Church. Rather than desiring the return of these brothers and sisters, some Catholics apparently would prefer that they remain in their separated, schismatic condition.
With all that said, however, it's necessary to admit that this nasty episode arises, partly at least, from structural and human flaws in the way the Vatican operates as well as from Benedict's own management style. These diverse factors combine to isolate the pope, creating the possibility — and now the reality — of disagreeable results.
In a statement defending Benedict, the Vatican Secretariat of State said the bizarre views concerning Nazi killing of Jews held by Bishop Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying Lefebvrist, were "unknown to the Holy Father" at the time Williamson's excommunication was lifted.
That's just the problem. The pope didn't know. And he should.
If, just here, somebody wishes to make the point that not even a pope can know everything, it must be said that the very small number of Vatican insiders who were in on this decision ought to have made it their business to know (Bishop Williamson had stated his views publicly, after all) and ought to have told the pope. The fact that nobody dug up this crucial — and available — bit of information and shared it with the pope was a staggering staff failure.
And if Benedict had known? Then he could have made his decision — to lift or not lift the excommunication, and on what terms — on a sound basis. Kept in the dark, he was set up for trouble. "Not only the Obama administration struggles with an incompetent vetting process," commented Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, a veteran of the White House.
Pope Benedict's management style exacerbated the situation. His temperament and, probably, his age are part of it. The pope is a scholarly, retiring intellectual who will soon turn 82. Clearly he prefers to conduct business with a small number of intimates rather than reach out to a broad circle of advisors. In the present case, officials who should have been included in the decision process were outside the loop.
On top of everything else, the episode spotlights serious problems with the Vatican's external communications.
The director of the Vatican press office — an overextended priest named Federico Lombardi, S.J., who wears too many hats — complained about this in an extraordinary after-the-fact interview with a French newspaper. When a loyal functionary like this goes public with his grievances, it's a sign that something's badly wrong.
But hang on. Before getting wrought up about these apparent failures in far-off Rome, Catholics need to look around them and give thought to how things stand at home.
In how many American chanceries and rectories, one might ask, are the same problems — failing to consult outside a small closed circle, neglecting to tell the man in charge painful truths he needs to know, self-defeating secrecy, isolated decision making—time bombs waiting to go off?
The Vatican is a goldfish bowl where mistakes easily become visible to the world. Similar mistakes closer to home usually — though not always — get a pass. But they have the same potential for harm, albeit on a smaller scale. Sometimes the harm occurs.
It's of two kinds. It embarrasses and alienates Catholics and even would-be friends of the Church. And it undercuts the Church's ability to be a voice of conscience in the public policy debate.
What happens now? In other organizations, after a fiasco like this heads would roll and a study — possibly just window dressing, but also possibly for real — would be launched to find out what went wrong and how it can be prevented from happening again.
The Vatican doesn't operate like that. It should. So should other institutions and structures of the Church. To make this point isn't beating up on the pope—or the bishops or the pastors. It's helping them do their difficult, demanding jobs.