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Pope Benedict XVI leads his Weekly General Audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican May 18, 2011. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
Pope Benedict XVI leads his Weekly General Audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican May 18, 2011. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Does the Catholic church need to install a no-nonsense CEO as its next pope? Add to ...

Imagine the Catholic church as a corporation. Call it Vatican Inc. It has 1.2 billion customers and a brand name with instant, global recognition. It has a famous head office – Vatican City – a bank, assets of incalculable value, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, and the desire to balance income and expenses for fear of going bankrupt if it does not.Should it have a CEO?

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On Tuesday, 115 elector cardinals will enter the Sistine Chapel to vote for the next pope, a ballot expected to last two to four days. The spirituality and intellectual horsepower of the leading candidates will not be the only thing on their minds. So will reform of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s administrative body and regular scandal factory that has been the source of so much pain for the last two popes, and so much bad publicity for the Catholic world.

The wisdom, or lack thereof, on installing a man of God who is also a no-nonsense manager is gripping the Vatican like no time in the past few decades. But few Catholics are sure whether the church is ready, in effect, to hear “Habemus boss” after the white smoke goes up.

The question of voting for a cardinal with management skills might seem absurd because the church does not aspire to Fortune 500 status. The pope, the head of the Vatican, is (or is expected to be) a deeply religious man, a brilliant scholar and a decent-to-good communicator – an evangelist so he can deliver his beliefs to the faithful with passion and clarity. He is not expected to double up as a sort of secular boss even if he has dictatorial powers, such as the ability to select bishops and cardinals.

The question seems not so absurd when you consider that the Vatican is widely considered a mess in need of corporate-style overhaul.

Its central administrative body – the Roman Curia, an Italian power base with some 3,000 employees – has been dismissed as “dysfunctional” by various church watchers, and especially dysfunctional under the last pope. It is prone to scandal, such as the ongoing “Vatileaks” case. It moved way too slowly in dealing with sexually abusive priests and the bishops who covered up those abuses. It has allowed the war between the Vatican hierarchy and the theologians to go on too long. The Curia, in short, seems to have acted as an impediment to the pope’s evangelical mission, not a supporter of it.

As the effort to select a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI gets under way in earnest, there is a notion that the next pope should be a good manager and reformer as well as a spiritual leader – “Jesus Christ with an MBA,” as the National Catholic Reporter’s Thomas Reese put it in a recent note. The idea is not new but is gaining momentum as the church realizes that the Curia needs a shake-up to shift its image from privileged royal court to hard-working bureaucracy bent on delivering results.

Here are the arguments in favour and against:

The chief argument in favour of a pope who can double up as a tough-guy governor is that unless he takes on both roles, the Curia will remain unfixed, virtually ensuring the next pope will devote as much energy to dealing with scandals and botched projects as he can to missionary quests.

To be sure, the Vatican already has a CEO of sorts in the form of the secretary of state, who oversees the Curia. (Until Feb. 28, when Benedict resigned, the job was held by Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is not expected to be reappointed.)

But neither Benedict’s Curia, nor its predecessor, under John Paul II, were considered marvels of efficiency, consensus and ambition.

In an interview published this week with U.S. News & World Report, veteran church watcher John Thavis, author of a new book called The Vatican Diaries, said: “I think many of the cardinals probably feel that Pope Benedict was not served well by the bureaucratic apparatus at the Vatican. … I think the world will see Benedict as someone who really struggled to govern his church. And the question now is: Do we want a CEO-type, a hard-nosed manager, to come in?”

Mr. Reese, the National Catholic Reporter analyst, said that the cardinals in the last two conclaves were united in the idea that the new pope should be “a brilliant intellectual theologian,” and that is what they got in John Paul and Benedict. At they same time, both conclaves, especially the one in 2005, urged Curia reform.

It never came. “If you want to reform the Curia, you don’t appoint an academic,” Mr. Reese said, referring to the difficulty in selecting a candidate who can do both jobs well.

Still, the elector cardinals in the current conclave might well tilt toward a papal candidate who has some experience in managing difficult situations. One name among the 115 that comes to mind is Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, a moderate who is considered an adept administrator.

In an interview carried in La Stampa newspaper’s Vatican Insider section, Australian Cardinal George Pell hinted that a pope with boss-like qualities would be an asset to the church. “I think we need somebody who is a strategist, a decision maker, a planner, somebody who has got strong pastoral capabilities already demonstrated so that he can take a grip of the situation and take the church forward,” he said.

The idea of pope as CEO is nonsense, says George Weigel, senior fellow at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of many books on the Catholic church, including on evangelical Catholicism. “The Revolution That Never Will Be never will be,” he said.

Mr. Weigel said the role of the pope can be nothing other than spiritual leader, an evangelist one who can make Catholicism exciting through his beliefs, teachings and charisma.

“A pope can’t be hired to move boxes around,” he said.

Many cardinals would agree. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington told Vatican Insider that spiritual vision “is going to be the overriding issue” in picking a new pope.

The fear among Vatican watchers is that if the cardinals elect a hybrid holy man/manager, they will get a pope who excels at being neither.

But the Vatican may be able to have it both ways if the next pope is a holy man with enough grit to appoint a reform-minded secretary of state.

Imagine former General Electric CEO Jack Welch in a white cassock, turning the Curia upside down, weeding out the incompetents and yes-men and replacing them with professionals from both the clerical and secular worlds.

“You need a pope who has good people instincts, a pope who can bring the smartest people together,” Mr. Reese said.

A rumour to this effect swept through Rome the other day. La Stampa, normally a reliable source on Vatican news, reported that the Vatican’s old guard was promoting an election “ticket” – Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer for pope along with Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza or Cardinal Sandri for secretary of state.

The latter two are considered powerful personalities who might be able to clean up the Curia.

Is the Curia finally in for a house-cleaning?

The Vatican moves slowly. But even it reacts to crises, and it has a long-simmering one in the Curia.

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