Best governance for Catholic organisations

JvanSchie 1

A governance standard based on the corporate world may not be the best one for Catholic organisations, as their (Catholic groups’) outcomes are based on the Church’s mission and not profit.

This was one of the points robustly discussed by 20 chief executive officers and chairs of Catholic business organisations from Australia and New Zealand at a programme hosted by the Australian Catholic University in Rome in the last week of May.

Auckland diocese general manager James van Schie, who was the sole participant from New Zealand, said the topic of the round table discussion was “governing for sustainable human development and the common

“There is a view that the Church should chase corporate governance standards,” he said. “But there was also a different view that corporate governance standards may, in fact, not be the gold standard.”

Mr van Schie said the ACU called the meeting in the wake of different Australian royal commission inquiries on a range of issues relating to governance, such as the inquiries into the banking sector, aged care, and institutional responses to child sexual abuse.

“The prevailing direction that became clear throughout the week is governance standards really closely follow community expectations. As community expectations evolve, governance standards and norms need to evolve with that,” he said.

He explained that one of the risks for Catholic organisations can be reacting to failures by seeking simple answers.

“[We end up] convincing ourselves that if we simply adopted corporate governance standards, everything will be OK,” he said.

However, corporate standards are underpinned by a very different objective from that of the Church, Mr van Schie said, as they are driven by profit.

“We have a different form of governance within our Catholic organisations, one that is certainly informed by good standards in the wider society, but is
also clearly based on mission discernment,” he said. “Any ministry of the Church needs to have mission outcomes at the forefront. This was certainly
affirmed for me during the week.”

Mr van Schie observed that the various royal commission inquiries in Australia have awoken his Australian counterparts to the importance of
not being complacent in their organisations.

“We need to be vigilant and avoid relying on box-ticking or past successes. Our way of working needs to centre on the interests of the people we

“The question we need to ask as leaders, as people involved in governance, is: In whose interest am I making this decision?”

The various inquiries and commissions in Australia, he said, highlighted the need for banks to make decisions that are in the best interests of their customers, for aged care providers to put care at the forefront of planning, and for the Church to serve people before reputation.

Mr van Schie said the five-day meeting in Rome started with an intensive two-day retreat formation based on the life and witness of St Francis of Assisi.

“What struck me about the time of looking at the life of St Francis of Assisi was the extent to which Pope Francis is pointing us to the renewing call of St Francis,” the Auckland diocese general manager said.

Mr van Schie was fortunate enough to meet with Pope Francis at a general audience in St Peter’s Square.

He was amazed by the Pope’s energy, who, at 83, met everyone with real dignity.

“He encouraged each of us by the way he greeted us and spent time, particularly with those who are sick,” Mr van Schie said.

He said the meeting in Rome with his Australian peers really affirmed that
lay people have a significant role in the life of the Catholic Church.

“Here is a group of lay people who are in very senior roles. It’s a diverse group of women and men, who have serious and high level responsibilities
for major Catholic missions. Some of these hospital groups are bigger than our DHBs,” he noted.

Following St Francis’ way of gratitude, Mr van Schie said, “as a Church, we are grateful stewards of the gifts that have been provided by the people we work with”.

He said that, in looking at the history of the Church, the executives also agreed that “men and women before us have given some incredible examples of how the Church can create mission-oriented places that do care
for people, provide outstanding education, and helping people to know God and be formed in their faith”.

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