A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog

Corruption in Religious Organizations

A major theme in my understanding of religion and
spirituality is that religious organizations are not so much a means to grow in
genuine spirituality, as they enable many people to come together and engage in
spiritual practice as a community. 
The growth remains an individual responsibility, sometimes aided but
sometimes hindered by the organizations we join as a part of our practice.  Organizations are necessary because
being part of a community helps remind us of our priorities, but they exact a
very high price.

The organizations with which we
identify are the last refuge of tribalism for many of us.  As a rule the ‘us vs. them’ mentality
flourishes any time the organization, or rather its leadership, is caught in an
embarrassing or corrupt situation. 
We have a strong tendency to huddle around the embattled person and defend
him or her against the outside world – even if we personally do not approve of
what they did.  I explored this
issue in many kinds of organizations in my paper “Why Organizations Lie.”


In the case of religious
organizations, this means confusing the interests of its leadership with its
spiritual mission, a particularly egregious organizational pathology. 

As the oldest, largest and most
powerful religious organization, the Catholic Church has long been a victim of
this tribalistic syndrome.  The
current multiple scandals unfolding in Ireland, Germany, and Switzerland,   where high ranking clergy either
engaged in or covered up child abuse by other clergy constitute yet more pages
in this sordid record of “shepherds” putting the interest of their “sheep”
last.   Within the Church,
smaller internal organizations exhibited the exact same behavior in looking the
other way and selective blindness when their top leadership lived a double life.   The Legion of Christ,  a powerful world wide organization
noted for defending “Catholic values.” It’s members are often influential
figures in the US
.  The Legion is currently in deep crisis as a result of hard to believe
. This kind of thing has been an ongoing issue in the Church for years, reduces
its power and influence, and yet the institution seems incapable of dealing
with it


The organization’s defenders, in
this case defenders of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, will argue three
things, if I may be permitted a prediction. 

First, everybody does it.  But the issue is the cover-up, not the
original crimes – and only big organizations can cover this kind of thing up on
the scale we are seeing. It is a disease of big organizations.

Second, the top leaders did not
know.  In these most recent cases
this is hard to believe, assuming they are otherwise competent at their
jobs.  The leaders were not
necessarily child molesters 
(although in the case of the Legion of Christ, he was) that is not the
issue.  The leaders put the
organization’s interests in not being embarrassed ahead of its spiritual responsibilities.  And this almost always happens. 


Third, in this case I must be
anti-Catholic, thereby equating being anti-child abuse with anti
Catholicism.  Regardless of what I
think of the Catholic Church – and I have a very complex attitude towards it,
far more complex than its attitude towards Pagans, that claim is utterly
irrelevant.  Unless, that is, you
react as a member of a tribe, where any criticism from outside is evidence of
deep seated hostility that must be combated.  And that, of course, is what is happening.

But the tendency of big
organizations to become tribalistic, defending themselves from any claims of
wrong-doing from the outside and sacrificing anyone and anything to do so, is
not a uniquely Catholic problem. 
It would appear in a Pagan organization, if ever it got big and powerful


Nor is this a problem unique to
religious organizatios.  It is
ubiquitous whenever we see organizations where people within them become
emotionally identified with them. 
The weirdest recent example  (I know about) is Lehman Brothers, the recently bankrupted financiers who,
upon closer examination, appear to have been run as a cult.  The problem is with the organizational
form, no matter where it appears: religion, business, politics, wherever.

There is no cure.  I believe the only palliative is to
keep organizations as small as possible – the exact opposite of what is
happening today in American society. 


Small organizations have the same
tendencies, but outside cults cannot dominate the lives of their members nearly
so much.  Small size limits the
scope of the harm they can cover up and makes leaving them or blowing the
whistle easier. 

I suspect it is also the case
that the larger the organization, the more relative advantages corrupt people have
in rising to the top, because internal political skills and manipulation will
become ever more important in enabling their rise.  Sociopaths have advantages similarly talented non-sociopaths
do not have.  This does NOT mean
good people cannot rise to the top, but they will have more going against them.


When I visit a massive Pagan
gathering like Pantheacon, I am sometimes a little put off by the weirder folks
who show up – but compared to the harm powerful organizations have done and
continue to do within the religious traditions they are supposed to safeguard,
these are small potatoes indeed.  As problems, they are tater tots among boulders, if even that.

Comments read comments(12)
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posted March 16, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Gus – I don’t disagree with what you’re saying here, but I’m going to have to question the Catholic church as the oldest religious organization around. Hinduism and its temples have been around for much, much longer. While they don’t have an overarching hierarchy like Catholicism does, they do have temples and hereditary priesthoods that have been around longer.

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posted March 16, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Last I checked, Hinduism and Shinto are some of the oldest…
…but what about the Australian Aborigines? Anybody have ideas?

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That Dude

posted March 16, 2010 at 5:54 pm

If you’re looking at oldest religions, then the likes of shamanism, Shinto, Hinduism, and Daoism would classify. I think Gus’ point was that the Catholic Church is the world’s oldest organized religious body with central leadership and verifiable membership…or something to that degree. @B is right in that Hinduism and Shinto are older, but there is no “universal church of the Kami” or worldwide Church of Shiva.

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Marlon C. Hartshorn

posted March 16, 2010 at 6:31 pm

The gist of this whole article was about the overarching psychic themes in group consciousness, not really about one religion or other, I didn’t think. There is a cool book by Dr John Goldhammer about this subject, can’t remember the title now but I have it here. It’s fascinating about sociology and also about corporations really just being larger versions of a personality, for example. The problem is no ethical system or values in corporations. Downsizing sounds good, but it won’t happen, it’s not feasible. The only thing that I think would work is being able to always track the money trail, have everything online where anyone can see it. I love paganism a lot and we need fresh ideas about money as it relates to our value systems.

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Gus diZerega

posted March 16, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Marlon is right – I thought it was obvious that I was talking about organizations, not religions. Perhaps I should have been more clear.
Yes- corporations are essentially sociopaths, but I think that organizations in general tend that way.
I do think most can be shrunk, but it would take the law to do it. Requirements for total transparency and my “corporate death penalty” of 3 strikes and you are disbanded would help a lot…

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posted March 17, 2010 at 6:57 am

OLDEST RELIGION: (i) Single hierarchic organisation: probably the Catholic Church, together with the Orthodox Church, maybe.
(ii) Religion with some sort of organisational and infrastructural continuity, probably Hinduism, followed by Zoroastrianism and Judaism.
(iii) Set of continuing religious practices, probably some tribal religion.
It’s difficult to make a claim for Shinto, except in category (iii), as Japanese history only goes back to about 500 CE.
CORPORATIONS: A lot would be solved by getting rid of the category of legal person, so corporations would not be protected in that respect, and could thus be fined to their ruin. That would provide a strong incentive for shareholders to encourage ethical, or at least legal, behaviour.

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Gus diZerega

posted March 17, 2010 at 11:55 am

Much as I agree that corporations are not legal people in any sane world, the problem regarding shareholders goes deeper.
It is that perhaps a majority of shares in most companies are owned by mutual funds whose management is required to look only at their fiduciary duties to their own clientele. That means only financial issues matter when they evaluate, buy, and sell shares. Green mutual funds have to explicitly add ethical criteria as prior to financial criteria to get around this legal requirement. And they likely are as good as they are because they have reasonably good oversight by green oriented organizations. Otherwise the pressure would be to cheat so as to get higher returns for their customers.
So long as we stick to purely market organizations, the problem of corporate sociopathy is built in – first because they are big organizations, second, because they are required to respond to financial signals ahead of all other legal requirements.

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posted March 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I think that when we get down to it the tension between positive and negative we experience in organizations probably has to do with the character of the human species. We are a social species. Social group dynamics incorporate possibilities of both positive and negative dynamics.
At the same time, the world we live in is socially and culturally and psychologically complicated to the extent that no one of us or little group of us can really understand it. Most of the modern world functions as a “black box” compared to our livable skill sets.
More and more, I am resigned to the understanding that we human beings cannot reason or re-organize our way out of what we are. And that we are more easily attracted to or by negative dynamics than we wish.
Having said that (and I’m not sure quite how much sense it makes), I myself favor smaller organizational models over bigger ones. And cooperative ones over authoritarian ones. And, if possible, ethical ones over corrupted and corrupting organizational models.
It’s just that I suspect that sheer aggregate population pushes us the other way. That it would be easier for us as a species to follow positive dynamics if there were a lot fewer of us vs. the resources of the planet.

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posted March 17, 2010 at 9:07 pm

I’ve long held to an idea I call the “5 Guys With Baseball Bats,” theory.
Any organization, any entity or any facilitating mechanism that has the potential to do more harm to the world than five drunk guys with baseball bats can do needs to be watched closely and kept on a short and noose-like leash.

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posted March 17, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Having been in the Catholic Church prior to being a Pagan, besides the many grievances towards it that people have aired here and elsewhere, one thing I don’t tend to hear is about members who actually enjoy their time in the Church but have gripes. As a former member, when I was quite enthralled and dedicated to Catholicism, which was 18 years, I found it quite disheartening that one had to really work (that is, almost pin them down) to forge any connections to one’s fellow parishoners. We were lucky in that, after we left our first parish, the priest and deacon were warm, welcoming figures who were patient, and took time for anyone that wanted their company. Truly these men exemplified their Savior’s work as He intended it, showing through humility, respect, and honest love of their work and their parishoners.
Most don’t get this. Most don’t get to really see or interact with their priest outside of sacraments, or don’t due to a feeling of alienation or fear of judgment. The institution that is supposed to be there fails its own people on an everyday basis by setting up a system that runs on fear of God, Self, body, and spiritual experiences outside of a select few. My priest and deacon had no words for what I went through when I saw spirits or auras prior to having names and practice for how to handle such phenomena.
So yes, I agree that the abuses and institutional corruption are forces that come out of such large things, but the apathy that it tends to generate is as undesirable and perhaps as guilty of helping aiding along the former problems as outright corruption and lies.

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posted March 18, 2010 at 7:45 pm

Another great post!
I like your use of the word “tribal” for this. It’s not a religious problem or a business problem. It is a problem with people in groups.
The history of corporations in the US reminds me of what Alexis de Tocqueville said about democracy in the US. American inheritance laws broke up property every generation by dividing it among all the children instead of giving it all to the oldest male, in the system that lead to the aristocracy in Europe. In the beginning of US history, corporations had limited life spans, they dissolved and spread their wealth in a short time. But now that corporations are effectively immortal persons. They can continuously acquire wealth and power like the aristocracy, undermining the middle class and democracy.

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James Morgan - Puritan Financial Advisor

posted October 8, 2010 at 3:10 am

The organization’s defenders, in this case defenders of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, will argue three things, if I may be permitted a prediction.

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