Is the new pope the 'CEO' of the Vatican?

Pope Benedict XVI blessing faithful at the end of the Epiphany mass in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City on Jan. 6, 2013. Pope Benedict XVI on Feb. 11, 2013 announced he will resign on February 28, a Vatican spokesman told AFP, which will make him the first pope to do so in centuries.

UPDATE: Argentina's Jorge Bergoglio has been elected as the next pope, the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium. He says he will go by the name Pope Francis I.

In corporate-speak, what Pope Benedict XVI did in February is succession planning. The surprise resignation announcement isn't good practice by business-world standards. But at the Vatican, the move was revolutionary, something no pope has done in six centuries. Only death could end the tenure of most popes. If you think of him as the CEO of a global faith, the move can be seen as bold, forward-thinking management.

“To have said to the church, ‘we need people who can do this faster, better and be more nimble than I can at 85,’ I think that’s a profound statement of a manager,” says Thomas Harvey of Notre Dame’s business school, a former CEO of Catholic Charities USA.

The Pope’s resignation is getting high marks from church watchers. But other management moves fell short. He made cleaning up shady Vatican finances a priority. But that task, which has challenged other popes, is far from finished. Critics also say his leadership was weak on confronting sexual abuse scandals.

Even supporters who praise his towering intellectual legacy concede that his managerial skills were lacking.

“He will be rated as a better teacher than he was a manager,” says Boston College theology professor Thomas Groome, who teaches students seeking MBAs in church management.

Pope Benedict faced greater competition to Catholicism from the growth of Pentecostalism in developing countries. Groome says the pontiff didn’t inspire donations the way his predecessor did.

“I’m not sure that this man has been able to raise the monies that perhaps John Paul II had attracted,” he adds. “Financially, he probably doesn’t leave the church in a very strong position.”

But popes aren’t ultimately measured by revenue or as technocrats. And even if a future pope prioritized bringing sweeping change to a labyrinthine bureaucracy, longtime Vatican observers say he would be frustrated.

“A pope doesn’t come in like a CEO and change up the whole management,” explains veteran Vatican correspondent Delia Gallagher. “On the whole, the people that work in the Vatican work for life.”

All the management skill in the world is little match for the traditions and history of a 2,000-year-old faith with a billion-strong flock.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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