Conflicts within the Roman Catholic hierarchy poses risks to the organizational effectiveness of the Church, but the hierarchy's approach to conflict handling has rarely been subjected to systematic, empirically grounded study. This research addresses that deficit by means of case study, wherein a six-year-long conflict is examined in the light of theoretical expectations generated through a literature survey, and with the help of critical discourse analysis and conflict theory. The research identifies organizational and societal pressures on bishops' conflict handling and various strategies that bishops employ in center-periphery conflicts: that is, in conflicts between the Vatican and bishop leaders of local churches.
The theoretical literature conceptually places center-periphery conflict in the context of the Church organization and in the broader context of the modern world. On the basis of the theoretical literature, expectations about the strategies bishops are likely to adopt in center-periphery conflict situations are specified. These expectations are then tested against the empirical example of the Rome-Hunthausen case (1983-89), which involved the papacy of John Paul II, Archbishop Raymond of Seattle and the American Bishops' Conference. Documents produced by multiple bishop participants in the conflict serve as an embedded unit of analysis in the case study. These are subjected to critical discourse analysis (following the approach of Norman Fairclough, Lancaster University), conflict analysis and validation techniques with control documents.
Hunthausen's conflict with the Vatican (1983-1989) focused on Rome's effort to establish greater pastoral discipline within the local church. Hunthausen was popularly known as the progressive leader of a progressive archdiocese and he gained much personal attention as an outspoken opponent of the Reagan administration nuclear arms build-up. (He protested by refusing to pay half of his income tax to the government.) To achieve its objectives in Seattle, which ostensibly focused on liturgical, Church teaching and governance and Church legal issues, Rome appointed an auxiliary bishop and forced Hunthausen to hand key powers of archdiocesan leadership over to the auxiliary. Hunthausen fought this redistribution of power and took his case to the national bishops' conference. Remarkably, Hunthausen was able to make the Vatican retreat and restore his power, but not without making concessions of his own, which included acceptance of a coadjutor archbishop with right of succession. Adding intrigue to the case was the suspicion that the Reagan administration asked the Vatican to put pressure on Hunthausen in return for recognition of the Vatican ambassador (which was granted by the US in 1984). This speculation has never died, but evidence for this belief is, at the present time, circumstantial at best.
The investigation concludes that Catholic bishops show a strong tendency to protect the power and appearance of the Church organization and of their own personal position in conflict situations. Bishops place a high priority on legitimating their actions in ways in keeping with the Church's normative character. The research highlights nine key strategies that bishops employ to manage conflicts. These are (1) showing deference to the structural order and mindset of the Church, (2) associating one's own efforts with the best interest of the Church, (3) minimizing the appearance of conflict, (4) showing fraternity, (5) practicing courtesy, (6) employing secrecy, (7) recruiting allies, (8) using persuasive argumentation and (9) asserting personal identity. Other strategies used include: gamesmanship, establishing procedural control, avoidance, revealing and threats. For each strategy, specific tactics of application are identified, as illustrated by concrete examples from the case.