October 1, 2011

Some thoughts, probably destined to go nowhere...

The people to whom I want to address thoughts like this don't want to hear them. Well, no one wants to hear that everything they know is wrong! (Except sans-culotte weirdoes like me.)

But I'll post this scribble here, and thus have it stored, like honey in the great Interweb beehive, in case I ever need it. It's just a sketch, it should be heftier, and explain things much more thoroughly...


In the Great Poker Game, the Catholic Church in America currently looks like a loser, destined soon to be busted. I think the truth is that the Church is holding aces, but is simply blind to them. We are clinging to the recent past, and to the World's "wisdom," and can't see the possibilities that are on the horizon.

Our world is entering a new age. We have left the Industrial Age, and are being plunged into the Information Age. Everything is in flux. Many of the "models" society has used to guide our actions and understand the world are failing. For instance, the model of government we have been using is failing catastrophically, with (among many other problems) a large percentage of our governmental units effectively bankrupt—they will simply not be able to pay the pension and health benefits they have promised workers. This includes San Francisco and California, Chicago and New York. [The Adachi Commission pegged SF's unfunded pension liabilities at $6.5 Billion. In a city of 700k people. Utter madness. We will have to change our name to "Micawber-ville.]

This is not an coincidence or random happening. Rather, our model has failed to fit the reality of the new age. The Church is sleepwalking along with this, alas, and will probably share in the coming disgrace and confusion. But in fact she has stores of wisdom from her 2,000 years of pondering and collecting that could be very useful right now.

We could lead.

Another example [the subject of one of my previous papers-- Link.] is the way masculinity is in crisis in the developed world. Men no longer know "how to be men." If you look only at the surface, the Catholic Church has nothing to offer, since she has become all too effeminate, and manly men avoid her.

But we have the needed wisdom, I suggested, hidden in the bosom of the Church. We could lead.
Another example is the current dire condition of higher education. Most of the Catholic institutions seem to be as muddled as secular ones. But education in the West started in the Church, and she has other models that might be usefully applied. For instance, the institution of the university arose and became stunningly successful using a model where students paid the teachers themselves, spot cash, out-of-pocket. If a teacher didn't satisfy the "customer," he didn't get paid! And there was no administration at all.

New models are waiting to be born, and we could lead.

Yet another example. Industrial Age institutions tended (for good reasons) to be ponderous and bureaucratic. Information Age institutions must be nimble, quick to change and adapt. The Church today is very much the former type, and is probably doomed to horrible collapses and ruin because of it. But, she was originally something different. In the early days she invented "guerrilla marketing!" The early Church was agile, dispersed, decentralized and self-activating. The poor Romans were clueless. As fast as they killed bishops, new ones popped up. Today we like to say: "The Internet routes around obstacles." But the Church before Constantine did exactly the same thing. Before it was cool.

Similarly, globalization is an acid now dissolving cultures and tribes and nations and languages. But the Roman Empire was very much like that too. And most of the nations and cultures that the empire absorbed fell into decline. They ceased to grow or contribute as they had before. And, like today, many of those nations suffered demographic collapse. But the Church thrived and grew in that morass, creating a new "tribe" that anyone could join, that was protean, and not confined to any one place or class or culture.

We could lead.

I would suggest that the Church should always be "counter-cultural," in the sense of always being skeptical of the current models of thought, whatever they are. Catholics should be involved in everything, but captive to nothing. I doubt this is ever going to happen, but if it does it will get started in a time like this.

St Anthony, engraving by  Dürer
An engraving of St Anthony, by Albrecht Dürer.

Posted by John Weidner at October 1, 2011 7:59 PM

Another example is the current dire condition of higher education. Most of the Catholic institutions seem to be as muddled as secular ones.

And there you have it. The Church that I see is simply not up to the task. And education is precisely the place where the Church could be making a difference.

I am simply ranting as well. This issue is beyond me. I struggle to go to Mass each Sunday because the Church seeams to have no real mission - or not what I would consider a modern one anyway.

And seeing as most of the Catholics I know are stuck in the 60's and 70's and seem to think that civil rights is still the definitive moral struggle of the age, I'm afraid I have all but given up hope.

Posted by: Mike Plaiss at October 2, 2011 5:55 PM

Well, I can't argue with any of that. I feel much the same. I keep trying, because I'm stubborn, and because I want to be able at the Last Judgement to say, "I did my best."

And the Church is well worth it. Just perhaps not the Church of this moment in time, and place in space.

My guess is that things will go by the board, and play out like Cardinal Ratzinger put it in Salt of the Earth:

Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world – that let God in.

He was thinking more of Europe, I guess. But I can see something like it happening here too...

Posted by: John Weidner at October 2, 2011 6:44 PM

You are thinking only of internal decay but also keep in mind the history of external persecutions suffered in 20C, in Russia, Spain, Mexico, China and other places. Nihilism is not just do-nothing.

Again keep in mind, the reaction to the persecution. Evelyn Waugh has written that "the participation of Nazis dishonoured our cause".

Posted by: Gian at October 2, 2011 11:14 PM

Well if there is hope to cling to it can be found in this Pope. The man is truly brilliant. The bad news is that he is very old - the good news is that the current cast of cardinals elected him, and he should have a lasting influence. A younger man with Benedict's intellect might have the zeal to shake things up, excommunicate a few of the shameful idiots now in power, and take the Church in a new direction.

Posted by: Mike Plaiss at October 3, 2011 11:55 AM

Industrial Age institutions tended (for good reasons) to be ponderous and bureaucratic.

I've never thought of it, but that sounds like a great insight - so often, you'll find that the decisions earlier generations made were for profoundly wise reasons, even if those same conclusions no longer apply.

That said, could you expand on this a bit? I just don't know enough of the history or the business models of the day to have any examples of why the bureaucratic, ponderous red tape was actually adaptive to the economy of the time...

Posted by: Ethan Hahn at October 4, 2011 6:45 PM

Thanks for asking!

The limiting factor in the Industrial Age was information. Organizations grew much bigger, but info was still moved on pieces of paper.

(I don't know if I've blogged this... after a while I lose track of what's published and what's just rattling around in my head. This is a quote from an unfinished piece.. )

"...Neither age is defined by its technology; rather in each age new technology and wealth raised the limits of human organization, and allowed people to perform much more efficiently. 

In the Industrial Age new technology made it possible to form and manage much larger organizations than before. Examples are continent-spanning railroads, national store or restaurant chains, government bureaucracies that can keep records on millions of people, and universities with 50,000 students. These look like very different things, but on a deep level they are all similar. They are what Walter Russell Mead calls “Large Stable Entities,” or LSE’s.

The reason for stability was to have an organization that could transmit information reliably. Industrial Age organizations all worked vertically. Information was gathered at the bottom, and passed in the form of reports to the next layer, to be organized and consolidated into new reports, which were then passed up to the next layer. The retail level reported to the district, which reported to the region, which reported to headquarters, which reported to the top brass. Then instructions filtered back in the other direction.

The LSE was itself a sort of living computer, processing data and information. Stability was a necessity and an asset, because information was moving through human channels, and stored in arcane labyrinths of paper documents.. Losing that person who “understands the filing system” could be a catastrophe. 

But having information move through stable defined channels means that much information is lost. The system tends to ignore information coming from odd directions. A few people are supposed to be creative or innovative, but most are expected to just do their jobs..."

Posted by: John Weidner at October 4, 2011 8:40 PM
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