March 13, 2013


As the Roman Catholic Church convened its cardinals to select a new Pope, some Catholics wanted a younger more progressive Pope, while others wished for an old wise man who will stick to the ways of their fathers. Which is better for the Church and its worldwide congregation?

OK, now that the Cardinals have selected another old man, a man who was a close friend to, and spiritual ally of the previous Pope, I wonder how they made their decision. The choice is generally between an old man, who will not be Pope for very many years, who will be a staunch opponent of real change or a younger man, who may reign for decades and who may see the necessity and benefit of changes that may impact millions of people all over the world. Someone who accepts and supports the current conservative positions of the Church, or someone who may seek to make fundamental changes in what being a Roman Catholic means.

In my experience, younger people seem to favor the progressive candidates, while older people, especially the elderly, feel more comfortable with conservative or even regressive candidates. There seems to be a natural progression as people age, from support for the new and different to an embracing of the old and familiar. More young people tend to see the world as a place of opportunity and possibility, whereas more older people see a world of serious maladies and divisions that are heading us all for certain ruin (going to hell in a handcart).

Whether the world is better or worse than it used to be is beyond the scope of this or any other single article. What we can agree on is that the world is a much different place than it was previously. Most of us can also agree with the notion that the rate of change has increased and is continuing to increase. The world I live in, as I pass from being middle aged to being old, is a fundamentally different place (now) than it was for my grandfather at the same place in his life (1937). Buckminster Fuller referred to the elderly of his generation as time travellers because it was perfectly possible for a person of that time to have crossed the prairies in a covered wagon and see a man walk on the moon.

So, with a changing world of increasing complexity, what is the effect of having a leader who is convinced of the fact that the world is worse today, and that change must be resisted and if possible reversed? Well, one of the first effects is to alienate a lot of young people who see their future in that change. They see the problems as having been created by and made worse by a business-as-usual view of the world. The faster and more comprehensive the changes, the more profound and comprehensive the alienation when progressive response is not forthcoming, especially when they perceive that the institution is actually regressive.

This is why school children in Catholic schools overwhelmingly hoped and prayed for a young, dynamic progressive Pope, while many of their parents and grandparents wished for an elder statesman who would stem the tide of change in a world of accelerating divisions and controversies. Many of these older people have concluded that the changes already made have resulted in a world made worse and that making further changes on top of these bad decisions cannot possibly have any result other than to make things worse. Their children see many of the same problems but they think that these problems require real change and real progress to do things differently than we have ever done them. The same old solutions just won't work.

Well, we cannot ever see all the eventual results of changes that happen in our own lifetimes. There are two general approaches to the big problems of the world: rational and doctrinal.

Rational thinkers deconstruct our current, complex problems into their constituent elements and then seek comparable elements in the past. Rationalists consider what was said of things in the past and of solutions proposed in the past and determine which were beneficial and effective and which were harmful and ineffective. They then create, propose, and apply the appropriate, beneficial and effective solutions they think stand the greatest chance of working.

Does this always work? Of course not. Is it something that can be done better? Of course it can.

Doctrinal thinkers work differently. Such people start with a set of beliefs, for example those contained in the Christian Bible. When they view an issue, they compare the components of the issue with their understanding of the precepts of their belief. That which supports and agrees with those beliefs is good and should be allowed.That which conflicts with those beliefs is bad and should be disallowed. This is not an approach that relies on results.

How well does this work? In the 1960s, most conventional doctrinal thinking in the US supported abortions on the grounds that a) it wasn't a baby until it moved in the womb, as is implied in the bible, b) it was wrong for people to be paid anything for not working, and c) abortions for women on welfare prevented (b). Did it work? It reduced state expenditure on social programs for the poor.

By the 1980s, most conventional doctrinal thinking on this issue had changed to, a) abortion is murder b) murder is wrong. Did it work? It increased state expenditure on social programs for the poor and benefits were cut to reduce the expenditure back to earlier levels. Legal abortions were reduced and illegal abortions increased - the total number of state funded abortions was reduced.

The result of doctrinal approaches are seldom analyzed and if they are the analysis is almost always perfunctory and superficial. If negative effects are noted, they are either dismissed, ruled to be temporary, or denied outright. Doing the right thing should work, so it must work. And of course, doing the right thing is a matter of opinion and when the state enforces the opinions of a few people on everyone else, this is called tyranny.

So, in a world of rapid and increasing change and more complex and important problems, are the interests of Catholics or indeed the whole world better served by rational, pragmatic thinking or by doctrinal, authoritarian approaches? The former is generally progressive, and is the more likely outcome of a younger Pope who has decades to implement policy changes.. The latter is generally regressive and the more likely outcome of an older, more conservative Pope. Which way would you have voted?

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