Favog, a Catholic blogger in Nebraska, has had just about enough of all this. Excerpt:
WHAT institution in your life — in our lives — do you really trust? Would you trust it with your life?
Do you really trust your government? Do you really trust you’ll get a fair shake under the law? Do you really trust you’re not going to get screwed by your bank . . . by the free market . . . out of a job?
Do you really trust the church with your soul anymore? Do you trust the church with your kid? Would you let Junior go on a youth camping trip organized by Father Dan?
Would you let your prep-star son go play football for Penn State? Would you let your junior-high kid go to a Penn State summer sports camp? Do you think that local group of do-gooders is there to help your at-risk child . . . or do you suspect some of those do-gooders are just helping themselves to your at-risk child?
He goes on:
ALL MY LIFE I have watched the pillars of society crumble. The lesson seems to be this: If you believe in something, if you put faith in a person or an institution, you will live to regret it. You ultimately will feel like a chump.
Ain’t that the truth. Favog continues by saying that watching the delegitimation of institutional authority — the government, the church, the banks, the academy, the media, and so on — we are all being “catechized … in unbelief and alienation.” And this is true. If people come to believe that trusting this or that authority is to set themselves up to be fleeced (or, worst of all, their children raped or killed in a foreign war that didn’t have to happen), then unbelief and alienation is the most reasonable thing in the world.
When the archbishop asked me a decade ago why I remained a Catholic if I didn’t trust the Catholic bishops to clean up the child abuse mess, I correctly diagnosed that question as a manifestation of clericalism, if not a weak form of Donatism. One is not required to believe in the goodness or even the competence of individual clerics in order to affirm the truth of the Faith and the validity of the Church. But there was more wisdom in the archbishop’s question than I realized at the time. We are incarnate beings. Our relationship to abstractions are more tenuous than many of us realize; these abstract truths we profess must be concretized if we are to concretize them in our own lives. This is how it is with most of us, anyway. Some people read their way into the Church, but I’m told that most converts come in because they have gotten to know someone — a priest, a religious, a layman — who lives as an icon of faith, and whose love and friendship lit a fire within the convert’s moral imagination. I’m using the church (and not just the Roman Catholic church) as an example, but I think this is generally how it works for us. I’m thinking now of my sister’s second-grade teacher, who made such a difference in her life that she, my sister, knew from the beginning that she wanted to be a teacher. If we believe an institution is corrupt, or in some way dishonorable, then aside from the most idealistic souls, the only people who are attracted to it will be those who are themselves corrupt or dishonorable, and will seek to profit from the system. I’m oversimplifying here, but I think the gist is correct. It is very hard for people to retain confidence in the authority of an institution when they see its leadership as morally bankrupt — or, if not bankrupt, at least perilously low on capital.
Some people think it’s a wonderful thing to be liberated from trust in authority. This is a mistake. Sociologist Peter Berger:
The rejection of the so-called “Enlightenment project” by some postmodernists and others is inappropriate. We owe much to that particular turn in history—for its devotion to reason and to the universality of human rights. All the same, its optimism cannot be empirically sustained. History undergoes certain progresses (in the plural), such as advances in the protection of human rights. But each progress is reversible. And Rousseau and others like him were wrong in thinking that man is by nature benevolent, and only turns to evil if led there by oppressive institutions. Actually, pretty much the opposite is the case: man is by nature homicidal, unless restrained from acting out of his natural impulses by institutions that foster benevolence. It is this perspective, I think, that is empirically sustainable. If one wants to put this into an evolutionary frame, one might say that homo sapiens is a pathological mutation of the anthropoid ape—so to speak a chimpanzee gone wrong. I don’t really want to go down that road.
How is it possible that human beings could commit such horrible atrocities? Let me suggest that this question should be reversed: How is it possible that human beings can live together peacefully for long periods of time without committing horrible atrocities? The general answer to that question is quite simple: it is possible if institutions are in place to socialize individuals to behave peacefully and to punish those who act otherwise. It seems to me that the identification and construction of such institutions is the true “Enlightenment project”.
This has a lot to do with why I get so nervous when the authority of our institutions declines or collapses. Often the corruption of our institutions’ leadership is chiefly responsible for the decline. To be fair, though, our culture is so relentlessly skeptical of any authority other than the sovereign Self that it would be hard for our institutions — church, state, academy, media, etc. — to maintain their authority even if they were led by men and women of irreproachable character and peerless competence. JPod once asked an interesting question: Is it possible for any authority figure (or, I suppose, institution) to maintain authority in this churning media culture? That is, in a media culture that examines all one’s faults — personal and institutional — and magnifies them. It’s not too hard to think of incredibly able leaders in past eras — even the not too distant past — who would not have survived the minute scrutiny and judgment of our present-day culture.
And yet, without the skepticism we have today, it would be far, far easier to suppress grave injustices for the sake of protecting the authority of the institution and its leaders. So I wouldn’t say going back is something desirable, even if it were possible. The Iraq War experience taught me to be extremely skeptical of my government, especially in matters of war, and I hope to God never to unlearn that lesson. My experience of the Catholic scandal made it impossible for me to deeply trust church authority, Catholic or not. I don’t expect the people who run the financial sector of our society to do anything but serve themselves and their interests, and to hell with the rest of us. Same with our political leaders.
But this is not completely true. If I didn’t trust the banks, I would have my money in a mattress. In fact, I have it in the bank around the corner from me. I trust the men and women I see there to be honest and competent. If I didn’t, I couldn’t function. I may not trust the church, but I sure do trust my priest, and the people in the parish. I may be skeptical of the media, but I mostly believe what I read in the papers. I have little faith in the government, but the idea that we should replace our representative democracy with another system is completely alien to me. So I am not a nihilist or an anarchist, and neither are you. We don’t believe everyone around us is corrupt. The evidence of our eyes testifies otherwise. If we did think so, we couldn’t go on.
So where does that leave us? To withdraw into private life, only trusting those we know personally, and institutions at the smaller level (e.g., don’t trust the Church, but trust the parish, if we find it trustworthy; don’t trust Bank of America, but trust Busytown Credit Union; don’t trust the government, but trust your town council and your neighbors)? Is that the way to go? There is less choice in this than we may think. When I lost my Catholic faith (that story is told here), so many people saw this as a cognitive failure, or a failure of will. I can’t say this strongly enough: we cannot will ourselves to believe what we are convinced is untrue. And — this is key — deciding what is true and untrue is not merely a matter of abstract logic, but emerges out of a complex interplay of our thinking and our emotions (this is something neuroscience, especially the work of Antonio Damasio, has shown). If it is emotionally difficult to believe in something, we are highly unlikely to believe it, no matter how rational it may seem.
I bring this up not to re-open the discussion over my leaving Catholicism — so please don’t start — but only to point out an important lesson I learned about how fragile logic, reason, and theory are as foundations on which to build support for authoritative institutions. Trust is not something that you can reason people into. Once it is lost, it’s damn difficult to get back, if ever. But no civilization can operate without authoritative institutions. We have a problem with a lack of authority in our culture, and it’s going to have consequences farther down the road. Berger is right about the need to identify and construct such institutions. But how do we go about it? How do we rebuild a badly damaged institution, to conserve what authority remains and to replenish the depleted stores or moral credibility?
A final thought, and not a comforting one: to what extent has belief in any institution’s authority been a necessary fiction? Meaning: to what extent do we believe in the authority of an institution because we have to do so to make sense of our lives, and to get along in life? McQueary walks in on a revered coach raping a child in the locker room, and doesn’t do what he ought to have done because it was too important to him to believe in the integrity of Penn State football. My friend Michael tells his mother that Monsignor is raping him, and she slaps him, because to an Irish Catholic mother in Queens in the 1950s, the Church needs to be morally beyond reproach. One learns that one’s father has been a philanderer, or a crook, and one denies it because the world doesn’t make sense if Dad isn’t a good man. Et cetera.
To believe in authority is to concede that the authority — the institution, the office — is legitimate, and its legitimacy depends in large part on its moral credibility. To be sure, Richard Nixon may have been a crook, but no one doubted that he was the legitimately elected president. Cardinal Law may be a crook, but nobody doubted that he was the validly ordained and legitimate Archbishop of Boston, up until the day he resigned. So authority doesn’t depend entirely on our good opinion of the character of those who exercise authority. But it seems to me that for an institution to retain legitimacy, people who submit themselves to that authority must believe that the crooks are an aberration. It’s when people come to believe that the institution itself systemically produces corrupt leaders, and that to submit to the authority of that institution is, in Favog’s words, to set oneself up to be made a fool of — that’s when the authority starts to vanish.
It doesn’t really matter if people cease to believe in Penn State football. It very much matters if people cease to believe in the churches, the banks, the legislatures — in other words, the basic institutions of American democracy.