Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Complexity, collapse and Catholicism

posted by Rod Dreher

In a post about the future of media business models, Clay Shirky offers the following rumination on an archaeological book by Joseph Tainter, “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” He says Tainter’s thesis is that complex societies of the past collapsed not in spite of being sophisticated, but because they were so sophisticated they couldn’t adapt to changed conditions. Here’s Shirky:

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.
The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.
In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake–”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.
When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

It might be helpful to think of this along with what David Brooks writes today, about the inability of our political system to deal effectively with the long-term crisis of indebtedness that threatens the stability of the nation. One of my favorite observations — and I can’t remember where I read this — is that a good definition of a decadent institution is one that is capable of understanding what ails it, but is unable to summon the wherewithal to reform itself. If the Tainter thesis can help us to understand the predicatment the US is in right now, my guess is that it’s in the inability of ordinary Americans to grasp how dependent we’ve become on the bureaucratic state, and on the current economic model, in sustaining our lives. Austerity is unimaginable — so we’ll have to suffer some sort of collapse that forcibly simplifies things for us.
But maybe that’s a stretch.
I must say that I find the Tainter thesis more helpful in understanding the problem the Roman Catholic Church is dealing with now, regarding the bishops and the child abusing priests. Try to remove your emotions from this, and your theological convictions, and examine the situation in terms of bureaucratic complexity.


The Church is being raked over the coals right now because of the slowness with which the Holy Office, which was previously overseen by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, responded in the past to bishops in the hinterlands requesting that molester priests be defrocked. You read some of these cases, and it does appear scandalous. But it should be remembered that there is a reason for these Byzantine legal proceedings in church courts. No less an authority than Father Tom Doyle, the priest who has been raising hell about clerical sexual abuse for decades, told me in the wake of the 2002-03 revelations that he feared bishops, desperate to get the monkey off their own backs, would try to run accused priests out of the priesthood without due process. Before we damn the church’s laborious system of canonical trial for its priests, we should first understand why it was put into place, and how it evolved over two millenia.
This is not, I hasten to add, to defend the system today. Clearly something has gone very wrong with it, when a bishop has to allow a dangerous malefactor to run around presenting himself as a priest, while the wheels of canonical justice in Rome grind ever so slowly. To speak to Tainter’s insight, it is plainly the case that the Roman system is completely unworkable in the contemporary era. People of goodwill cannot understand a system that takes so long to administer justice, and that operates under the assumptions that the Roman system appears to. Note well, this is not a moral judgement I’m making; it’s a judgement about bureaucratic efficacy. The complexity of the Roman system is, under present conditions, a contributor to the institution’s decline.
Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, this system is the product of a much different world. It came about from a world that was far more hierarchical than our own, one that regarded the clergy quite differently, and — crucially — that moved much, much more slowly than ours does today. As Tainter writes of complex societies, “the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change.” It seems clear to me that part of the problem Rome has had in dealing with this scourge is that the Vatican is unsuited, bureaucratically and even psychologically, to deal with the modern world. Again, I am not stating that as a value judgement, only as a sociological observation.
I am fond of quoting Barbara Tuchman from “The March of Folly,” explaining why six Renaissance popes failed to arrest the corruption in the Church that eventually led to the collapse of Roman authority in northern Europe in the Reformation:

Their three outstanding attitudes — obliviousness to the growing disaffection of constitutents, primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerable status — are persistent aspects of folly. While in the case of the Renaissance popes, these were bred in and exaggerated by the surrounding culture, all are independent of time and recurrent in governorship.

It’s important to note here that Tuchman’s book is about how “folly” brought disaster on a variety of governments in particular historical situations. IOW, the book is an analysis of the same themes of misrule leading to disaster showing up in different places and times. The Renaissance popes she studies in her book found themselves unable, for various reasons, to respond adequately to changing conditions in society, and saw the Church suffer a terrible blow because of it. Returning to Tainter again, it was only the mini-collapse of the Reformation that finally spurred the Church to the Counter-Reformation. Now, I do not know enough Counter-Reformation history to say whether or not it was a matter of simplifying the Church, or simply a matter of reform — in other words, retaining the bureaucratic structure of the Church, but cleaning out the Augean stables within the episcopate and among the priesthood. I think it’s probably the latter. Today, though, I wonder to what extent what ails the Church in this sex abuse crisis is a matter of compelling those in charge of the complex system to make it work better, or is rather the case that the system itself is too complex to survive in its present form in modern conditions. Aside from the scandal, this is something I’ve thought about for a long time with regard to the challenge posed to Catholicism in the Third World from Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism — two rival forms of Christianity that, for better or worse, seem particularly well-suited to spread and to thrive under modern conditions.
Your thoughts?



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the stupid Chris

posted April 2, 2010 at 2:42 pm


One of my favorite observations — and I can’t remember where I read this — is that a good definition of a decadent institution is one that is capable of understanding what ails it, but is unable to summon the wherewithal to reform itself.
That’s just not the history of America’s current debt, Rod. It’s a story told by conservatives to expiate themselves for the utter recklessness of governance under the GOP/Bush/Cheney, but it’s false.
Back in 2001 Bush/Cheney the GOP and Greenspan all denied that debt was a problem. To them budget surpluses were a problem to be solved, paying off America’s public debt would be a disaster, and the big lesson of Reaganism was that “deficits don’t matter.”
Our history is more instructive than this mythologizing of our problem, and history indicates that a solution to the mess created by our recent allegedly conservative governance is neither politically nor socially impossible.



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CAP

posted April 2, 2010 at 4:38 pm


isn’t this the basis of the whole benedict option thing?
i mean, you don’t HAVE to have a facebook page, do you?



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Jon

posted April 2, 2010 at 4:38 pm


“Collapse” is too strong a word here, since it implies that something passes out of existence and isn’t replaced by something else. Historically, societies that get into trouble are either conquered by others because they are no longer able to defend themselves, or they undergo revolution/civil war which can be really nasty but ultimately does renew the society, albeit often in a different avatar.
The Roman Catholic Church is not going to collapse; and it certainly isn’t going to be conquered by some other church. If it can’t pull out of its current tailspin, most likely it will undergo a sort of revolutionary upheaval, probably requiring an ecumenical council, which will leave it injured but purified.
As for the US, if we can’t get past our current political vehemence and gridlock, we too will see some form of revolution, and one more violent than anything that happens to the Vatican. It won’t be fun to live through, but our great-grandchildren will look back much as we do on the Civil War and say “Things couldn’t go on that way; the Troubles had to happen for our nation to survive.”



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Lindsey Abelard

posted April 2, 2010 at 4:58 pm


Bureaucracy almost never can be reformed from within. Reform can only come in the form of outside competition.



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Cecelia

posted April 2, 2010 at 5:39 pm


I hate captcha.
I think Tainter presents a very convincing argument – my skepticism comes from our history of cycling through an enthusiastic reception of THE new theory only to reject it for the next THE new theory. We don’t know as much about antiquity as we think we do – new discoveries are often overturning our understanding of history. Tainter’s thesis is based on data that could be upended by a bunch of grad students digging around in Peru. So I think it is wise to approach our understanding of the past and how it applies to our current situation with caution and humility. I suspect Tuchman has a lot to say about our current dilemma – obliviousness and a sense of invulnerability among our legislators and leadership – they seem to be unable to grasp that things are not always going to be the way they are now – that change will occur and occur rapidly.
Rod I do see your point about the Church but there is a conflict inherent in your comments. If we reject the culture of modernity because it’s basic philosophical assertions result in negative consequences and we see the Church as a bulwark against this culture of modernity – then how can we promote modern ecclesiastical changes in the Church? If the Church adapts modern practices it will be infected by modernity – it will become modern – and hence have no capacity to function as that bulwark. Is not a resistance to rapid change part of what it means to be conservative in temperament? Is not one of the frequent criticisms of Vatican II that it promoted rapid change which confused and destabilized the RC Church?
I think too the failure of the Church to respond effectively re: the abuse revelations was less about complexity and more about that obliviousness and sense of invulnerability. The rules and processes which would have permitted the Church to address abuse in a moral and effective manner exist in Canon Law since the 12th Century. It seems to me the failure was less about complexity and more about a complete failure to apply those laws. I think it is inevitable that an organization 2 millenia old and which perceives itself as divinely founded will of course have a sense of invulnerability. How would one address that ?
I see one other issue with regards to decision making and getting to the taking action stage within the Church. Many people see the RC Church as this monolith with an autocratic Emperor Pope. But the Church actually operates in a very collegial manner – consensus building. Given the size and diversity of the Church it will always take a long time for that consensus to emerge. The irony is that in order to respond rapidly to those situations which require rapid response – the Church probably has to be more autocratic – exactly what some people find offensive and decidedly un modern about the Church.



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BobSF

posted April 2, 2010 at 5:43 pm


Try to remove your emotions from this, and your theological convictions, and examine the situation in terms of bureaucratic complexity.
I continue to find it very puzzling that so many look at the Church and see an institution which cannot change, which cannot be quickly moved in one direction or another. Some of those people are the same folks who praise JPII and Benedict for so effectively turning the Church back from the liberalization of the 60s and 70s. Of course, what they see as an improvement, I regard as a tragedy, but can they deny that it happened and continues to play out?
The Church obviously can change. It’s a question of wanting to change, no?



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Goodguyex

posted April 3, 2010 at 3:58 am


Yes, our country is facing a crisis similar to what happened in the 1930′s and 1860′s and 1780′s. (Please note the roughly 75-80 year time intermal for each case!) As Thomas Paine wrote “These are the times that try men’s souls”. I can feel it; you can feel it; others feel it; we all know someting epic is evolving but do not know where it will end up. We have trouble visualizing our work/family/social situation more than 6 months down the line.
The slowness of the Catholic Church bureaucracy is indeed legendary and can change, but it need not become dramatic or media spun in spite of the desires of some newsmen whose name I will not write. As far as sex abuse of children and teens are concerned we in civil society as well as the clergy are either going to have rational due process or we are going to have proverbial witch hunts. If we have due process there will be errors and imperfections but it will work. If we have witch hunts, well, that is another matter.
What model works? Well for the U.S.A. I tend to be conservative with a libertarian streak but I know we can never return to the radical agrarian society and model of 1789. Sizable government is here to stay, but I think it is on too big a scale. Fed is simply too big and too distant and too combersome. Power needs to flow back to states and local communities or regional state blocks- and I am not just wistling “Dixie”.
For the Catholic Church the Constantinian Church (312AD-1978AD) is gone but indeed the Benedict option is here. Christianity is best when it is counter-cultural and the elites of the country and much of the West stopped supporting Christianity 40-50 years ago.
Concerning the Church, some say the Papacy is too monarchial, but still want B16 to be a terror regarding removing bishops. Can’t have it both ways Folks! However is spite of the media $hit storm the real deal is going about and hopefully the day will come when the average layman will note that if the condition of the priets can improve, maybe he can try to improve his condition.
“That which does not kill me makes me stronger!”



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Goodguyex

posted April 3, 2010 at 4:15 am


BobSF writes “I continue to find it very puzzling that so many look at the Church and see an institution which cannot change, which cannot be quickly moved in one direction or another. Some of those people are the same folks who praise JPII and Benedict for so effectively turning the Church back from the liberalization of the 60s and 70s. Of course, what they see as an improvement regard as a tragedy, but can they deny that it happened and continues to play out?
The Church obviously can change. It’s a question of wanting to change, no?”
There is always a need for reform and renewal, but the Church will remain both Catholic and catholic. Somewhere God has to be involved or else the laborers labor in vain.
I am hopefull. I talked about time frames and intervals for the U.S.A. in my post about and I can also talk about time intervals in the history of Christianity.
In spite of misunderstanding of history the Church is no worst off now than it was in the year 1010 AD. Within about a generation a new spring time bloomed. There was of course also a blooming about a thousand years earlier with the early church of Apostles and martys.
I hope a 3rd spring comes. It will be different yet simiar to the last just as the 2nd was similar but different from the first. I suspect the 3rd will look more like the 1st than the 2nd.
Bless You



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Joseph D'Hippolito

posted April 3, 2010 at 3:56 pm


Concerning the Church, some say the Papacy is too monarchial, but still want B16 to be a terror regarding removing bishops. Can’t have it both ways Folks!
That is pure bovine excrement, goodguyex! Regardless of how monarchical the Papacy may be, the Pope is still the Vicar of Christ, according to Catholic theology. He has a moral responsibility for the bishops he appoints, regardless of the system under which he appoints them. Any malfeasance they display is a direct reflection on him. That’s what those Catholics who are de facto clericalists (see the posts on the blogs at NCRegister.com, for example) refuse to admit to themselves. They also refuse to admit that God will hold the Church and its leadership accountable for dragging His people and His Name through the sewer.



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