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That Eureka moment

Discovering a strategy for driving incompetence out of the Church

  • Michael Kelly SJ, Bangkok
  • International
  • June 12, 2013
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Eureka! I’ve found the answer! But what was the question?

For a very long time I have puzzled over what fanatics, bigots, sundry village idiots and fundamentalists have in common.

I used to think it was fear – the fear of losing control. All manner of extreme positions, programs and political strategies are worked out to keep control.

In societies run by religious leaders there’s only one way to do things and that is according to the book, whichever book might be invoked. This also applies to the totalitarian politics that keep Communist parties in power in several Asian countries.

Though, as is the way with hardy totalitarians, what is prescribed as the “only way” tends to change to meet the convenience of those in power who want to stay in control.

But now I’ve discovered that there is another crucial ingredient in the mix of motivations and intentions among those who adopt such positions. It is something that can be seen in everything from domestic disputes to the ruthless rule of totalitarians of all stripes.

This ingredient is a theory that won its inventors a Nobel Prize. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Well, it sort of won a Nobel Prize – the satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2000.

Dunning and Kruger received their satirical “gong” in psychology for their paper entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessment”.

What Dunning and Kruger proposed is that, for a given skill, incompetent people will do some or all of the following: tend to overestimate their own capabilites; fail to recognize genuine skill in others; fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy; recognize their previous lack of skill if they are exposed to training for that skill.

It happens everywhere. It happens in tedious meetings, even around dinner tables, where self-appointed authorities lecture far better qualified people on things they know little of.

It is at the heart of the besetting crisis of the world where terrorists impose simple answers on complex questions (i.e. kill those they’ve demonized).

And it becomes seriously destructive of the Church’s mission when incompetent and inexperienced clergy and religious are given jobs which lay people are far better qualified to manage.

For light relief, it can reach comic proportions when celibate Catholic clerics tell married lay people all they need to know about sex.

But the sinister side of this phenomenon in the Church is evident in the culture it creates in which clergy and laity conspire to keep a feature of Church life alive that should be strangled.

At the heart of the Church’s authorized corruption, so lamented by the present pope, lies something that eats away at the plausibility of Catholicism – clericalism.

This is a culture that clerics can create and share where they install themselves (and laity meekly comply with the installation) as unassailable authorities, beyond correction and in possession of whatever it takes to get their way.

When one is threatened, the group closes ranks to protect the vulnerable party, joins the chorus of shaming and blaming any accusers and categorizes the critics as “dissidents.”

It is under widespread assault in many parts of the Church. But, like cockroaches in warm, wet climates and despite the best efforts of their assailants, they survive and even thrive.

Clericalism is under greatest threat in the West where an educated Catholic laity has called the bluff of priests, bishops and religious, challenging them to either practice what they preach or move away.  By the way, this is a laity that is often the outcome of the Church’s best efforts to increase the knowledge and skill levels of lay people through all its schools at all levels.

But clericalism has rich soil to grow in when combined with features of the place of men and local religions and hierarchies in some Asian societies.

Wherever men are seen to be (and assume the prerogatives) of a more powerful status than women, wherever existing social hierarchies revere either or both “holy men” and “professors,”  Catholic clerics can slip into a set of pre-arranged hierarchies that intensify the worst features of clericalism.

So what’s the answer to these internal forces that corrupt the Church’s ability to proclaim the message of Jesus in word and deed?

The first thing is to recognize the wisdom of a recent remark of Pope Francis to some bishops visiting the Vatican. Their role is to lead their people, “sometimes from behind.” Why? Because, the pope said, their first duty as pastors is to listen to their people. There’s no substitute for a humble and attentive attitude of listening.

The second thing is to follow the old maxim of the scientific method: recognize that “the facts are friendly.”  That means accepting that we live in a world where all closed and presumptuous societies – large and small – are ripe targets for justified attack.

The answer to that accusation, justified in too many instances, is transparency and openness to engage and address the criticisms. Defensiveness and denial suffocate the Church and just create more trouble in the future.

A third response is to take seriously what Dunning and Kruger have to say. There is simply a dizzying amount of information on just about every subject under the sun today and to a level and degree unimaginable by our forebears.

The skill the Church at central level has learnt slowly and reluctantly is the legitimate autonomy of the many and varied departments of knowledge that no single authority can pronounce on just about everything, as Vatican authorities once believed they could.

What the Vatican learned the hard way (remember Galileo among many others?)  is that to skill up in any area of competence opens up all the other areas  of one’s incompetence.

An approach of respectful solicitation becomes the next step.

Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com

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