In each instance there was no circuit breaker for reality to enter and avoid inevitable disaster. Tuchman shows how imperial powers in the pursuit of their best self-interest have acted in ways that contributed to their own undoing. Hubris, corporate narcissism and blindness to the need for reform and ways to avert disaster have had full play. – Michael Kelly SJ
To Tuchman, folly begins with the most fundamental of things: an outsize and self-destructive will to power. Both the governors and the governed can overreach, convinced of their own rectitude and righteousness. “Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as ‘the most flagrant of all the passions,’” Tuchman wrote. “Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise,” or what she calls the “paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others — only to lose it over themselves.” In this light, President Trump and his alt-right coterie are not something new under the sun but another chapter in the oldest of human dramas: the tension between appetite and the common good, between ambition and common sense. – Jon Meacham, NYTimes, 2018
March 25, 2019, By Michael Kelly SJ in LaCroix
One of the most engaging if highly contested books of the late 20th Century was that of the historian Barbara Tuchman – the March of Folly. The book addresses “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” as one reviewer put it.
In the book Tuchman examines the demise of institutions and governments from Troy to the failure of the United States of America in Vietnam and examines the Medieval and Renaissance Church and its corruption that led to the Protestant Reformation.
In each instance there was no circuit breaker for reality to enter and avoid inevitable disaster. Tuchman shows how imperial powers in the pursuit of their best self-interest have acted in ways that contributed to their own undoing. Hubris, corporate narcissism and blindness to the need for reform and ways to avert disaster have had full play.
A paradox: why do human beings create the circumstances for their own demise. The Greeks wrote tragedies about it.
The Jews told us about it from the first pages of Genesis. There – the first three chapters of Genesis – the capacity for humans to overreach themselves and play God are plain to see an the consequence is a calamitous “fall” for humanity.
Augustine wrote extensively about it in his musings on evil in his Confessions and City of God.
And today we have a living instance as we witness the scrambling ways the Church of Rome tries to address an issue that promises to render it, its authority structure and public credibility asunder.
I have some personal issues to address in this conundrum. One of the contentious dramas that has engulfed the Church is the conviction on five counts of child abuse of Cardinal George Pell.
I have known the man for 35 years. I have never liked or admired him. I have actually suffered at his hand – not sexually but through his well attested ability in manipulation, power abuse and what should be plainly called lying.
I’ve got over it all – it happened 25 years ago – but it left me with a lasting conviction about the man and his moral caliber. I don’t like him but I had never seriously thought his moral depravity extended to abusing children.
When he was convicted, I was completely stunned. And I knew he’d been convicted within 30 minutes of the jury verdict being delivered in early December in Melbourne.
But when it all became public in February, I was deeply puzzled why on earth I went into a spiral of demoralization and despondency. I didn’t like or admire Pell. I thought him to be not a fit and proper person for the roles he was in. Why on earth was I melancholic at the outcome of the judgement?
I think now that my response was actually quite self-centered and what it reflected of me to myself was how human (in the unappealing sense) I really am.
I think the legal result for Pell was an affront to my hubris and self-interest and showed me up to myself for what I am because I felt humiliated to be a Catholic, indeed one of its public representatives as an ordained priest.
And then to watch what appears to be the lame response to the crisis in Australia but also in France to a cardinal convicted of covering up sex abuse just left me wondering what on earth am I part of? And Pope Francis has seemed to be sitting on his hands.
Then I got thinking and praying. And in my prayer, I recognized that I share a heritage and an experience with the present pope that led me to some conclusions about how he is handling this challenge and how I might too.
He would not be experiencing this time of shame and humiliation as a reversal but as a privileged moment to grow closer to Christ, not just for him but the whole church.
Papa Bergoglio would be saying to himself if this is a time of reversal and collapse, bring it on. Why? Because it’s the only way God will have a say and things will change. The pope’s constant reference to being poor like Christ, being crucified like Christ is exactly where he is in this crisis and has been for some time.
And to find out where Jorge Mario Bergoglio is in this, we all need to recognize what his shaping spiritual experiences have been.
It’s there in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius that have shaped this pope and Ignatius was no stranger to humiliation and actually saw it as the most opportune moment for meeting the real Christ.
And just look at the pope’s behavior. He’s owning the humiliation.
The first thing is he’s letting the law take its course. This puts his apparent inaction in its context: there’s no way he can reform an abusive institution that the Church is now seen to be by simply expecting it to do something it’s manifestly failed to do: run its own affairs.
The pope’s answer: get out of the way, let the law have its way, don’t do what happened in the past – bring people like Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston (immortalized in the movie Spotlight) to Rome, hide them there and protect him.
He’s got out of the way with Cardinals Pell and Barbarin and some in the U.S.. The next one will be one that worked for him in Argentina.
The pope’s view: just get out of the way and this pope is. If Cardinal Pell’s appeal is kicked out, then he can act as he did with Mr. McCarrick in the USA. Same with Cardinal Barbarin.
The other thing that’s going on by acting this way is to further undermine the monarchical culture of the Church were “Father (the pope) knows best” and where everyone has looked to Rome to change things that should be changed by locals taking responsibility at the local level.
Pope Francis can’t and shouldn’t do anything else. Church leadership is at last learning it’s accountable in ways not protected by the “omertà” of the institution.
The thing that protected the church was the “command and control” culture in the leadership that just grew and grew and grew till very recently and anyone who challenged it became its victim.
This pope seems quite happy to see the Church humiliated. It’s the only way the learning and experience will sink in and produce change.
The Catholic Church is a 1.3 billion people organization with six or eight thousand bishops, hundreds of thousands of priests and often run by careerists. You can’t change that sort of show by fiat.
This pope is a reformer. But he’s also a subverter most of all. That’s why he’s hated by careerists who see him as a threat to their cherished ambitions!
Many years ago, an old priest said to me when sex abuse first appeared in public in the 1980s: “The hierarchy won’t take the problem seriously till a cardinal is convicted.”
It was an early lesson for me in the reach and contours of clericalism. It was a lesson that made sense then and makes so much more sense now.
The implosion born of subversion is well underway. We might yet become a church of the poor where the poor feel at home.
Father Michael Kelly SJ is the CEO of UCAN Services.
The book is about “one of the most compelling paradoxes of history: the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” It details four major instances of government folly in human history: the Trojans’ decision to move the Greek horse into their city, the failure of the Renaissance popes to address the factors that would lead to the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century, England’s policies relating to American colonies under King George III, and the United States’ mishandling of the conflict in Vietnam. More than half of the book deals with US intervention in the Vietnam War, while the other three case studies are shorter.
Tuchman applies the concept of folly to ‘historical mistakes’ with certain features in common: the policy taken was contrary to self-interest; it was not that of an individual (attributable to the individual’s character), but that of a group; it was not the only policy available; and it was pursued despite forebodings that it was mistaken. The only way to account for such self-destructive policies, in Tuchman’s view, is to label them follies; but that, as she seems unaware, puts them beyond rational explanation.”
By Jon Meacham, NYTimes.com, March 14, 2018
The passage, from a book read three decades back, came to mind not long ago. A tweet-driven tumult was, as usual, roiling Washington. Surly and defiant, President Trump was ensconced in the White House, lashing out like King Lear with a cellphone. The issue of the hour was our policy toward a defiant North Korea, and the president had chosen that moment to boast that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim Jong-un’s — hardly an Achesonian diplomatic strategy.
Which doubtless would have pleased, rather than troubled, Trump, who, like Miranda in “The Tempest,” looks upon each day as a “brave new world” that offers him fresh opportunities to star in a global drama of his own direction. Shifting between cable news and my own Twitter feed, I recalled the historian Barbara W. Tuchman’s observation in her 1984 book “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.” “Wooden-headedness” in statecraft, which she defined as “assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs,” has clearly become a prevailing factor in our politics. As Tuchman wrote, wooden-headedness was best captured in a remark about Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”
Why did the Trojans allow the Greek horse within the gates? How did the Renaissance papacy so badly misjudge the moment, accelerating the Protestant Reformation? What could the British ruling class have done differently to keep the American colonies within London’s reach? Who, if anyone, could have prevented Washington’s tragic misadventure in Vietnam? These were Tuchman’s topics, and now, in our own time, we are forced to ponder the why, the how, the what and the who about America in the Age of Trump. “A prince, says Machiavelli,” Tuchman wrote, “ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.” To put it mildly, though, the Trump White House seems more “Shark Tank” than Brain Trust.
Tuchman’s literary legacy is various and important. She wrote well about many things, including the coming of World War I (“The Guns of August,” a favorite of John F. Kennedy’s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1963), the Black Plague (“A Distant Mirror”), the Far East (“Stilwell and the American Experience in China”) and the American Revolution (“The First Salute”). There is something notable, though, about “The March of Folly,” a collection of sketches about mature countries getting things woefully wrong.
To Tuchman, folly begins with the most fundamental of things: an outsize and self-destructive will to power. Both the governors and the governed can overreach, convinced of their own rectitude and righteousness. “Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as ‘the most flagrant of all the passions,’” Tuchman wrote. “Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise,” or what she calls the “paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others — only to lose it over themselves.” In this light, President Trump and his alt-right coterie are not something new under the sun but another chapter in the oldest of human dramas: the tension between appetite and the common good, between ambition and common sense.
There is a lesson here not only for the president but for the people — particularly the people who chose to support him in 2016 and who stand with him now, apparently come what may. “Persistence in error is the problem,” Tuchman wrote. One of the more troubling features of popular political life is blind tribal loyalty — the refusal to acknowledge that your chief or your kind could be wrong. A perennial issue, this reflexive defensiveness is especially pronounced at the moment. But the historically literate voter, like a historically literate decision maker, need not be captive to previously held opinions at all times and at any cost. “There is,” Tuchman wrote, “always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counterproductive course if the policy-maker” — or, in my view, the voter — “has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.” And in the mind and heart of a fervent voter who was determined to send a message to Washington that business as usual was not working. The question now, more than a year into business as unusual, is whether those who supported the populist insurgency of 2016 will honestly assess its effectiveness in 2018 and in 2020. “Wooden-headedness” in the Oval Office, alas, begins in the voting booth.
How do we stop marches of folly? Tuchman was thoughtful on the question, realizing that history was not a panacea. “Whole philosophies have evolved over the question whether the human species is predominately good or evil,” she wrote. “I only know that it is mixed, that you cannot separate good from bad, that wisdom, courage and benevolence exist alongside knavery, greed and stupidity; heroism and fortitude alongside vainglory, cruelty and corruption.”
That observation appeared in a 1981 collection of her essays titled “Practicing History.” Perhaps her least known work, it is engaging and wise, and in it she took a proportionate view of the human condition. “Amid a mass of worldwide troubles and a poor record for the 20th century,” Tuchman wrote, “we see our species — with cause — as functioning very badly, as blunderers when not knaves, as violent, ignoble, corrupt, inept, incapable of mastering the forces that threaten us, weakly subject to our worst instincts; in short, decadent.”
It was, she argued, an easy, if unhappy, case to make at the time. (As it is now.) “A century that took shape in the disillusion which followed the enormous effort and hopes of World War I,” Tuchman wrote, “that saw revolution in Russia congeal into the same tyranny it overthrew, saw a supposedly civilized nation revert under the Nazis into organized and unparalleled savagery, saw the craven appeasement by the democracies, is understandably marked by suspicion of human nature.”
And yet, and yet, there were grounds for hope. History had been, and still was, notable for human discoveries and inventions; for battles to secure and spread liberty; for majestic achievements in art and athletics and architecture. Reflecting on the Middle Ages’ zeal for cathedrals, she quoted an observer: “Who has ever seen or heard tell in times past that powerful princes of the world, that men brought up in honors and wealth, that nobles — men and women — have bent their haughty necks to the harness of carts and, like beasts of burden, have dragged to the abode of Christ these wagons loaded with wines, grains, oil, stones, timber and all that is necessary for the construction of the church?”
History, like humanity, defies clinical categorization. There were, she wrote, two ways in which that which came before could teach us lessons. “One is to enable us to avoid past mistakes and to manage better in similar circumstances next time; the other is to enable us to anticipate a future course of events,” Tuchman wrote. Her verdict: “To manage better next time is within our means; to anticipate does not seem to be.” That, at least, may be the beginning of wisdom.
Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian, is the author of “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels,” to be published in May.
Published March 25, 2019 in La Croix
Half a century ago, the bishops’ conference of the United States commissioned an interdisciplinary study of the priesthood in that country. Key parts of it were led by two priests who at the time were celebrities in the Catholic community, Andrew Greeley the sociologist and Eugene Kennedy the psychologist. (Disclosure: as a seminarian I was office assistant to Kennedy in the early stages of the study.)
The results of their work, especially the psychological part, showed a large majority of American priests to be dissatisfied as well as emotionally underdeveloped and therefore unable to develop healthy relationships. Their training and insertion into the clerical culture, which in many cases started as young as age 13, froze them into a perpetual adolescence.
Instead of taking the studies to heart and working to improve the situation, as one would hope, the bishops, as one would expect, ignored the results of their own study. Greeley, noted for his pugnacity, responded, “Honesty compels me to say that I believe the present leadership in the Church to be morally, intellectually and religiously bankrupt.”
Now everyone realizes how right Greeley was, as abuse and cover-ups by bishops around the world become headlines. Behind those headlines is the situation of which the social scientists led by Greeley and Kennedy warned. And the entire Catholic Church is suffering because of bishops’ failure to act then.
It is well attested that sexual and other forms of abuse are really about the misuse or abuse of power rather than sex. For a believer, that should be no surprise. When the devil tempted Jesus with power, the tempter declared that power was his and his to distribute. And Jesus did not dispute that.
When immature boys, no matter their age, abuse power, they often become bullies. And bullies usually victimize weaker boys. That, and not homosexuality, is probably what underlies the striking frequency of the abuse of boys by clergy. Research has shown that sexual abuse by clergy is not caused by homosexuality. Nor, for that matter, celibacy. The schoolyard moves into the sacristy when emotionally immature men are in charge there.
It is worth noting that since changes in priestly formation instituted after Vatican II, the cases of sexual abuse by priests and bishops have lessened. Most cases of abuse and cover-up, whether against children or young adults such as seminarians, have been perpetrated by those trained before the council or in unreformed systems that have held on to “the good old days.” So, though the recommendations of the researchers in the 1960s were not instituted fully, even their partial implementation has made a difference.
However, not all immature clergy abuse boys or girls or even young men. The bigger number, only recently getting the notice that the abuse of children has overshadowed, is the abuse of women by priests and bishops. That is not limited to clergy, of course. The #MeToo movement and its offshoots are making us aware that the abuse of women is the more common form of abuse among all kinds of immature males (and mass shooters!).
And females. Little boys grow up and too often merely become big boys. Little girls seem better able to grow up and become women. But not all do. In the context of the Church, the fuse that will lead to the explosion based in novitiates, convents and schools, orphanages and other institutions run by sisters is smoldering. The abuse of girls, other women and boys by sisters is the powder keg.
The first thing we learn from all this is that the current crisis for the Catholic Church is not going to end any time soon. It has only just begun. There are more and bigger explosive exposures ahead.
It will take generations for the dust of those explosions to settle and for the Church to recover. Those who have compared the current situation to the Reformation 500 years ago from which we are still recovering are right.
What are we to do? Well, an increasing number of people have decided to walk away from the Church. That number will grow with each exposé, and who can blame them?
What of those who decide to stay? Our responses to the situation must be the same actions that we perform in the sacrament of Penance: contrition, confession and conversion.
Contrition begins with sympathetic and humble honesty shown toward victims of the Church leadership’s failure to protect them and even more in its inflicting immature predators upon them in the first place.
Confession consists in being proactive rather than reactive in rooting out the problem. Even now, the work of Church leaders is being performed by the media and legal systems. The more that happens, the worse things will be. This includes cooperating with civil requirements without being forced by threat of legal action or bad publicity.
Conversion will take the form of implementing significant changes in the shape of clerical and religious life and involving more lay people as well as clergy and professionals in the actual running of the Church.
Then, over the course of the generations through which healing may take place, we must pray for the courage and faith to follow the medicinal guidance of the Holy Spirit with the conviction that though the disease is critical, it need not be chronic.
William Grimm MM is a New York-born priest active in Tokyo. He has also served in Cambodia and Hong Kong and is the publisher of UCA News.