Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Flattened Social Order

Expect the Catholic Church to close ranks around the new Pope Francis. Expect also most non-Catholics and ex-Catholics to find reasons to dislike the new pope. That's just the way of things.

The Catholics will close ranks around Francis for the simple reason that he stands for the Church. The reasons others will find for disliking the new pope are the same.

The problem is that most people, whether inside or outside the Church, don't think through the relationship between the Pope and the Church. The personal concerns, idiosyncrasies, predilections of a new pope aren't going to change the course of an entire Church that claims 1.2 members. He sits 'atop' a huge bureaucracy; he heads up a worldwide administration; he is the nominal head of thousands of loosely-affiliated smaller organizations that all head off in slightly different directions. These things have a life of their own.

Modern conceptions of social relations are fundamentally Protestant in their outlook. Persons identify immediately with some figurehead--a person or something, like a flag or a brand logo--in the same way that the nascent Protestant movement cut out priestly middle-men and dared believers to speak directly to God. Persons tend to forget that social relations are fundamental networks of mediation (or communication). Some of those networks, like friend groups, will be relatively informal. Others, like schools, businesses, or governments, are organized in a much more formal manner. They have existence beyond the memories and intentions of persons, and are recognized in relationships formally instantiated by documentary evidence, property, possessions, and so on. The relations between these different sets of social relations, or institutions, overlap in individual persons, which makes for a thickly interwoven, and also flexible, social fabric.

This complex weave is something each of us navigates every single day. Different nodes in the weave enable us to do different things. The barber at the barber's shop cuts our hair. The teacher at school teaches us math. A parent, at work, earns money to put food, from the grocery store, on the table, constructed at the carpenters shop, with equipment powered by electricity drawn from an electrical grid. Threads multiply in many different directions. But for whatever reason, when something is presented to us as being of monumental significance, we loose our entire grip on the reality of things.

The most recent papal election is a good example of our collective lack of sanity, as was the American Presidential election. All of our hopes and fear become invested in single persons, when, in fact, the reality of the situation is much more complex. A liberal media discovers that Pope Francis is a staunch conservative on familial and sexual matters. They lament that he has not caught up with the modern age. But, of course, Francis was promoted through the ranks of one of the world's oldest institutions, whose ability to outlast its most vociferous critics has been proven time and again. That same liberal media should have been able to anticipate the new pope's failure to measure up its own standards. Single individuals, no matter how strategically they are placed, can never completely change the way things are done. Where civil order reigns, the best any one person can do is create ripples across the surface of humanity.

Networks of social relations enable individual actions and absorb the consequences of individual actions. Changes that occur will be small and incremental. When Catholics close ranks around the pope and everyone else finds reasons to criticize him for personal deficiencies, what everyone is actually debating is the nature of that particular nodes of nodes in the network of social relations called the Catholic Church, centered on the office of the papacy.

If only our newsmakers didn't pretend the social order was flat.

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