We Need Institutions; Institutions Need Wisdom

We Need Institutions; Institutions Need Wisdom

Fr. Ted Hesburgh of blessed memory used to tell in-coming Notre Dame students, “Come to Notre Dame and lose your faith.” What he wanted them to lose was their immature faith. Shake it off, challenge it, deepen it but certainly say goodbye to it.

Notice that Hesburgh asked them to do so at his beloved university. I count myself blessed to have witnessed him talk this way many times. His affect was almost mischievous; he was happily provocative. He could be so because he had great confidence in Notre Dame’s institutional bones. He knew that he could launch the students and their juvenile religious ideas out into the sea of mature questioning because the institution was there to guide them. Notre Dame provided institutional resources to help them navigate the vast sea of their deepest religious questions. Robust programs in service to Jesus’ Gospel, a world-class Theology department, liturgy and prayer institutionally embedded in the dormitories, and even the sporting events are enveloped in the Catholic sacramental imagination.

When faith is shaken whether by choice or circumstance, we need wise leaders in robustly healthy institutions. Freewheeling prophets have a role to play but when the world around us feels like it is collapsing, we run to our institutions, our kitchen tables, our schools and our churches and mosques and synagogues. We look to our leaders then. The same goes for our national faith. Recall how people fled to churches after the Twin Towers’ collapse? Citizenship is but another form of humane commitment and so it is a sibling of religious commitment. Many of us find our faith in our nation deeply shaken by the election.

The failures of this election were primarily institutional. I am a theologian and so shall not venture too far out of my training but I am a Church-theologian, an ecclesiologist. Just as some theologians focus on Jesus or the Bible, I focus on how the institutional Church functions to serve Jesus’ Gospel. So I am acutely aware of those voices that are lately claiming the end of institutional religion. Some even claim that social media platforms have effectively become our new “spiritual communities.” The sophomoric flimsiness of that claim is breathtaking. Did we not just learn how social media platforms promoted and disseminated aggressive lies using the kind of precise targeting developed for marketing products?

I live in San Francisco where I have witnessed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s generosity to institutions that serve the human community. My son Cal works at one: a school for the underserved, East Side College Prep, in East Palo Alto. The east side of Highway 101 has little in common with the pristine elegance and conspicuous consumption of the towns across the highway. That commitment to the common good gives me hope that Mr. Zuckerberg will guide his own institution so that it becomes a true “Public Square” in the great tradition of shared discourse. Unless there is institutional guidance, we will see more of what Steve Schmidt elegantly labeled the weaponization of grievances. Discourse cannot be rooted in ignorance or in the kinds of deliberate un-truths that we read and heard during this sad season.

So I find it very troubling to read in some respected publications that the church is falling away. That churches (along with mosques and synagogues) are no longer spiritual forces? I have lately read the claim that the notion of enduring commitment to an institutional tradition is coming to an end, as are the attendant commitments to ritual expression and personal and social ethics. To be replaced by communities in cyber space?

We need our churches more than ever. Just as we need guardians of our American values of self-government rooted in human dignity and the common good. If we have learned anything in the politics of the last two decades it is that we need government. We need robust civic and religious institutions. Had such been strong and healthy, misogyny and racism and anti-Semitism would not have been able to wash over us as they have.

Each quarter when I prepare to introduce coherent, university level discourse about the role of the church to my students at Santa Clara, I begin by thinking of our department’s Administrator, Vicky. Vicky is institutional gold. She is mostly a bureaucrat in that she does the institutional work of creating the conditions that enable us teachers to do our work. She builds the schedule and runs the office; she manages the thousands of details that are required by our department which teaches every Santa Clara student three times. I ponder her work as a kind of pedagogical prayer before my unit on the church because she exemplifies the matrix that good institutions require.

That matrix includes the explicit values that animate the institution, the practical measures necessary to implement those values, and attention to actual human communities that the institution serves. Vicky never forgets that her ultimate job is to help students earn a degree. In that she never forgets that bureaucracies serve institutions, not the other way round. She pays terrific attention to detail but those details are relentlessly informed by the formation of students in their search for knowledge with our particular Jesuit tilt. The details are only as important as the people they serve. That is how a good bureaucracy serves an institution. Institutions need both leaders and bureaucrats.

Our government has lately displayed too many features of a bureaucracy that serves itself and not its deeper values and so has not served our national community. And many of our churches display similar neuralgia. Our institutions must answer to wisdom greater than the institution itself. Yes, the university is in service to teaching but teaching itself must always answer to the wider search for knowledge. Otherwise we become so many diploma mills that produce credentials disconnected from competence.

Churches must answer to the wisdom of the Jesus’ Gospel. Of course we need the buildings, the salaries to staff the parishes, the materials for rich liturgy as well as the funds and organization for doing the things that faith in Jesus invites us to do. But if the institution becomes disconnected from that service, it ceases to be a church and becomes just another bureaucracy.

As we saw in the election, when the institutions fail us we become aggrieved. The aggrieved often mistake a rickety community for a failed community. Our nation has weathered some terrible assaults in the last two decades. Sadly, we had few practitioners like Fr. Hesburgh and Vicky. Instead, in the Catholic Church the bureaucracy that should have been protecting children was protecting predators. The Catholic folk who lost their jobs because they tried to identify predators are also aggrieved. So are the Catholic women who have been long excluded from professional roles in Catholic institutional life so that only men, even deeply mentally disturbed men, fill the leadership roles in the church.

When our Congress was given a President who sought to renew the government, they explicitly blocked him placing their party bureaucracy before the good of our national life. The very bureaucracy that was designed to serve our American values was enlisted to undermine them. There is simply no denying that racism supplied much of the energy for such pernicious work.

And the institutions that should have been shepherding our financial system, allowed the bureaucracy to serve itself and not our national community. Progressives like me are aggrieved because the (mostly) men who raped our financial system did not lose their jobs. Or if they “lost” one position they moved into an equally over-paid one. Their children did not have to withdraw from college because their parents could no longer make the tuition. Did any of them lose their houses?

So what to do? Bring back wisdom. Demand that our institutions answer to the essential values of the human community. If America does not, we will be just another failed Empire. If our churches do not, they will become hollowed-out social clubs.

I do not expect either to happen. Why is that? I am convinced that goodness animates all reality. It cannot finally be defeated even though it is often rocked and thwarted. How can I say this? Because my institution of choice, the Catholic Church exists to serve the Living God. And the Living God is the source of all goodness, truth, beauty, justice and of course, love.

The Jews and later their holy Son Jesus demythologized the religious bureaucracies of their day. Ritual practice and legal codes that failed to promote the value and dignity of all human persons, had to be rejected. The human search for meaning and community cannot be sustained by commitment to impersonal forces of nature. That collection of tribes crafted themselves into a holy people by injecting popular religion with one of the most ingenious human ideas: all humans have value; all humans participate in God's own activities; those are the activities that yield the myriad forms of goodness: truth, beauty, justice and love. That ancient insight provides the conceptual foundation for our American institutions. What are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but exemplars of human dignity and the common good?

So, let us be about the business of strengthening our institutions. The task is staggering but not more looming than other challenges we have faced. Let us be nimbly on the hunt for wisdom and when we find it, shout it out, support it, proclaim it. We have the tools; let’s get to work.

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