Experts, the world, and the Church

Modern scientific expertise is often very useful, but it has limits. It’s much more effective studying things that can be explained mechanically than things that can’t—like human beings.

We live in the Age of the Expert.

There are reasons for that. We mostly work for big organizations now, and all aspects of our lives depend on them. Big organizations have their own way of doing things: explicit rules, formalized procedures, extreme division of labor, and so on.

That means an emphasis on specialized formal qualifications. The organization is a big machine, and we are its components. From pre-K through postgrad that’s how we are trained.

The training sinks in, and eventually defines how we see the world. It results in a general sense that everything requires special qualifications. Older people today say younger people lack everyday skills, but the problem is far deeper. The most basic human activities are now thought beyond the capacity of ordinary people.

A small church near me wanted to get someone to look after young children during the service. Instead of asking for volunteers with everyday childcare experience, mothers or older sisters, they thought they needed to hire someone with a master’s degree in early childhood education.

These were people in an educated, prosperous, and largely professional community, and that was their idea of “best practices.” The alternative was to get someone who officially didn’t know anything, and that didn’t seem right to them.

The church committee had some legitimate concerns regarding insurance and liability. People today are afraid, and want all risks taken care of. If something does happen they want to be able to say they followed all the protocols. So they look up the official recommendations and follow them.

And official views can matter a great deal. One case among many illustrates the problem: a divorced mother in Georgia was recently handcuffed and arrested in front of her children, thrown into jail, and charged with criminally reckless conduct. Proceedings are still continuing two years later.

Apparently, she left her children under the care of her eldest child, a 14-year-old girl. One of the younger children saw a friend outside while his sister was distracted and went over to his house, and it took the girl 10 or 15 minutes to notice her brother was missing and go out and get him. That was enough to make mom a criminal.

A similar attitude toward the competence of ordinary people to deal with everyday family matters led Terry McAuliffe, an experienced Virginia politician, to tell voters—in the midst of an election campaign—that parents should have no say in the education of their children. As he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” How, he must have thought, could anyone disagree? Parents don’t have special training, so what could they know about education?

It’s not just parents who must be put in their place. The COVID-19 epidemic took rule by experts to a new level. The experts disagreed among themselves, had no way of knowing what would work, and devoted very little thought to the ultimate consequences of radical interventions adopted on the spur of the moment. Even so, we were all expected to “follow the science” by doing whatever they said.

As it happened, their response to a novel and poorly-understood danger was to shut down social and economic life and try to separate people from each other almost completely. Whatever the conscious intention, the effect was to push us toward a regime of total control in which expert decisions could be put into effect immediately because people have no connections to each other that might cause problems. That was evidently just fine with the experts.

Claims of expert authority would be more impressive if education were getting better, or if official projections of the course of the pandemic and the effect of various interventions had panned out. But it isn’t, and they didn’t.

It would also help if the responses of responsible and highly-placed people to opposition weren’t so bizarre—for example, calling people “fascists” who object to intrusive anti-COVID measures, or say that parents who complain about “woke” instruction are potential terrorists. The fevered reactions seem to be based on the idea that people with doubts about a story put out by official experts are a danger to society because they reject the orderly application of reason, and must therefore favor blind impulse, ignorant prejudice, and violence.

All of which is crazy. Modern scientific expertise is often very useful, but it has limits. It has increased wealth, extended life, and taken us to the moon. But it’s much more effective studying things that can be explained mechanically, like galaxies and atomic particles, than things that can’t—like human beings.

Modern expertise cannot, for example, tell us much about the good life. It’s deeply specialized, so it can only tell us about subordinate matters. And it’s powerful because it relies on neutral numerical data. But that means it can’t say much about love, friendship, family life, or ideals such as truth, beauty, and goodness.

That can become a serious problem. Experts don’t gain influence by talking about their limits, and can’t even know what their limits are without a broader perspective than their education as experts gives them. All too often the result is a narrow and dogmatic way of thinking.

We see the consequences everywhere. One is the changing understanding of “social justice” and its rise as the chief concern of professional moralists. As now understood, social justice means that the details of social life must be determined by abstractions like freedom and equality rather than the effects of how people carry on their lives. It’s based on a view of society as a big machine that dispenses benefits in accordance with a schema, rather than a network of individuals, families, and communities actively pursuing various goals and making arrangements among themselves.

One result is that social justice advocates have come to reject traditional sex roles and morality. These have to do with promoting enduring and functional families, the support of which is part of the traditional vision of social justice found, for example, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Instead, they insist on abolishing distinctions relating to sex, which have no evident function in what appears to them a big social machine. The inevitable result is radical weakening of the family and transfer of its functions to commercial and bureaucratic arrangements experts can supervise more easily. They don’t have a problem with that.

Such ways of thinking have even entered the Church, which as the custodian of ultimate goods and realities, including the truth about man, ought to be immune to them. Some of the consequences can be seen in recent votes of the German Synodal Assembly regarding sex and the sexes. A more general consequence is that those who lead the Church have tried to do with documents and official processes what can only be done through sanctity.

When Christ called Saint Francis to rebuild his Church, Francis didn’t start by taking a survey, going for a degree, studying official Church documents, or training as a facilitator for a global listening process. Instead, he went and acted on his vision of following Christ. Innocent III approved his efforts, but he didn’t put out a motu proprio making Franciscan principles authoritative for the whole Church. Nor did he appoint an expert committee with multi-faith consultants to redo the liturgy with those principles in mind.

Would it have helped the Franciscan movement if he had?

Pascal notes that tyranny is the wish to have in one way what can only be had in another. If you try to promote spiritual things through experts, documents, and bureaucratic processes not much will happen. You’ll end up with higher-ups denouncing the faithful as rigid Pharisees for ignoring official initiatives in favor of the way things were done when the Church was more functional.

When that happens, have the faithful failed their leaders, or have their leaders lost track of how best to lead the Church?


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About James Kalb 135 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

26 Comments

  1. Many experts are simple ideologues. They come in different professions – scientists, philosophers, theologians, social engineers and journalists. They present us with the “truth” as they see it, or concoct it.
    St. Francis was not an ideologue. It was with meekness and humility he served our Lord and his Church. This is what Pope Francis admired about this saint. St Francis was not an administrator, nor did he have an office. Hence, he did not need committees and surveys. However, he went out to the world, evangelizing as he did so. He reached out to creation, which he deemed to be brothers and sisters, and also to Muslims and others. He and Pope Francis lived in different times, locations, environments and jurisdictions but there was something that linked them: their faithfulness to Jesus and his Church.

    • But, as you say, St. Francis did not have a history or role as an “administrator,” and did not need committees like some of the problematic membership C-6, nor “surveys” to effect continuity in even the Mass, nor to masquerade in plebiscite Germania (etc.?) as synods.

      It seems that in this very imperfect world one can have either saints or managers (or mis-managers), but not both in the same person. As for St. Francis and the Muslims, the saint sallied forth with the intention and effort to convert the Sultan, nothing more intermediate. It was this holiness that impressed Sultan Malek al-Kamil at Damietta on the Nile Delta, then under siege by an army of the Fifth Crusade.

      In the Paradiso, Canto XI, Dante says that St. Francis sought martyrdom and that failing this he left; and implies that the Sultan might not have been attracted to Lady Poverty. In the mid-thirteenth century, fearful of the Mogul invasions, other Franciscans made their way to Mongolia in unsuccessful efforts to convert the Khan, and with the remote possibility of even joining in an alliance against Islam. One of these (John of Pian de Carpine, 1180?-1252) had been a companion of St. Francis (Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers, 1983).

      • It seems that you think you know who can or cannot be a saint. Perhaps, you are able to judge people’s souls.
        Yes, St Francis did impress the Sultan with his holiness or, shall we say, his faithful Christian life. This is precisely how Pope Francis believes we should evangelize the world.

  2. A commentary that all bishops. priests, and catholic educators should read and meditate upon. — ” If you try to promote spiritual things through experts, documents, and bureaucratic processes not much will happen. You’ll end up with higher-ups denouncing the faithful as rigid Pharisees for ignoring official initiatives in favor of the way things were done when the Church was more functional.”

  3. “A small church near me wanted to get someone to look after young children during the service. Instead of asking for volunteers with everyday childcare experience, mothers or older sisters, they thought they needed to hire someone with a master’s degree in early childhood education.” Oh, how much this rings true in the Church.

    When I was Director of Catholic Charities for my diocese, a vacancy opened up in one of our six regional offices that primarily addressed the needs of the poor in the local community. I thought it could be ably filled by a deacon whose specific call in ministry is in charity to the poor. I was shocked to hear that one of our priests was apoplectic when he learned that the position would not be filled with someone with a Master’s degree in Social Work. I am reminded that neither Stephen nor Lawrence were Social Workers.

    • A friend of mine is a social worker–Masters degree and all that. But many moons ago when she went to college, she did not need the full license to get a good job. It’s big test and costs lots,so she didn’t take it at the time. Well, now (years later) in order to advance, she needs to have the full license. She is (was) excellent at her job, but the company she worked for demanded she complete the full licensing or be demoted.

  4. Your article says most of us work for big organizations, yet small businesses create most jobs.

    “Experts” we often cited during the pandemic either by media or political leaders. Whitmer would get up to the podium at her daily briefings, say a few words then thrust obviously uncomfortable medical people in front of the microphone, citing updated daily stats she could have easily read off the teleprompter.

    Having worked for larger organizations, both private and public, those with boots on the ground often had to step in and assist management, to get “the task” done, because they had real world experience and know-how. They usually did it unbegrudgingly. My take has always been higher education opens the mind, but really doesn’t guarantee they know that much more than the person who has been doing the work for say, 10 years. (Just watch one episode of the Boss or whatever that show is called.)

  5. While vertebrate synodality has made sense in the past, the current and invertebrate version is an example of what is done when there is no leadership. Leadership from behind becomes the name of the game. Germania becomes the prototype. So, agreement here with Kalb’s thesis. Together with a simple remark, and a tweak.

    First, back in 1967 the economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote “The New Industrial State” where he argued that economic competition had morphed into a world of monopolists and a managerial class. Probably a more mixed economic situation than he admitted, but today the implied cultural trajectory gives us the educational-industrial complex and—academically—the replacement of humanities core courses with a widening spread of STEM options.

    All the better to normalize the choreographed submittal of over four hundred corporate amicus briefs to the supreme court, in support of the oxymoron “gay marriage.”

    And, Second, now for the tweak. While Kalb has a point, it is not quite accurate to comment about things “…that can be explained mechanically, like galaxies and atomic particles…” With modern physics we know that galaxies and atomic particles are not explained mechanically, but statistically. Not Aristotle, but the Theory of Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics.

    But, the betrayal by ecclesial pygmies in high places is to suggest that such a “paradigm shift” in the natural sciences can transfer over into matters of divine revelation and human morality—the elitist “hermeneutics of discontinuity.” This mind-bending trajectory (versus “bigots, rigid!”) is not only a surrender to Secular-ism (and, on its back, the homosexual lifestyle), but an expedient act of spiritual and intellectual stupidity of historic dimensions.

    Is foot-dragging by some clerical experts to Eucharistic coherence, for example, rooted in their sophisticated disbelief in the real Incarnation at a particular time and place in (but not of) human history? A singular event which cannot be replicated and which, therefore, remains invisible to the scientific method and graffiti-theology.

    An expert is “x”, an unknown “spurt” under pressure.

    • Has Germany really become the prototype? Where did you read that? Or, is it just your expertise on Church matters?
      Here is a part of what :Pope Francis said about the synodal journey. “Dear brothers and sisters, may this Synod be a true season of the Spirit! For we need the Spirit, the ever new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles and
      spreads joy. The Holy Spirit guides us where God wants us to be, not to where
      our own ideas and personal tastes would lead us.”
      He ended this reflection with this prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit! You inspire new tongues and place words of life on our lips: keep us from becoming a “museum Church”, beautiful but mute, with much past and little future. Come among us, so that in this synodal experience we will not lose our enthusiasm, dilute the power of prophecy, or descend into useless and unproductive discussions. Come, Spirit of love, open our hearts to hear your voice! Come, Holy Spirit of holiness, renew the holy and faithful
      People of God! Come, Creator Spirit, renew the face of the earth! Amen”
      https://formationreimagined.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Pope-Francis-Opening-of-Synod.pdf

      • Pope Francis’ stated intentions for synods are beyond question, as you report. It’s all about the “universal call to holiness.” So far, so good…

        So, as a “prototype” is simply meant that the German synod, de facto, is both overreaching and, despite Pope Francis having stated his “feelings” (his word, pointing to the 17-page rebuke issued with his signature, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), the “synod” continues apace without consequences.

        The hope, or course, is that the very optimistic picture in your mind will unfold over the next two years. The more likely reality, however, is that doctrinal and moral aberrations (which you eloquently oppose) will be simply “aggregated” and “compiled” into the synodal reports together with “minority reports” (wording from the Vademecum) by “facilitator” bishops. And, that the whole unfiltered and unevangelized (!) roster of ideas will be more or less accepted (with all of its accompaniments, including lavender!) as a bundled compendium expression of the “unanimous” sensus fidelium.

        Cyanide in the punchbowl? If not formally accepted in a papal exhortation, then perhaps the amalgamated and summarized reports from 3,000 dioceses will be met with selective or total silence, and left to devolve in continental clusters…the signaled “endless journey” of synodality? The “medium [or process] is the message!” (Marshall McLuhan, 1960s). As already, in the silent response to the dubia (another prototype?).

        Like yourself, I claim no credentialed expertise in Church matters. Thanks be to God! So, yes, to “communion, participation and evangelization!” But, reading between the lines, my humble, inexpert, and lay opinion was already openly explained on this website last October. https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2021/10/02/opinion-making-sense-of-synodal-steps-during-precarious-times/ As for synodal outcomes, I WOULD LIKE NOTHING BETTER than to be proved completely wrong.

  6. Several years ago, I wrote my bishop a letter about a serious situation at my daughter’s school. I wanted to talk to him about the danger it posed to the students diocese-wide.

    My wife approved the letter before I sent it, so you can rest assured that it lacked my characteristic flair for sardonicism and hyperbole.

    Anyway, the bishop wrote back and said he was not interested in meeting and that he was going to convene a panel of experts to address the situation. So I needn’t worry.

    It was then I realized that there are few phrases in the English language as devoid of potential, of promise, of hope, as “panel of experts.”

    I wanted to write him back, explain to him in grandiloquent detail my contempt for “experts” as a group — that as a class they are committed to the status quo, contemptuous of innovation, utterly dismissive of new and better ways of approaching problems. That they are, essentially, drones whose careers depend upon buying into the conventional wisdom of the long-accepted experts who have gone before.

    Needless to say, I did not write back to his bishopcy. I knew my wife would never approve of such a letter since I was planning on pointing out the fact that the reason the American Catholic Church covered up for pedophiles for decades on end was that she was assured by — ahem — “the experts” that pedophilia could be cured by psychotherapy.

    To which claim, in my head, as he so often does, the third stooge, Curly, replies “Nyuk nyuk nyuk.”

    (Sigh.)

    All of which is to say, I very much appreciate the greatly esteemed Mr. Kalb calling our attention to to the extreme limitations represented by the cult of the expert.

    If you want a skyscraper designed or a space mission launched, by all means, call in an expert or two.

    But for anything to do with people, or faith, or education, or other things that really matter, experts are virtually the last people you should be listening to.

    Behind only — oh yeah! — politicians.

  7. Relativity theory isn’t statistical, and quantum mechanics is still mechanical in that it makes extremely accurate predictions based on quantitative observations and mathematics.

  8. @Mr Kalb:

    Thank you for your perspective.

    When in doubt, we call upon Jesus! The problems we face and the direction we should go are contained in Holy Scripture. The one who made us and laid down His life as a sacrifice is the peerless guide for soul and the difficulties that beset us.

    Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.

    Colossians 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

    Hebrews 1:6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”

    John 16:13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.

    John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

    Psalm 89:27 And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.

    God bless you,

    Brian Young

  9. No multi-faith consultants needed! No Motu Propio needed!! No German Synod needed!!!! Just teach the scriptures and the gospels the way Jesus taught!!! Teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church the way it has always been taught! Not catering to culture changes, no changing with the times!!!’ Jesus said “ If the world hates you know that it hated me first. If they persecute me, they will persecute you. The servant is not above his Master!” So the question becomes is the Church here to do God’s will and do so the way the scriptures say, the way Jesus taught the Gospels, the Apostles, the Saints, Church Fathers and the Catechism teach or is the Church here to please the world and the ways of the world????

  10. The only perfect expert is God. The Catholic Church teaches – by the command of Jesus Christ – what we must do to save our souls.

    No person should listen to any so-called expert if he “teaches” things contrary to the natural law. And much of the natural law can be found in The Ten Commandments.

  11. The biggest problem with the “Trust the Experts” Argument is that the so-called “Experts” are generally self appointed. Take Dr. Fauci, who clearly knows nothing about Covid, whose predictions are usually wrong, and accordingly makes things up as he goes along. He has also shifted away from defending his record to attacking the character of his critics, as he did with Senator Rand Paul during Senate hearings last year.

  12. Two factors mostly overlooked in this column and many comments. First, that much governance and social action in the US is guided by insurance concerns and the potential for legal action. A prominent example: the only way insurance companies would be a bulwark against cover-up lawsuits in the Church was to insist every volunteer with children, and even some priests, would have to take classes for some level of certification.

    There is also the American distrust of experts. We want to be able to succeed on sheer will power and gumption. In some quarters, scientists were fine as long as they helped fight the cold war and put the first astronaut on the moon. The Church also distrusts experts, and this feature is prominent in the clergy. A new pastor fussed when I put chrism out for an infant baptism. Didn’t I know that oil was reserved for confirmation?

    I think many Americans like bosses better than experts. They like special influence when they can wield it, and they aspire to bosshood themselves. Experts are annoying. They don’t change their tune based on lobbying or what their own bosses want them to say. They base their testimony on facts. It also takes a long time to be an expert, and I think of things outside of the sciences like playing a musical instrument well. It takes a lot of work, and Americans like shortcuts.

    I think some experts have few connections to the applications of their knowledge in the real world. But ignoring them and not having an ability to integrate their knowledge into policy or action is potentially dangerous. The lawyers tell us so.

    • I devoted three paragraphs to the frequent prudence of complying with expert guidance when institutions like insurance companies and the police use it as their standard. And I agree that integrating expertise into policy and action is often a very good idea.

      The point you may have missed is that I was not talking about knowledge in general, like knowledge of when it makes sense under Church law to bring out the chrism, but rejection of the good sense of ordinary people and claims to authority based on certified objective expertise in situations like public policy and religious life when there are severe limitations on what it can tell us.

      • I think you may be toeing a difficult line. I find myself more distrustful of abusive authority–insurance companies that deny an important life-saving test for my daughter, politicians who are corrupt and ignorant of the the policies, laws, and orders they execute.

        I think it is difficult for an outsider’s expertise to be heard. As a lay person, my sacramental counsel was rejected by clergy. Teacher input is often rejected by both parents and administrators. The labor movement has been hobbled, and is it any wonder so many businesses go under when bosses don’t heed the expertise of their workers?

        Cycling back to the Church, I do think there are experts in spiritual things. We call them saints. And among the living, we have pastors who have served for decades, lay people in the areas of music, catechesis, liturgy, discipleship. I think one can look for a track record. Not just their published books, their conference engagements, but mainly their parishes and how they work in the midst of real communities. Science is no different. Scientists work experiments in controlled conditions. Theology/sociology/psychology/political science is a soft blend of what we see in the Church. But there are ways forward, and there are people who can guide us: spiritual directors, pastors, catechists, and countless other people who do not have an official “office” in the Church.

        I think today is the day to listen more carefully to others in our parishes. Let’s not dismiss expertise too easily.

        • You seem to be using “expertise” to mean “knowledge and insight of proven value based on experience.” I’m using it to mean “claimed objective and impersonal knowledge based on formal study and institutional certification.” I praise the former, see serious limitations on the latter.

          Also, why can’t claimed expertise in the latter sense be used as cover for abusive authority? “You have to do what I say and agree with it because I’m institutionally certified to know all about it and you aren’t.”

          I agree of course that there are also other sorts of abuse and ways to go wrong.

          • Well, I’m a believer in multivalent education/formation. You can’t be an expert without multiple ways of learning and being formed in one’s vocation. An athlete watches video, trains off the playing surface for endurance, practices with teammates, and learns in-game. Maybe a basketball player can shoot the shots, but what about the team game?

            Some things do need study, and certification is a matter for legal recognition. Our culture insists on these for a lot of things, like driving a car or practicing medicine.

            Sure, anybody can use any standard of learning to bludgeon an argument, everything from a PhD to a YouTube video. I haven’t heard anybody use that exact quote you mention. But I have heard and read parents who object to teachers across the board. Those are the same teachers who have been mandated to be degreed, certified, and plus, they have actual classroom experience in the task.

            Frankly, I see a lot of laziness in the anti-expert crowd. A person doesn’t want to wear a mask or get a vaccine, so they hunt down their own “expert” who agrees with them. They want to tell teachers how to do their jobs, but they don’t want to invest their time in things like a PTA or volunteer at the school. Face it: we’re all adults here, and few of us like to be told what to do in our perceived area of expertise. Perhaps Americans suffer from more know-it-alls per capita than a lot of other countries. Many Catholics feel that way about religion. And they won’t let the pope, their bishop, the local priest, or a disfavored internet guru tell them otherwise. It’s a spiritual pandemic.

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