Anti-Fragility and Catholics


Let’s continue the imaginary conversation we’re having with Nick B Steves, in which I post a 500-word article and he succinctly replies with a sentence or two. Last time I discussed the corruption of the Vatican and per extension the corruption of modern Christianity. Nick, friendly enough to share the post on his aggregator blog, offered the following reply:

An anti-fragile system does not become too dependent upon single institutions, I think, even the Vatican. Still, it would be great to have a church hierarchy that was better inoculated against the the lies and empty show of modernity.

Firstly let me admit that I am impressed by the relativity with which Roman-Catholics view their church hierarchy. I had initially thought of the Catholic hierarchy as a much more closed system, much like a military hierarchy. This turns out not to be the case – I am told that Christians are even allowed to rebel against their own church if they strongly feel said church betrays holy scripture. Which was exactly the reasoning used by Luther to  nail his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church, which begat protestantism which begat puritanism which begat progressivism.

Here we near the crux of the closed/open hierarchy problem: perhaps a theological hierarchy does not need to be a completely closed loop, but how open can it be before informal schisms occur? Nick takes the stance that the point of multiple systems is not a schism but instead a continuation of growth even during times of distress, or perhaps especially during times of distress. Hence, anti-fragile.

Despite Bryce Laliberte calling Nassim Taleb “an overrated thinker who will not be remembered by history” I very much enjoyed his book Anti-fragility. A short summary for those who haven’t read it: there are 3 kinds of systems.

1- Fragile. A system that works fine in calm waters but breaks when enough pressure is applied. Think the sword of Damocles. Or glass.

2- Robust. A system that remains stable under enormous amounts of pressure. Think the mythical phoenix. Or a rock.

3 – Anti-fragile. A system that need pressure, that flourishes under pressure. This, according to Taleb, is the best system. Your muscles are anti-fragile; the more you train, the stronger they grow. Think the mythical hydra.

With this in our mind we turn to the matter at hand: is Catholicism anti-fragile? Not a question to be answered in a couple of paragraphs, but lets do it anyway. A cursory search on google gives us the following statistics from the BBC. Basically: Europeans are becoming less catholic, South-Americans & Africans are becoming more catholic. The US is a stable 8%, although Wikipedia gives us a stable 25% which is a confusing difference. The Netherlands follows the European trend: less and less people identify as Roman Catholic (down to 24%) while almost 50% identify as atheist. Dem down to earth Dutch!

Talking from a European perspective: these figures don’t give me too much hope. Call me racist but I don’t expect Catholic Brazilians and Africans to save Western civilization. I’m not really seeing an anti-fragile growth among Catholics – if anything I’m seeing a dilation of its essence, much like a pudding expanding before it collapses. A combination of robust/fragile, if you will.  So I have my doubts about the anti-fragility of catholicism.

Still, to end on an uplifting note: if anything, Taleb teaches us that we are crap at predicting future trends. I don’t know if catholicism will fade like a candle. Perhaps my read of the situation is completely off. But even if it is not: might we not hope for a theological black swan?

5 thoughts on “Anti-Fragility and Catholics

  1. BTW, Taleb is well-respected within The NRx, Laliberte’s protestations notwithstanding.

    What I will wave at (in my patented couple of sentences) is that any institution that has lasted, through good times and even more bad, for 2k years, is probably pretty anti-fragile. At very least, not fragile. (Of course those 2 aren’t synonyms.) Understanding the nature of that strength (however we categorize it) certainly is worth greater study.

      1. I’m afraid I don’t. Probably just any ordinary history of the Church would be sufficiently insightful. It’s been pretty much one drama upon another. Heresies, schisms, power struggles, Kings toeing the line (and not toeing the line), the development and eventual loss of the papal states. Things this nature. Through it all the Catholic Church as a whole behaved more like an adaptive organism than a simple institutions; tho’ of late we have a bit of a crisis of identity (most Catholics seem to think we’re just like Modern Protestants, except with shabbier liturgies and short a couple of IQ points). But the essential nature of the thing is not always what people perceive on the surface.

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