The Revenge of Unintended Consequences

One of the facts of the human condition is this:  We don’t think through the results of our actions.  And the revenge of unintended consequences, as scholar Edward Tenner detailed years ago, can be nasty.  Every technological advance has a hidden downside.  We only discover it when the damage is already underway, and often irreversible.  Yet we never learn the lesson.  Take, for example, “The AI Nanny in Your Baby’s Future,” which appeared in the Wall Street Journal. The article’s subhead suggests, “Sophisticated artificial-intelligence helpers will relieve parents’ burdens and give babies and toddlers the back-and-forth stimulation they need.  But will there be a developmental cost?”

I dunno.  Let me think.  What could possibly go wrong?

Our blindness to the consequences of what we say and do goes well beyond technology.  It can infect every aspect of life.  Consider our politics.  An eccentric narcissist like Donald Trump only appears on the political scene when an arrogant, “progressive” leadership class treats the people it leads with contempt, ignores their concerns, demeans their history, and labels them as dullards, crypto-fascists, and racists.

The dogpiling on Trump now, with multiple lawsuits, even when they’re warranted, ironically enhances Trump’s claims of martyrdom and deepens a widespread popular bitterness toward those in authority.

Something similar can occur in families.  Every family has an authority structure and rules that govern its common life.  But the rules only work if they’re guided by love.  The more punitive and cold a parent’s discipline is, the more stubborn the child’s resentment and resistance become in response.

I’ve been married (happily, to the same exceptional woman) for 53 years; 50 of them as a parent.  I learned promptly, and in distinctly unpleasant ways, that being a husband and father is different from commanding a tank.  Persuasion, listening, and patience go a long way.  Orders and hectoring, not so much.  Authority – real authority – is a fragile thing.  It erodes quickly with misuse, and it’s very hard to earn back once lost.

Likewise in the Church, certain “family rules” should reasonably apply for a healthy common life.

One of them is preaching Christian truth clearly and confidently, with the goal of converting the world to Jesus Christ.  Another is acknowledging the difference between good and evil.  Another is naming sin for what it is.  Another is welcoming and forgiving the repentant.  Another is encouraging, rather than confusing and disparaging, people sincerely trying to be faithful to what the Church teaches, including those teachings that seem hard.  Another is showing some patience and prudence in dealing with disagreement in the ranks.


In some of these categories, the record of the current pontificate can only be described as mixed.  Given the Holy See’s long and baffling tolerance of chaos in the German Church, for example, a document like Traditionis custodes, cracking down on the celebration of the old rite Latin Mass, can seem purely vindictive.  And it produces the opposite of its intended goal: It feeds resistance to the Francis papacy not just from right-wing cranks, but from many people who are not pre-conciliar reactionaries, but merely want beauty and sacred mystery rather than brain-dead mediocrity in their worship.

I served as an acolyte at Mass for seven years before Vatican II.  The old rite could be extraordinarily beautiful or remarkably mind-numbing in equal measure, depending on the celebrant and church environment.  I have no desire to go back to it.  But its suppression is needless and imprudent.  It pushes well-intentioned people away and suggests a mean-spirited misuse of authority.

That serves neither Pope Francis nor the Church and her people.  In fact, one of the takeaways from some of the interviews I did with bishops for a forthcoming book was their surprise at the age cohort attending Latin Masses under the old rite in their dioceses.  The bishops expected nostalgic old people.  What they found were young families.

A bishop outside the United States that I spoke with recently summed up the current situation with these words:

Francis speaks as often and as firmly as his predecessors on the life issues like abortion.  He’s very good on [matters like] gender theory. . . .So some of the criticism he gets is very unfair.  There’s no doubt, though, that he’s on a different page from Benedict and John Paul II.  And that gives permission to people who want to push the Church in a more “woke” direction on issues like LGBTQ rights, the priority of environmentalism, those sorts of things.  There’s enough in what Francis says for them to claim, “Look, we’re the faithful Catholics now.  We’re the ones in the mainstream Church.  And the cranks who are still talking about abortion or evangelization are just backward.”

There’s a sort of classical tragedy quality to Francis.  His strength is also his weakness.  He’s made the Church accessible and even lovable to a whole group of people who were anti-Church or cynical or just indifferent to religion.  They’re attracted by his personality and symbolic actions and also, whether consciously or not, by his fuzziness, his studied ambiguity.  But this is also his downside, because it confuses and alienates a lot of faithful Catholics who already feel under pressure from an unfriendly culture.  And he obviously dislikes America, so there’s that. In the long run, though, some of this might be healthy because we had a string of great popes, and maybe we developed an exaggerated confidence in the role of the papacy.

In the end, whether Francis will be remembered as the “Great Reformer,” to borrow the title of a hagiographic book released early in his tenure, is a matter for future generations to decide.  We should pray that he succeeds in a manner best serving the Church.

Meanwhile though, his ministry might be enhanced with a little less worry about right-wing ideologies and intellectual youth groups filling kids with “weird ideas,” and a little more concern about the persecution of Catholics in China and an ecclesial left with radically destructive appetites.


*Image: Moses with the Tablets of the Law (sometimes called “Moses Smashing the Ten Commandmets”) by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, 1659 [Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Pope Francis Must Stop the Madness

Brad Miner’s Ignorant Desert Birds

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of True Confessions: Voices of Faith from a Life in the Church .