On Sunday, as I was leaving the 7:30 Mass at my parish, I met an elderly woman coming in early for the 9am. She decided to strike up a conversation about the weather, which in my area around this time of year means complaining about the heat, and how every year it gets hotter.
This is called recency bias — or, more generally, the serial position effect. She was interpreting things based on recent events, rather than an objective view of temperatures in the region across several years. (Hint: not much variation, and an overall decrease.) It’s an issue that comes up a lot in politics and the stock market, but it also has an effect on how Christianity — and the Catholic Church in particular — gets viewed.
See, in a serial position effect, the observer pays more attention to either things at the beginning or the end of a list or series of events. When it comes to personal experiences (that is, things you can’t simply zone out on and ignore), the bias tends to fall in favor of more recent experiences.
Let’s go back to the weather-and-climate example. I live in just outside Washington, DC. Most people don’t realize that the reason why the nation’s capital could be built from the ground up, as a custom-ordered city, was precisely because no one lived here yet. There’s a good reason why no one lived here, too. Ever heard someone refer to “cleaning up Washington” as “draining the swamp”? It’s an archaic reference to how this area used to be a swamp. For real, no metaphor. Every August, the swamp tries coming back. The entire downtown DC area (you know, the place with all the museums) is so flat because it used to be marshland that got paved over. Even with all that concrete, conditions are so swamp-like that before the widespread adoption of air conditioning, the United Kingdom listed DC as a diplomatic hardship post.
So every summer it’s pretty much the same topic: how hot it is. (Hey, remember — it’s not the heat, it’s the humanity.) Most people forget last year, or the year before that. I remember, with less than fondness, what it was like in the summer of 2001 as I experienced my first year of summer classes at the local community college. I’d step out of my house and immediately break into a sweat. Same thing the following year.
I can tell you that this summer hasn’t been as bad as that, nor as bad as previous years. Why? Because when I commute to work on the streets of DC, I’m in a manual wheelchair and I still don’t work up a sweat like I did when I was in shape and just walking to a bus stop. (Last year was worse for me, but I was using a wheelchair that weighed a lot more and wasn’t really intended for much beyond indoor use. Turns out treaded tires are useful.)
Yet this nice old lady, who has experienced more than twice as many summers as I have, felt that this summer was proof that anyone who doesn’t believe in global warming was (and I quote) a lunatic.
Yes, I started talking to her about East Anglia and the dangers of confirmation bias, but that’s not what really interested me about this encounter. It got me thinking about the recency effect on the Catholic Church.
This nice old lady looked to be in my parents’ generation, possibly older but not by much. That meant she was likely a part of the 60s kumbaya crowd that decided to change a lot of the liturgical practices of the Church — get rid of Latin, treat the altar as a table, and modernize practices so that the Church becomes what we want, and we don’t have to change. Oh, I know, I’m jumping to a conclusion regarding this woman, but based on the conversation we had I don’t think it’s really more than a short hop.
But that’s what recency bias gets you when applied to religion. It’s the idea that any time society changes, beliefs must change as well. We can look back at history and see it very clearly with the Church of England, where in the century after the English Reformation the Anglicans grew rapidly distinct from Rome. Yet it wasn’t random; under Henry, Elizabeth, and James, the Anglicans changed in different ways, and always in direct response to the politics of the time. Even the King James Version of the Bible wasn’t free from this effect, as the translation team deliberately chose against words popular with rival Protestant movements.
The Catholic Church moves slowly, often distressingly slowly for our modern age of near-instant communication. It took decades for action to be taken in the ever-growing sex abuse scandal, and not just because so many refused to believe it was more than a few isolated cases. The Church moves slowly precisely to prevent the concerns of the moment from dictating to the realities of eternity.
And that can be seen very easily in the Second Vatican Council. Yes, Vatican II, the catch-all excuse for modernist reformers to cite as the reason for every minor change, even though they can’t actually explain where in the council documents it says that guitars and pianos are now considered sacred instruments, or why Catholics don’t need to fast on Fridays anymore, or why churches have to be ugly boxes that don’t look like places of worship.
Vatican II, despite the name, wasn’t really a sequel to Vatican I, but rather a continuation. The First Vatican Council, in 1870, ended in a little event known as the Capture of Rome. This was an important event in the formation of the modern state of Italy, as an army took Rome from Pope Pius IX and effectively ended the Papal States. The council was called to address the heresy of rationalism; not, mind you, the idea that being rational was a heresy, but rather that peculiar belief that anything that one observer cannot fully comprehend must be wrong. Like most heresies, it’s a heresy of pride.
Vatican II, since the first edition got rudely interrupted by people with guns arguing over who would be the boss of them, finished addressing the problem. It did so in a very admirable way, and arguably could not have done it so well if the first Vatican Council hadn’t been cancelled. Church leaders, both priest and laity alike, had the better part of a century to continue pondering the issues at hand. Vatican II, as a result, was able to give the Church a sweeping and very eloquent update to nearly two thousand years of tradition and worship. Little was changed, and nothing truly important; what Vatican II did so well was to explain to the world just what the Church stood for, and why, and how.
Of course, many of the most visible things about the Church did change, such as Masses being conducted in the local vernacular; it’s often overlooked that this had to wait on first an updated Latin Missal and then approved translations, but while a small point it’s still an important one. Vatican II didn’t change the Mass; it, at the very most, promoted a different way of looking at the same thing.
But that visible change was what many people were waiting for. With one visible change came others, and the proverbial camel’s nose was inside the tent. With recency bias in play, it became easy to sell changes to a church as changes to the Church. And with so many other things being pushed in American society for their own sake, recency bias made it easy to think that everything should be changed.
Life changes, society changes; it’s easy to see the traditionalists as hidebound and reactionary. The world moves on, so shouldn’t the Church? We don’t live in a medieval society anymore.
Yet the Church isn’t medieval or modern. It isn’t ancient either, except in how it’s been around for a long time. It’s the oldest single organization in the world, and it’s seen a lot. It’s been through a lot. It doesn’t have all the answers, but it’s seen so much, been through so much, that it’s a great place to start. The Church is literally the best expert in the world on the human condition. It is the way it is because of two things, if I might borrow from Chesterton: the creature called man, and the man called Christ. It’s slow to change, but that’s because over two thousand years it’s found very good reasons to do what it does.
Besides, if we have to constantly update, if we must take into account recent events and change for no reason other than recent events, what happens when a new generation comes along? What happens when twenty-something Lori, The Catholic Geeks‘ own Opinionated Organist, is told by a sixty-something lady that she doesn’t understand what young people want?
We can’t indulge in recency bias, not if we believe in what the Church promises. It can’t be had both ways; we can’t have a Church that is simultaneously tied to one society at the present moment in time and yet everlasting.
Sooner or later, those who believe in God will want the eternal, not the fad. Updating a religion for today only merely makes it out of date tomorrow.