I’ve been looking back over the columns I’ve written recently and one thing they seem to have in common is that they are obituaries for institutions which once were mighty.
And I’m beginning to wonder if we might not be in a stage in world history where our institutions no longer meet the needs they once met and are in the process of being replaced – we hope – with something better.
This week, for example, the Roman Catholic Church is in the process of finding a new pope and my guess is that, while you might find the story interesting, you don’t really care.
That’s because the church really doesn’t have much authority anymore. The press dutifully records the edicts from on high – but the people don’t pay much attention.
The church is dying. The Archdiocese of Milwaukee says it may run out of operating funds in April. Its former leader, Cardinal Terrance Dolan, now archbishop of New York and one of those mentioned as a possible pope, had to come back to Wisconsin recently to explain to legal authorities why he transferred tens of millions of dollars to a cemetery fund so that victims of clergy sex abuse can’t lay claim to the money.
Among those victims are deaf men who are former students at a Catholic school for the deaf and were systematically abused. Reports of that victimization ended up on the desk of one Cardinal Ratzinger who later became Pope Benedict XVI.
Benedict is retired; a group of about 100 elderly cardinals are meeting to find a replacement for him, but one of their number, the leading prelate of Great Britain, admitted Sunday that he has, in fact, had inappropriate sexual relationships. Meanwhile, the former archbishop of Los Angeles, who did not have inappropriate relationships himself but did cover up crimes committed by others, will be at the Conclave. He says the Vatican ordered him to attend.
The church is dying. So is the Republican Party.
The Republican Party is the party of Abraham Lincoln. Over a century and a half it has been a voice for traditional values but, also, for freedom and equality. It no longer has anything to say.
The Republicans managed to delay the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense for weeks by lying about his character, even though they knew he would be confirmed. When he was confirmed, leading Republicans gloated that they at least managed to weaken him. We now have a situation where leaders of one of the nation’s two great political parties being cheered at the "victory" of undermining the moral authority of the leader of the nation’s armed forces.
Bring it home? Scott Walker and Ron Johnson are considered serious forces within the GOP.
Can you think of one thing that unites Republicans besides a visceral hatred of President Obama?
The party is dying. So is the press.
The national press has long defined itself as the "fourth branch of government." No one pays much attention these days. The newspapers have lost their readers. The cable news outlet hosts fill their days interviewing one another. Robert Woodward, a reporter so titanic that he faced down Richard Nixon, says he is intimidated because a White House official suggested he might "regret" suggesting President Obama “moved the goal posts” in terms of a budget sequester.
Those are three big institutions and none of them carries much moral authority anymore. They are dying. I could go on and on. I’m not so sure our other institutions are really all that healthy, either.
What I do know is that when an institution can no longer meet the needs of its society, its days are numbered. And that’s probably a good thing because society really needs institutions that will be relevant to tomorrow.