The Sistine Chapel is prepared for the Papal Conclave, set to begin this week.

The Sistine Chapel is prepared for the Papal Conclave, set to begin this week. Alessandra Tarantino/AP

Why Papal and Presidential Elections Can Be Hellishly Depressing

From the Vatican to Washington, what can we do about the failure of powerful institutions?

The papal conclave is a gripping political story, and not just because reform-minded cardinals are pitted against old-guard “Romans.” The white-smoke watch resonates beyond the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics because the Vatican is emblematic of a 21st-century ill: the failure of social institutions to adapt to the times, and the public’s loss of faith in them.

The parallels leaped to mind while I read this sentence in The New York Timess outstanding analysis of papal politics:

“The next pontiff must unite an increasingly globalized church paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Let’s play Mad Libs with that sentence:For "church," substitute the name of almost any U.S. institution and for “pontiff” substitute practically any institutional leader. For example:

“The next governor must unite an increasingly globalized state paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Or.

“The next CEO must unite an increasingly globalized retail company paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Or.

"The next commissioner must unite an increasingly globalized sport paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age."

Or.

“The next board of directors must unite an increasingly globalized charity paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age.”

Finally, not to impugn the Obama presidency but to reflect polling that shows a majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track and consider their leaders to be generally less than trustworthy:

"The next president must unite an increasingly globalized nation paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age."

A year ago, I wrote a cover story for National Journal that documented the failure of national institutions through the eyes of an unemployed Muncie, Ind., man named Johnny Whitmire. "In Nothing We Trust," also explored what the trend means for the nation’s future: “People could disconnect, refocus inward, and turn away from their social contract. Already, many are losing trust. If society can’t promise benefits for joining it, its members may no longer feel bound to follow its rules. But is the rise of disillusionment inexorable? Can institutions regain respect? History offers hope, but Whitmire’s story, and the story of Muncie, say no.”

Sadly, I would write the same about my church. As a practicing Catholic, I want the next pope to use this inflection point to eliminate corruption (particularly the unforgivable protection of sexual predators) and to breathe transparency into Vatican banking and governing practices. But there is nothing in the Church’s past to suggest a better future.

It is the same in politics and business and charity and sports and virtually all walks of life. We are promised, and promise ourselves, that the next leader will change things and make things work. Perhaps we put too much faith in these men and women. Perhaps we need to do more ourselves, to demand better, and to change things on our own. After all, the Internet and other 21st-century tools make us the most empowered individual consumers in the history of humanity.

"Our institutions have in fact failed us," writes Nicco Mele in The End of Big, an chilling examination of how institutions are crumbling before the power of the individual. "Unless we exercise more deliberate choice over the design and use of technologies, we doom ourselves to a future inconsistent with the hard-won democratic values on which modern society is based: limited government, the rule of law, due process, free markets, and individual freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly. To the extent these values disappear, we're dooming ourselves to a chaotic, uncontrollable, and potentially even catastrophic future."

This week, I will watch for the white smoke much in the way that I await election returns on the first Tuesday in Novembers -- with great anticipation and little hope. Is there more we can do?

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.