Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Do-It-Yourself Airplane

Around 20 years ago, I was doing a lot of traveling for work, and when I got back to the hotel at the end of the day, I had little to do but watch PBS. (Typical fare was Dr Deepak Chopra. Things have gotten better, though not at PBS.) Anyhow, I watched a long-forgotten show then, Robert X Cringely's Plane Crazy. The pseudonymous Cringely had traded his 15 minutes of fame as a tech author to do a TV series on his attempt to build an airplane himself. The IMDb review says,
I've never met anyone else who's actually seen (or even heard of) this. Robert Cringley [sic], of PBS's 'Triumph of the Nerds' fame--and evidently airplane enthusiast--sets out to build an airplane in 30 days more or less by himself. Not near as epic or quick-moving as Cringley's 'Triumph of the Nerds', but interesting nonetheless. Cringley starts out enthusiastic, but his demeanor degrades quickly as the mishaps start piling up.
Eventually he brings in a knowledgeable outsider who more or less takes him aside and says well, OK, this thing may even fly, but it's all so slapdash and amateurish, you're taking a big risk, and you really need to sit down and ask yourself why you're doing this. At that point, Cringely gives up the project, which is almost certainly why he is still alive.

The more I think about the OCSP, the more Plane Crazy comes to mind. My regular correspondent, possibly concerned that I'm getting squishy in my evaluation of Msgr Steenson, has been sending me a detailed list of his errors in judgment while ordinary. I'll agree, he's had many errors in judgment, and I'll top anything on that list by simply citing the St Mary of the Angels fiasco, 2011 to present. But as I tried to trace things back to where Steenson may possibly have begun to screw up, I began to realize the problem wasn't Steenson. The problem was that he'd been hired to build a 30-day do-it-yourself airplane, and that wasn't his idea.

I can actually see three fiascos -- big ones -- connected with the OCSP. St Mary of the Angels, St John the Evangelist Calgary, and Our Lady of the Atonement. The first two are non-partisan, one coming under Steenson, the other under Lopes. OLA actually is a near-fiasco that was averted, but it was averted by the Archdiocese of San Antonio in the period leading up to OLA's entry to the OCSP. Dcn Orr was forced into retirement well before the parish's entry, and Fr Phillips was sidelined in the course of it, all initiatives from the archdiocese, not Bp Lopes. One wonders how things might have developed had Orr and Phillips remained with the parish. As I say, this is a fiasco averted, and this was because professionals in the archdiocese were eventually freed to exercise their authority.

I was visiting St Mary of the Angels this past Sunday, and a parishioner reminded me that the Della Robbia altarpiece may reasonably be estimated to be worth somewhere in eight figures. That brought me back to my conversation last spring with Abp Hepworth, who told me his first reaction as ordinary on hearing this was to consult as quickly as possible with the fire department to determine how secure the altarpiece was in its current location. This is the thought process of an adult who has some minimal grasp of what things are worth and what should be done with them.

I would actually go a little farther and say that a paradigmatic TEC warden or vestryman would almost immediately have recognized the need, considering the value of the asset, to secure the advice of a law firm that specialized in protecting high-value works of art, especially in light of the prospective move of the parish from one jurisdiction to another. That law firm, obviously well paid for the service, would have reviewed all applicable documents and, among other things, discovered the error in not filing the 2011 change in the parish bylaws with the California secretary of state. There probably would have been other good advice, and in this alternate universe, a fiasco averted.

Or let's consider the hypothetical case of Cardinal O'Toole, Archbishop of Gotham, considering the transfer of the St Charles King and Martyr property, late an Anglican Church of the Earth and the Moon parish, to his see. This property, by the way, possesses a Da Vinci altarpiece of value comparable to the St Mary's Della Robbia. Do you think for an instant that Cardinal O'Toole would stop with asking the local fire captain if the Da Vinci is OK where it's at? At minimum, the archdiocese's attorneys would be on this thing like white on rice. How much did the Diocese of Orange pay lawyers and consultants when it acquired the Crystal Cathedral? Whatever it was, it was assuredly a bargain.

Here's the basic problem. Msgr Steenson, a man of mediocre abilities but minimal experience in dealing with a wide range of corporate and canonical issues, was given the task of coming up to speed almost instantly on several high-value transactions. His advisers were then-Fr Hurd, a low-level bureaucrat who supervised mainly married deacons, distracted with his own marital issues even then, and Ms Chalmers, a provincial canon lawyer whose knowledge of some key issues might have been limited to "Della-who?" This was not Msgr Steenson's fault, unequal as he clearly was to the circumstance. The fault was higher up in the organization, with people, certainly inclding then-Msgr Lopes, who thought they could build an airplane in 30 days. All it takes is some plywood and fiberglass, huh?

But let's look at the St John the Evangelist situation. The best we know right now is that there's a lot we don't know, but we can say with some assurance that some reason was found that made it a good idea to send Fr Kenyon back to the UK, but his arrival at the Stockport parish precipitated a cataclysm that Kenyon's successor has compared to living through two world wars. This can't have helped Bp Lopes's reputation among his colleagues. Is this Bp Lopes's fault? Well, someone thought it would be a good ides to send him out, after more than a decade as a mid-level bureaucrat, to serve as an ordinary without experienced Catholic staff to back him up.

Looking at things realistically, even if I were to encounter a diocesan vocations director in a position to do more than exchange chit-chat -- this is possible -- the man would certainly never offer an unguarded opinion to me on how the candidacy of Dcn Bengry would be handled by professionals in a real diocese. I say this because I can simply imagine, knowing a few priests like this, how they might discuss the situation among themselves. For the same reason, I've got to think that if I ever ran into a real vicar for clergy, he'd find a good excuse to leave the room if I tried to mention Fr Kenyon.

The problem is that real bishops become bishops when they're quite a bit older, having risen through the ranks and knowing the jobs of diocesan law firms, vocations directors, and vicars for clergy. The CDF has put men in the position of ordinary who haven't had anything like this experience, and I can only conclude that it's doing something like expecting them to build a do-it-yourself airplane in 30 days. The results have been, and will continue to be, predictable.