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Catholicism and the Philosophy of Nassim Taleb

A good Orthodox Presbyterian friend of mine and I like to spar back and forth about the faith, to talk about raising our kids rightly in the eyes of God (even in Comrade Northam’s Virginia), and, more recently, to discuss the philosophy and writings of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His four book “incerto” has been massively popular of late as he has helped the general public understand modern economics; predicted and explained the Trump phenomenon; eviscerated with surgical precision the academic, medical, and scientific establishment; and given us all a balanced and helpful look at the “black swan” events of the housing crash and now the COVID situation.

While reading two of his incerto works in tandem, Skin in the Game and Antifragile, I could not help but apply to the Church the concepts he so masterfully lays out. At the risk of oversimplifying two lengthy books with incredibly deep and well-architected postulations, I want to lay out the thesis of these two books and show you what I mean about applying them to the Church, particularly the modern Church.  

Skin in the Game, or Lack Thereof 

Early on in Skin in the Game, Taleb offers a few examples of what he means by the title, the most succinct coming in a rather memorable quip: “In case you are giving economic views: Don’t tell me what you think, tell me what’s in your portfolio. He argues that it is immoral for traders, financiers, and politicians to go about their business with their clients or subjects without some form of symmetry: both benefiting from good outcomes to the deals they broker but also being harmed by the bad outcomes.

He makes clear that the concept of skin in the game is not to be confused with a simple “incentive problem,” which is exceedingly true in the Christian tradition as we are not only rewarded for good (heaven) but are punished for evil (hell):

Do not mistake skin in the game as defined here and used in this book as just an incentive problem, just having a share of the benefits…It is about symmetry, more like having a share of the harm, paying a penalty if something goes wrong.

As I flipped through each chapter of this book, my mind kept wandering back to one group: Catholic bishops. The lack of skin in the game for the entire Catholic hierarchy is a crystal clear lens with which to view our current crisis. 

In order to be fully devoted to saving the souls of their flock, these shepherds need to have some form of skin in the game, a share in the harm of the Church’s decline and the loss of souls. I don’t know about you, but when I look around at the havoc being rained down on the Church I do not see many suffering bishops. Wilton Gregory’s mansion, McCarrick’s “retirement,” and Bishop Bransfield’s embezzling are just a few examples of the lavish and corrupt lifestyles our own bishops lead while we, the faithful, go without sacraments in many areas, have our churches closed, and witness a complete loss of faith at our home parishes. 

And what consequences are there for our leaders? Absolutely zero. In fact, the bishops’ boss is even shutting things down, showing that no discipline or change is going to come from higher up the food chain.  

In my mind, the only way to force the bishops to put a little bit of their own skin in the game (“game” here referring to the battle for millions of souls) is to cut them off financially. Do not give any more money to their failed efforts that so often support evil or to their lavish beach houses that are used to prey on the young. Not one dime of my paycheck will be going to support any of that. Instead, give to the FSSP, the ICKSP, OnePeterFive, the TLM Documentary (full disclosure: I’m the Communications Director for that last one), or give directly to your pastor to help pay your parish’s bills. Good priests need our support now more than ever and although money is not everything, it can certainly help.

Having precious children who I long with all my being to help get to heaven is an immense amount of skin in the game. We have everything to lose by not receiving the sacraments or by our churches being closed unjustly. It is time the bishops step up and put some of their own skin in the game as well.

The Church as Antifragile

Perhaps Taleb’s book of most interest to traditional Catholics is Antifragile. Much of his thesis in that work can be unpacked from the title itself: there is no good word in English for the exact opposite of “fragile.” Robust, unbreakable, sturdy, and all of their synonyms do not quite give us an exact opposite. You see, if “fragile” means “weakening under stress” than something that is truly “antifragile” will improve, get better, or strengthen when exposed to stress or random and harmful events. 

Most inanimate things are not capable of possessing this property in its purest form. Because the physical world decays with time, most materials get weaker under duress. So Taleb offers the example of the human immune system as something that is truly antifragile. When exposed to harmful bacteria and viruses, the body will often succumb to the illness, making you feel weak, fatigued, sick to your stomach, etc. But once you have made it through the infection or virus, your immune system is actually better than it was before. You are less fragile for having been nearly broken. 

Folks, this is the Catholic Church. There is no more perfect example of antifragility than “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We get stronger after a crisis. The brutal martyrdom of great saints builds up the Church, it does not weaken it. Great periods of renaissance and Christian evangelization often follow periods of wicked evil, as Timothy Flanders recently discussed

The suppression of the Tridentine Mass has led to total devastation in the Church and it has opened the door to liturgical abuses that some of our greatest saints could not have imagined. I am not simply putting a smile on and saying that this is entirely a good thing. But I am saying that the Church’s track record of antifragility is cause for great hope. 

As I disclosed above, I have been working with Cameron O’Hearn and Jonathan Weiss on their Latin Mass documentary titled “Mass of the Ages” that many 1P5 readers are aware of and have been supporting, and I can tell you firsthand that the TLM is seeing a resurgence in the United States that no one could have imagined. Many of our grandparents cannot understand why 20 year olds are excited about Latin, chant, and restoring ancient beauty in liturgy through mystery, art, and architecture. But to me it’s obvious: Catholics are antifragile. We fast, we pray on our knees, we embrace orthodoxy, we endure persecutions, we fight corruption from within the hierarchy, and we make saints in the process. 

Scripture tells us over and over again: fear not. God is with us always, and if we are faithful to Him, He will raise us up on the last day. Put some skin in the game and ask the same of your bishop, embrace antifragility, pray your rosary, receive communion kneeling and on your tongue like you believe you are in the presence of the King, and raise your kids in Catholic Tradition and good liturgy so that one day you and your whole family might hear those words from our precious savior that we all long to hear: “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Take hope, have joy, and pray without ceasing!

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