The Papacy at a Crossroads

In this candid interview, veteran Vatican observer Tracey Rowland shares her rare insights with Regina Magazine. An eminent theologian in her own right, Dr Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia and author of Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford University Press).

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI brings to an end an era. What was your reaction to the secular media coverage? In Australia we were hearing reports that some 5,000 journalists were in Rome waiting for the news.  My impression was generally one of amusement – for an organisation that is supposed to be irrelevant, the Church gets an enormous amount of front page publicity.  The papal conclave dominated the news for two weeks.

Can you comment on the presumption that the secular media shows regarding the ‘necessity’ of modernizing the Church? I did four radio interviews in Montreal a few days after the resignation of Pope Benedict.  People were very excited that Cardinal Marc Ouellet from Quebec was being discussed as a front runner.  The Mayor of Montreal  joked on TV that if Cardinal Ouellet was elected, the Vatican would be moved to Montreal. In every one of my interviews I was asked whether a new pope might change the Church’s teaching on contraception, the ordination of women and abortion.  I had to calmly explain that the pope is not an absolute monarch, he is a constitutional monarch.  Constitutional monarchs can’t do whatever they like, they can exercise power only within certain limits.  In the constitutional monarchies of the world these limits are set out in a constitution, or in the case of the United Kingdom, in constitutional conventions.  In the case of the papacy these limits are prescribed by revelation or what we call the ‘deposit of the faith’.  I referred to Pope Benedict’s final homily in which he said that the Church belonged not to him or to the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, but to Christ.  If Christ didn’t ordain women then the Pope can’t either.  The secular media find this very hard to understand but I think the constitutional monarchy idea helps.  Of course, when 1960s generation nuns get interviewed on television and say that they are in favour of the ordination of women, it causes an enormous amount of confusion.

Pope Francis receives Madagascar's transitional leader Andry Rajoelina at the end of a private audience in his private library at the Vatican on April 26, 2103.       Do you think that Pope Francis has a bigger challenge inside the Church than outside? Every Pope faces challenges from outside the Church.  The devil will cause trouble until the end of time.  But some Popes enjoy more internal unity. Pope Francis has inherited a situation where there is very little unity, so much so that Pope Benedict believed that only a younger, stronger man, could handle the problem.  While both John Paul II and Benedict XVI produced wonderful documents and homilies, their teaching was often blocked at various ‘middle management’ levels and never made it to grass roots or parish level.  There is still an enormous amount of confusion about Vatican II.  In some countries like Australia Catholic children spent 12 years at schools administered by the Church but unless they happen to be fortunate to be taught by someone who actually practices his or her faith and understands it, they are unlikely to be catechised.  They leave 12 years of “Catholic education” quite ignorant of what the faith is about.  This is often explained by the word ‘secularisation’.  Some people think that secularism is some kind of nasty force external to the Church which attacks it from without.  However secularism is a kind of heresy which arose within Christian countries when people within the Church thought that they could sever the ‘fruits of Christianity’ from actual belief in the Trinity and participation in the sacramental life of the Church.  As Cardinal Angelo Scola has written, only Christians can make the anti-Christ possible.  The anti-Christ is always parasitic about Christianity.  When Christianity becomes decadent, then all kinds of diabolical actions and people can flourish.  Pope Francis has inherited a Church weakened by decadence and disunity within and by several centuries of oppression from without.

Some note Francis’ simplicity and dedication to prayer with approval. Others fear that he will not support the Extraordinary Rite. What is your take on this? I don’t know what to predict because, unlike our previous two popes who were world class scholars with mountains of publications people could read their way through, this Pope rarely ever gives interviews and he has not published very much at all.  So one can’t trawl through public statements and scholarly articles to get an insight into the way he approaches theological issues.  There is also an old saying “as lost as a Jesuit in Holy Week”, meaning that Jesuits are not renowned for their deep liturgical sensibilities.  They are not Benedictines. My intuition is that he is not  someone who shares Pope Benedict’s liturgical sensibilities, but he might nonetheless take the view that so long as people attending the Extraordinary Rite are otherwise faithful Catholics, that he doesn’t really care about their ritual preferences.  Quite a few members of the hierarchy adopt Mao Tse-Tung’s maxim of “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom”.  In other words, while they may have no personal preference for the Extraordinary Rite, they acknowledge the sociological fact that significant numbers of people do prefer this Rite, and their attitude is that so long as people are actually going to Mass, their ritual preferences are a matter of legitimate choice.  The more bureaucratic types however don’t like pluralism, don’t like choice, because choice increases the demands of education and administration.  For example, when there are two Rites, seminarians need to be trained to say both.  I think that people who prefer the Extraordinary Rite need to make it very obvious to their local Ordinaries that they are on board with the Church’s official teachings, that they are otherwise involved in the life of the Church and that they are not insisting on attending the Extraordinary Rite in order to make a political statement about their opposition to the Second Vatican Council.  In short, they need to send a message that it is all about beauty and transcendence, not political resistance.

trowland3OUT-POSITIONED AND OUT-CLASSED:  Secular media coverage of the 2013 conclave was outshone by upstart US network EWTN – founded by Mother Angelica, a ‘nun with nerve’– and anchored by Raymond Arroyo and Colleen Carroll Campbell.

I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said, “Why is it that the Catholic Church doesn’t go crazy when they change heads of the International Society of Atheists?” Why IS it, do you think, that the Church seems a source of endless fascination for the secular media? I think that pop culture is extremely banal and as such it lacks pathos.  Drama doesn’t work well as drama unless the events which take place are of eternal significance.  Catholics believe that the Pope is Christ’s vicar on earth.  They believe that he holds the keys of St. Peter – to forgive sin in Christ’s name, no less.  The secular journalists find it fascinating because whatever it is, it is not boring.  It also satisfies the human need for tradition.  Modernity has been described as a culture of forced forgetting.  The memory of the Church however stretches back not only to the Incarnation, but to Creation, and her imagination reaches forward to the consummation of the world.  The Christian approach to time is liturgical.  As Cardinal Scola says, Christianity is the moment when the now meets the forever. 

We are living through a period in time when our general culture is really awful, really low, and we have to use our imaginations to think of a different way of being, to make friends with people who are not trapped in the culture of death, and to look after one another.  As the world becomes more and more ugly, Christians will start to stand out precisely because of their personal dignity and the beauty of their family life and then the task of re-evangelisation will become much easier. 

I think that initiatives like Regina Magazine are precisely what are needed.

The first time I attended an Extraordinary Rite Mass, I was struck by the drama of the moment of consecration.  I was at the Church of St. Eugene in Paris in the late 1990s.  It was before Summorum Pontificum but the priests were in Communion with the Pope and their local bishop.  It was not a Lefebrvist service.  The choir chanted the Sanctus which went on for some minutes over the voice of the priest who continued silently saying the Eucharistic Prayer.  Towards the end of the Sanctus the music became more and more dramatic, more like a fugue and then the priest held up the host, every single altar server fell completely prostrate on the floor of the sanctuary and the bells of the Church were peeled.  The figure of the priest was in part blurred by a curtain of incense and one could simply see a blotch of colour created by his vestments.  The only way this moment of consecration could have been any more dramatic would have been if an honour guard of officers had presented arms – something which was a tradition at Corpus Christi Masses.  No journalist watching this could have found it boring. In Sacramentum Caritatis Pope Benedict wrote that at the moment of consecration there occurs a kind of nuclear fission when the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ.  Sometimes there are moments when the Church makes this nuclear fission palpable, and grace triumphs over despair.

In short, my answer is, the world craves an encounter with eternity, the world craves transcendence and this is what the Church has to offer when her officer class has not been overrun by philistines or people with psychological disorders in league with the devil.  Secular journalists are often people who yearn for transcendence and an experience of the infinite as much as anyone and they can see glimpses of it in the Church, notwithstanding all the blemishes.

“Pop culture is extremely banal and as such it lacks pathos.  Drama doesn’t work well unless the events which take place are of eternal significance.  Catholics believe that the Pope is Christ’s vicar on earth.  They believe that he holds the keys of St. Peter – to forgive sin in Christ’s name, no less.  Secular journalists find it fascinating because whatever it is, it is not boring.”

What do you see as the greatest source of hope? The many sources of hope include the numbers of younger women entering religious life, often in new religious Orders that are seeking to re-evangelise the countries of the Christian West.  If one thinks, for example, of the Sisters of Life in New York or the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in Nashville or the Sisters of the Immaculata in Sydney, in every case the order is teeming with vocations and the young women are all highly educated, gracious in manner and otherwise highly marriageable.  They are not entering religious life to escape poverty and acquire an education.  They are not people with limited social options.  They are entering religious life because they really do want to be in a spousal relationship with Christ and spend their lives leading others to Christ.  Then there are the young Catholic families where both parents are fully across the teachings of Blessed John Paul II on marriage and family life and are doing their best to turn their families into domestic churches, notwithstanding the fact that most government economic and educational policies are stacked against them.  When I go to Mass and see a young family with several children, and see that the little girls look pretty with ribbons in their hair, and the little boys are made to stand back and allow their sisters into the pew ahead of them, then I think that the culture of death will not be victorious.  We are just living through a period in time when our general culture is really awful, really low, and we have to use our imaginations to think of a different way of being, to make friends with people who are not trapped in the culture of death, and to look after one another.  As the world becomes more and more ugly, Christians will start to stand out precisely because of their personal dignity and the beauty of their family life and then the task of re-evangelisation will become much easier.  I think that initiatives like Regina are precisely what is needed.

trowland4A GREAT SOURCE OF HOPE ARE THE NEW TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS ORDERS, teeming with vocations — and the young women are all highly educated, gracious in manner and otherwise marriageable.  They are not entering religious life to escape poverty and acquire an education.  They are not people with limited social options. They have a spousal love for Jesus.


Australian Catholic children spend 12 years at schools administered by the Church, but unless they happen to be fortunate to be taught by someone who actually practices his or her faith and understands it, they are unlikely to be catechized.  They leave 12 years of “Catholic education” quite ignorant of what the Faith is about…”  Dr. Tracey Rowland


Featured Pope Benedict picture Osservatore Romano with permission

Photo of Pope Francis by Stefano Spaziani with permission


Young, Rich, Beautiful & Martyred

First, find your way to this ancient church on the Vimian Hill, at 160 Via Urbana. Then, notice that you must step down off the street level to enter the Basilica of St Pudentiana. This is because you are going down to the level of the street in ancient Rome, and you may be forgiven if you get a chill up your spine. You are about to step into a church literally built on the house of an ancient Christian martyr. The beautiful young Pudentiana was martyred in the second century AD during persecutions of the Christians under the  Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161).

The story of the Roman sisters, Pudentiana and Praxedes, dates to the very first Age of the Christian Church. Pudentiana was a daughter of wealthy Roman Senator Pudens, a kinsman of the Pudens spoken of by St. Paul in his second Epistle to Timothy (II. Tim. iv. 21). Legend has it that Saint Peter himself visited this house in the time of the girls’ grandparents.

Pudentiana was a daughter of the wealthy Roman Senator Pudens, kinsman of the Pudens spoken of by St. Paul in his second Epistle to Timothy

Pudentiana and her sister Praxedes were among the earliest members of the Church, and both of them consecrated their lives to Jesus Christ. Upon their father’s death, the two sisters distributed their fortune to the poor, and devoted their time to good works, fasting and prayer. It was through their influence that their entire household, which consisted of ninety-six persons, was baptized by Pope Pius I.

In consequence of the decree issued by the emperor Antoninus (see our story on ‘Communion, Roman-Style’), which forbade the Christians to offer sacrifice publicly, Pope Pius celebrated Mass in Pudentiana’s house, and the Christians assembled there to assist at the celebration. She received them with much charity, and provided them with all the necessaries of life.


You are about to step into a church built on the house of an ancient Christian martyr. Legend has it that Saint Peter visited this house.

At the age of sixteen, Pudentiana was arrested and martyred on the fourteenth of the Calends of June (by our calendar May 19). She was buried in her father’s tomb, in the Priscilla Cemetery, which is on the Salarian Road.

Pudentiana’s house was willed to Pope Pius, and is now one of the most venerable Churches of Rome. Her relics lie under the high altar, according to ancient Christian tradition, which held that any place that contained the remains of a martyr was itself made sacred. This is the origin of the Catholic practice of venerating the relics of saints.

norcia2012 024HALLOWED GROUND’: Ancient Roman Christian tradition made any place containing the relics of a martyr sacred, because by their death for the Faith they were certain to be in heaven.

This is the origin of the Catholic tradition of consecrating churches with saints’ relics under the high altar.


Do’s and Don’ts in Rome

To be perfectly honest, Romans can cope with anything. For centuries, their city has been a target for hordes of tourists and barbarians. Through it all, Romans have remained inscrutable – insouciant, unsinkable and ready for just about anything. That being said, however, if you plan a visit to the Eternal City, it is a good idea to follow a few simple rules:

DO PREPARE YOURSELF: Films and books will help you really enjoy your Roman Holiday (1953), The Cardinal (1963), Three Coins in a Fountain (1954), The Bicycle Thieves (1948), The Scarlet and the Black (1983), La Dolce Vita (Adults only, 1960) and Only You (1994). My favorite classic books include Hilaire Belloc’s Path to Rome, H.V. Morton’s A Traveler in Rome, Bishop Sheen’s This is Rome, Louis De Wohl’s The Spear, Roger Wiltgen’s The Rhine Flows into the Tiber and John Walsh’s The Bones of Saint Peter.

DON’T EXPECT ROMANS TO SPEAK ENGLISH: Give yourself three months to learn some touristic Italian. Never mind the stares from your fellow motorists — drive around with CDs from your local library, repeating “Il conto, per favore?” and “Ho bisogno un medico” with an Italian accent.

DO STAY IN A CONVENT: There are 2,762 hotels in Rome. Convents are cheaper, cleaner, safer and WAY more authentic than any tourist trap, They are the single best way to see Rome – especially for Catholics who would like to attend Mass with the sisters. (Secret Catholic Tip: To find a convent that gladly takes in tourists, visit which calls itself the ‘home of the American Catholic church in Rome.”)

insider2DO CHECK OUT THE VIEW: Some famous vistas are to be seen from myriad vantage points in the old city. (Secret Catholic Tip: The views from the cupola of Saint Peter’s and the top of the Castel San’t Angelo are unbeatable. And for a sunset that will take your breath away –see above– quietly take the elevator to the roof of the Helvetia Hotel.)

DO GO TO LATIN MASS ON SUNDAY: 11:00 Sung High Mass at Santa Trinita Dei Pellegrini, the church of the Fraternity of Saint Peter, just steps from the Piazza Farnese. Dress appropriately, please.

insider6DO LEARN TO USE THE BUS: Forget those dangerous mopeds, although the brave and the foolhardy like Audrey Hepburn (left and below) can rent one for 40 euros a day. Red Roman buses are cheap and plentiful. Find one that stops by your convent, buy yourself a pass at the local newsstand/tobacco store and soon you’ll be zipping around Rome for basically nothing – without losing a limb.



DO VISIT SAINT PETER’S FIRST: For first time visitors, stepping inside the arms of Bernini’s amazing Colonnade is a real thrill. (Secret Catholic Tip: For a free, fascinating personal tour of Saint Peter’s, stop by the Vatican post office and look for a small, unobtrusive sign advising English-speaking visitors when an American seminarian will be there. Impress him by pointing out that the statues on top of the Basilica are the Apostles.)

DON’T BE A TARGET: Avoid drawing attention to yourself. Keep your voice low. Leave your sneakers at home. Wear dark, conservative clothing. Don’t wear a fanny pack or keep your wallet in your back pocket. Americans, especially, need to remember that we have a reputation for being loud and naïve – perfect targets for pickpockets and flimflam artists. This goes TRIPLE at night, or if you have been drinking. Don’t be paranoid, but do be smart. (Secret Catholic Tip: The young woman begging at church doors with a new baby is not starving to death. This is an age-old scam targeting naïve tourists and seminarians.)



When You Are in Crisis

You are in crisis.

Your marriage is over. Or you are losing your house. Or someone close has died.

Whatever the cause, the anxiety is killing you.

Suddenly, you understand why people commit suicide. Your life has devolved down to the gnawing fear in the pit of your stomach. You are unable to concentrate. 

At best, your life has become an unending series of painful tasks.

Joy has deserted you.

This is when you need God – and the Church.

What you need now is a plan.


“Twelve years ago, I learned that my ex-husband had been systematically raiding our bank account,” says Betty, now remarried and in her fifties. “He spent nearly $100,000 on courses to become ‘enlightened’ in a cult. I didn’t notice because I was too busy working night and day to support the family. He was a free-lancer who consistently lost clients – and as I came to understand, a sociopath.”

Betty was left to raise their two children on her own, as her ex paid no child support. She turned to an 80 year old Monsignor, who gave her hard-headed advice. “He told me three things: ‘Get your finances in order. Keep a close eye on your kids. And stay close to the Church.’”

Betty did all these things. Within months, her finances were under control, and her  children recovered.  Four years later, she met and married a good Catholic man – at the ripe old age of 47! Today, her almost-grown children are happy, healthy and successful.

Betty’s story is exceptional. Not everyone has a wise Monsignor to turn to. This was Elena’s situation. “I knew for many years that my husband would probably die before me,” she says. “But when he did, it was still a shock. I spent two years watching TV, not wanting to leave my house.”

Sarah’s ex did everything to demoralize her before he finally left her for another woman. “He told me I was fat. He said that I disgusted him. That he deserved a super-model.” To her utter shock, he took every dime in their bank account, too.

coping2Michelle’s ex-husband grew increasingly aloof from her, and their lovemaking became less and less frequent. Finally, it stopped altogether. Then, her 14 year old daughter stumbled upon his child pornography websites. The damage to both mother and daughter’s psyches has been incalculable.

“I’ve come to believe that internet porn is really something diabolical,” says this slender woman with tired eyes. “It utterly destroyed our marriage, and today he is a shell of the man I fell in love with.”

coping3There is social decay, and families seem incredibly vulnerable. And women bear the brunt of much if not all of this.

These all-too-common tragedies are the stuff of our daily lives, it seems.  And for many women, trauma like this start a downward spiral which compounds the damage as they attempt to cope using food, alcohol, drugs, or sex. Worse, the damage overwhelms their children, who become easy prey for the dark forces in our society.

“Some of these things are a normal part of life – birth, sickness and death. But the plain fact of the matter is that Catholics – like everyone today – are fearful,” says one American priest. “There is social decay, and families seem incredibly vulnerable. And women bear the brunt of much of this.”

How to cope when you are in crisis? The key is to recognize that you are Catholic, and to understand the Church’s wisdom in teaching that we are complex creatures of body, emotions and spirit.

When you are in crisis, each of these aspects of YOU have been attacked — and traumatized. Trauma requires treatment. Therefore, you must put a recovery plan into effect for yourself. Unfortunately, nobody else can do this for you. It’s your life, your health and your children who are at stake. Ready? Let’s roll.



First, you must realize that it is your solemn responsibility to get your life in order.

Then, recognize that you are only human. Your recovery will take time.

How long? Only God knows. This leads us to Step Two:


coping5Your soul has been traumatized. So you need to turn to the Church. Everything you need is there for you: Confession, Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion. These are all nourishment that your damaged spirit needs now to start healing.

Spiritual care is crucial to your recovery. You must do one good thing for your SPIRIT every single day. In the beginning, this may be something as simple as sitting in church and silently praying over and over: “Help me. Help me.”

This is fine. In fact, it’s a big step. The best way to do this is to be in front of the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, it’s worth traveling for, if it is not done in your parish. For sure you can find it at a traditional parish here:

Later, you may be able to progress to reading the Bible, praying the rosary or reading about the saints.  But remember: ONE GOOD THING FOR YOUR SPIRIT every single day.


coping6Your body has been traumatized. Maybe you can’t sleep or eat properly. Or you have mysterious aches and pains – or worse, real stress-induced illness. It’s time to heal by doing one good thing for your BODY every single day. Remember that exercise needn’t be violent. Experts recommend that you get 30 minutes of moderate exercise, three times a week. As your recovery progresses, don’t slack off:  ALWAYS DO ONE GOOD THING FOR YOUR BODY every single day.

Attend an exercise class

Work out at home

Garden or other outdoor tasks

Swim or hike

Walk or run

Ride a bike

Do breathing and stretching exercises

Take a hot bath

Give yourself a home manicure/pedicure

Get your hair done

Get your nails done

Get a massage or a facial – or both!


You can’t heal on junk food. Cook – and cook often. Invite friends and neighbors to your table on a regular basis for fresh, healthy food. (Need ideas? See ‘Sunday Dinner with the Romans’ in this issue.)


Your emotions have been traumatized. Perhaps you feel numb. Maybe you can’t stop worrying. It’s possible that you have sudden crying spells. Or you have thoughts that you cannot control. Maybe you are even thinking about suicide.

Do not be afraid. Bad feelings are normal when you have been traumatized. It is imperative that you recognize this and do one good thing for your emotional state every single day.

Get yourself a good, Catholic therapist. How? Ask a good, Catholic priest or nun – or friend or relative. You need someone who is skilled at working with trauma – and who is not trained to be ‘value neutral.’ A practicing Catholic therapist will understand and support your moral values and your need for prayer.

Remember, you are carrying a poison around inside of you. Get it out of your system. Be persistent. Talk it out.

Next, you need some talking buddies. That is, more than one person who will listen to you. Why? Because you need to talk this out. So, be sensible and spread the wealth. Don’t overburden any one friend with your pain – respect their need to live their lives, too. Finally, get yourself a fat notebook or two. You are going to use this to journal everything. Here’s some ideas to help you get started:

  • How Could This Happen?
  • Why I Hate My Life Now
  • My Prayer for Today
  • Help Me, Lord
  • What I Want for My Kids
  • What I Must Fix This Week
  • What I Accomplished Today
  • What I Need To Do Tomorrow
  • How I Want to be Living In a Year

Then, begin.

EVERY SINGLE DAY: Talk about your pain. Write down what you are thinking. Your agony. Your prayers. Your hopes. Your plans. Remember, you are carrying a poison around inside of you. Get it out of your system. Over time, your need to talk and to write about this will wane, as you begin to heal.

Grief experts say it takes about a year, at minimum, to recover from a devastating loss. But everyone is different. Your recovery is a completely individual process.

You, however, are not helpless in all of this. Once you understand that you must work to take care of your whole self – body and soul – you will have taken the first, crucial steps out of the dark place where you are now.


antifragile1If you have time to read just one book over the next decade, read this one.  Assuming, that is, that you are an artist, artisan, entrepreneur, home-schooling mom – anyone who lives by their wits and has “skin in the game,” as author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is fond of saying. 

On the other hand, if you are a banker, broker, captain of a Fortune 500 company, or a media pundit of the sort who predicted a Romney landslide in the last election – practically anyone who wears a necktie or its current feminine equivalent — stay away.  This book is likely to make you so depressed that you’ll feel your only recourse is to beat a hasty exit from the gene pool (another favorite Taleb expression).

Antifragile represents the next stage in the evolving thought of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an academic/practitioner in the black art of financial risk management.  Taleb’s previous book,  The Black Swan, written in 2007 just as the financial crisis was beginning to rear its ugly head, focused on the fact that low-probability, high-impact (usually negative) events are frequently underestimated by classic statistical and risk management techniques. This leads to catastrophes much larger than they would have been had these Black Swan events been given more respect (and a wider berth).  Part of what makes Black Swan events so deceptively deadly is that it is nearly impossible to predict their occurrence, or even estimate their likelihood.  While Taleb was not the first to discover these concepts, he certainly played a role in raising general awareness, making the phrase “Black Swan” an idiom in the financial world.

Now, Taleb blazes a completely new trail, saying that if we cannot predict the likelihood of Black Swan events, we can however distinguish entities (whether organizations, financial instruments, or health regimes) that are more or less vulnerable to Black Swan events.  The former are called “fragile”, the later “antifragile”. 

The difference is in how an entity responds to the volatility in its environment – fragile entities are damaged by volatility, ultimately breaking down under its onslaught, while antifragile entities are designed (or have figured out how) to profit from volatility – improving themselves in the process.  “Volatility” here means any factor that leads to changing circumstances – environmental changes, laws and regulations, weather, or even just the ravages of time.

Let’s take a simple example from the book.  John and George are two identical twins living in London.  John is a clerk in the HR department of a large bank with 25 years of seniority.  George makes his living by driving a taxi.  On the surface, John has the better situation – a regular check, health care benefits, a reputable position in his community.  But on closer examination, by insulating himself from small doses of volatility, he has set himself up to be vulnerable to much larger doses (aka Black Swans) such as a corporate layoff he could not predict, and would have no control over.  John’s post-layoff predicament, as we have learned over the past few decades, is precarious indeed.

Now let’s turn to George.  Like any self-owned business, he is subject to small daily doses of volatility.  Some days business is booming, others it just dries up.  The cash flow is irregular, the prospects uncertain from day to day.  Yet by accepting this daily uncertainty, George protects himself from the type of catastrophic Black Swan even that could ruin John.  It is impossible for his income simply to go to zero, unless he just stops driving.  His small doses of volatility provide him with daily information, which causes him to constantly re-assess his environment, his “business model”, and the correspondence between the two – he must constantly ask himself questions like “Am I driving at the right times?  In the right neighborhoods?  Am I doing enough to cultivate a regular clientele?  Do I need to upgrade my skills?”  The small course corrections are adaptations that keep the gap between business model and reality small, effectively forestalling the catastrophic events that result from a gap that has gotten too wide because it has been ignored.

The Black Swan focused on the fact that low-probability, high-impact (usually negative) events are frequently underestimated by classic statistical and risk management techniques.

George has the “optionality”, or freedom to choose his response to changing circumstances.  He can keep working as long as he desires.  He can respond to unusual opportunities that lie well outside the bounds of salaried employment – as when a rich client asked him to drive her 2,000 miles to a wedding in the south of France when air traffic was shut down a few years ago due to volcanic activity in Iceland. By embracing volatility, George makes volatility his friend, and avoids (at least some) catastrophic outcomes.  By insulating himself from small doses of volatility, John practically insures that it will come in big doses.  In short, George is antifragile, while John is fragile.

This is not to say that George occupies the optimal position in terms of winning his daily bread.  When it comes to personal economics, or investing, or just about any human endeavor, Taleb is an ardent advocate of what he calls the “barbell” approach – the bulk of your resources are allocated to a stable, risk-free (or as risk-free as you can manage) alternative, while the rest are allocated to risky alternatives with “asymmetric payoffs”, i.e. potential benefits that far outstrip their riskiness.  Therefore, , George might seek a day job as a bell hop or security guard, and limit his taxi driving to night life areas, where the clients are more lubricated and the tips (hopefully) larger.

Taleb’s book is the work of the kind of big picture thinker who is compelled to push his paradigm to the ends of the earth.  Here’s a synopsis of some of his points:

  • Through evolution, nature has become one of the most antifragile entities around.
  • We need to respect this – the burden of proof for any intervention against nature must fall on the intervention, not on nature.  Where this burden is not borne, we should emulate nature, not the artificial intervention.
  • The omnivorous character of the human diet is a perfect example.   It is antifragile – we can survive on either plant or animal material, though preferably both.  We are built to survive, and even benefit from, volatility in our food sources.
  • What benefits from volatility benefits most when there is variation, or even randomness.  Looking at nature, we should not expect to eat meat at every meal.  In fact, we should not even expect to eat a meal at every meal.  Periodic abstinence from meat and fasting from all food are likely to be beneficial, regardless of the currently reigning theory, because this is how animals live in nature.
  • Therefore, Taleb, who is a practicing member of the Greek Orthodox Church, adheres to their rigorous schedule of fasting, which can go as high as 200 days out of the year. 

The preceding line of reasoning is typical of Taleb in another respect.  Without identifying himself as a believer or a traditionalist, many of his arguments wind up in support of the “heuristics” (rules of thumb) advocated by tradition and religion, from periodic fasting to debt avoidance.  Like nature itself, religion and tradition have had centuries and even millennia to hone in on the human practices that combat fragility.

Read Antifragile, all the way to the end, where you will find Taleb’s test to see if you are still alive – do you have a sense of adventure?  Does the optionality of the unknown still thrill you? If so, you are well on your way to becoming antifragile.  If not, you now know what you need to do to get there.

antifragile2Like nature itself, religion and tradition have had centuries and even millennia to hone in on the human practices that combat fragility. 

 by Albert Regensberger

(Photo Credit: Stuart Chessman, St. Gregory’s Society)

Sign up for REGINA's weekly newsletter

  1. You will usually hear from us about once a week, usually on Sunday. 
  2. At other times, we may send a special email. 

To subscribe, go here!