From Open Windows to Broken Windows

Opening the Second Vatican Council Pope John XXIII made a remark that defined the nature of the entire council, “Throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.” It was a call for the church to recognize a need to engage with the modern world, to develop her desire to be a faith for all people and that the church define evangelization as a major reason for the church’s existence. Central to the ideas of the council, “the Church is the People of God.” So for many years the changes of the council found their way into the church. It is suggested that widows indeed were opened and much success has come from implementing the recommendations of the council. Today the church is still working to address two main points; making new disciples and growing the disciples already in the church.

Malcom Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point” writes about Broken Windows theory. Click To Tweet

Malcom Gladwell in his book “The Tipping Point” writes about Broken Windows theory. “Broken Windows theory is the brainchild of the criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable results of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.”

Gladwell looked at New York City who hired Kelling and urged the New York Transit Authority to put the Broken Windows theory into practice. He was obliged and they hired David Gunn to oversee the rebuilding of the subway system. Key to this rebuilding was a planned strategy to remove the graffiti from trains and implement a system that made it impossible to create new graffiti on the trains. The second phase was hiring William Bratton in 1990 who cracked-down on “fare beating.” Anyone who jumped a turn style, or did not pay the fare was arrested. When a check was run on those arrested other warrants were sometimes discovered and one in twenty were carrying a weapon of some kind. So for cops it was a bonanza, every arrest could have a surprise. By 1994 the transit police had made the subway system safe and harassment free. In 1994 when Rudolph Giuliani was elected Mayor he elevated Bratton to head of the New York City Police Department and Bratton quickly applied the same theory to the streets of New York. He ordered his men to crack down on quality-of-life crimes: the “squeegee men” who came up to drivers at intersections and demanded money for washing car windows, he stepped up enforcement of laws against public drunkenness, public urination and throwing bottles in the street. As had been noticed in the subway work, crime began to fall in the city, quickly and dramatically. Bratton and Mayor Giuliani pointed to the same cause, removing these small crimes. New York City reversed the crime epidemic and to this day enjoys many tourist and people who want to live and work there.

New York City reversed the crime epidemic and to this day enjoys many tourist and people who want to live and work there. Click To Tweet

By removing these small crimes, which can tend to overwhelm others things that are happening, they made big crimes stand out. If you are getting your windows cleaned by someone demanding payment and there is someone tossing bottles in the street and another person is urinating on the corner, no one notices the drug dealer selling drugs out in the open. But remove all the other quality of life crimes and then drug dealers standout and are easily arrested or stop on their own.

Broken Windows and the Roman Catholic Church

How does the Broken Windows theory apply to the church? The Roman Catholic Church has many rules, and defined sins that can be argued are like these quality of life crimes. There are sins that are “overlooked” and maybe lack certain intentional teaching. Although these are not necessarily small sins they none-the-less receive little redress and pastoral attention. An example would be artificial contraception, a sin as the church teaches. However of those in the child bearing stage of their life, over ninety percent who are Catholics use artificial contraception when they are not trying to conceive. Either the church is very wrong or its teaching is not working.

Looking with a Broken Windows perspective we can determine there are quite a few “sins” that generally speaking the church doesn’t see because she looks the other way. These I claim are sins identified by the church but not necessarily by the culture. The first example I already mentioned, artificial contraception, others could be; unmarried and cohabitating, premarital sex, masturbation, pornography. These are not misdemeanors in the eyes of the church by any means, but I list these examples as sins that people who think they are sinless, are doing.  There are others that if you pay attention you can see church people doing, even while they are at church: gossip, gluttony, pride, jealousy, anger (unjustified), missing mass. The clergy are not exempt from these sins, sometimes the priest can be the best example of someone who gossips.

Looking with a Broken Windows perspective we can determine there are quite a few “sins” that generally speaking the church doesn’t see because she looks the other way. Click To Tweet

If as a church these sins are declared but many people are doing them, doesn’t it seem a little like the Broken Windows theory? How can there be rules that are not followed and then an expectation to be models of Jesus in the world? How can we as a people attempt to attract others when our own lives don’t portray a kind of holiness or quality that others can see and be attracted too?

From Broken Windows to Scandal

Applying the experience of New York City, it is easy to understand why a church that doesn’t seem to address certain sins would be riddled with scandal on a much larger level. If many church people don’t adhere strictly to certain church law than why think any sin is intolerable? Of course sin can be forgiven but these Broken Window sins aren’t being addressed because they are not viewed as “real” sin.  Is there honestly anyone who believes a person will go to hell for using artificial contraception?

Perhaps the church should reconsider what sin is, especially those that are legal in society? Is it better to hold true to the law yet not be able to enforce it or is it better as church to stand strictly on the law? I know in theory the answer is easy, don’t comprise because everyone is sinning. But in reality does the church have a voice at all when it declares a certain sin and then says very little about it? Is the Church true or hypocritical? Has the church in fact inherited its moral code to the law of society? Maybe the church shouldn’t be in the sin naming business at all. There are plenty of people telling others they are doing something wrong. The church should be the place that tells people how to do things right. The sin system comes across as a punishment/reward system. If there is no punishment for something named a sin, the entire system become suspect. Maybe the church should reject the idea of sin totally.

Another approach is to be more direct about addressing these Broken Windows. The experience of New York City says fixing the Broken Windows affords the opportunity to make everything better. Shouldn’t the church be more direct in speaking about things like cohabitating, premarital sex, etc.? Maybe not as something not to do, but speaking as a pastoral entity, discussing what the church is FOR. Let’s not speak about a church that is against artificial contraception, rather let’s discuss what happens when couples plan their families together, and use proven techniques to know when the best times for them to join and expect birth or birth control? Is this not the true purpose of naming something a sin? It is not to handout punishment but to lead people away from certain things and lead them to their best.

Most of what is “heard” about the teaching by Catholics is NOT to do a thing. In fact I bet more people can talk about what the church is against than any other aspect of its teaching. God gives us freedom FOR things. It is why we have free will. Paul advises, “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love.” (Galatians 5:13) For Paul we have freedom to do as we wish, yes even sin, but he says don’t use your freedom that way, rather use it FOR service and love. If the church can’t model this than maybe it should go out of business. Certainly another body of laws is not needed, society seems to have a handle on making all the laws everyone wants. Rather the church is needed to model the one commandant Paul says fulfills the law, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  (Galatians 5:14)

The church either has to address its Broken Windows or change. Saying something is not allowed but looking the other way leads to hypocrisy. And no one wants to follow a hypocrite.

I bet more people can talk about what the church is against than any other aspect of its teaching. God gives us freedom FOR things. Click To Tweet

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