On Cuckoo Captains and Seemingly Sinking Ships: Lessons from The Caine Mutiny
You don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job, or you’re no good.
– Lt. Barney Greenwald, The Caine Mutiny
Like [Noah’s] Ark, the Catholic Church is not perfect. It’s not tidy, clean, and odor-free. It has plenty of problems and challenges and unruly passengers, but it’s still the ‘ark of salvation’ given to us by God…
– Patrick Madrid, Catholic apologist
I have a dear friend who recently hop-scotched his way out of the Catholic Church and into Russian Orthodoxy. His stated reason? He has lost faith in the infallibility of the Pope.
I was catechized, baptized, and Confirmed with this friend. I know him pretty well. He has always impressed me, ever since our earliest conversations, in which he – a then-catechumen, mind you – casually and comfortably discussed the works of Church fathers and various Council documents.
I can safely say that this guy is no dope. He put in a lot of intellectual legwork prior to making the decision to become Catholic. And yet, he fell into one of the most unsophisticated traps in the Devil’s bag of tricks.
It makes me want to crack him over the head with a heavy book.
Last night, I re-watched The Caine Mutiny, the classic tale of a mentally ill captain and the men who seize control from him during a vicious typhoon. I couldn’t help but think that Lieutenant Barney Greenwald must have felt exactly the same way about his clients as I feel about my friend when assigned the task of defending them against charges of mutiny. One of the first things he says to the pair is: “I think what you’ve done stinks.” Later, he admits that he would prefer to be prosecuting them.
To be fair, Lt. Maryk and Ensign Keith – the accused – were clearly dealing with a captain of unsound mind. Immediately upon assuming command of the Caine, Captain Queeg makes a series of mistakes, cowardly decisions, and paranoid outbursts; he is unwilling to accept responsibility for the consequences of these actions, and shifts the blame onto his underlings in a brusque, bullying manner. We can certainly understand the men’s anxiety at having Cpt. Queeg in command during the typhoon, given his previous track record, and the fact that lives are at stake.
And, to be fair to my friend, we are currently dealing with a Pope who has the most exasperating habit of making vague, equivocal, and even downright problematic remarks, which have the unfortunate result of misleading the masses into thinking he is radically changing unchangeable fundamentals of Catholic teaching. I suppose this Pope’s behavior could cause well-meaning and intelligent people to doubt his infallibility—assuming these people don’t understand the nuances of that particular dogma, which does not assure that everything the Pope says will be perfectly correct. Rather, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs that infallibility is gifted to the Pope only when “he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (891 – emphasis added). In other words, off-the-cuff remarks made during interviews and press conferences are not covered under this particular divine insurance policy.
Given that the Caine seemed certain to founder under Cpt. Queeg’s cockeyed command, surely Lt. Maryk was justified in seizing control of the ship? Likewise, given the bewildering behavior of our current Pope, is it not understandable if people – like my friend, for example – throw up their hands in hopeless vexation and go in search of greener pastures?
The answer to both questions is an unqualified No. And here’s why.
Lt. Greenwald makes an astute point when he reminds the officers of the Caine that they had ample opportunity to exert respectful influence over their captain prior to their usurpation of his position; in fact, Cpt. Queeg directly requested their help in his own awkward, socially stunted way after one of his gaffes. However, instead of trying to maneuver the captain onto more sane, stable ground, the officers focused on his flaws, and ruminated on their resentment, so that, when a crisis developed, they were primed to lash out against their lawfully appointed, if imperfect, commander.
In parallel, as Catholics, if we don’t approve of our Pope’s words or actions, it is our duty to pray for the man, and petition him with our grievances. He cannot do a more satisfactory job if he has no input or prayerful support from his flock. It does no good to endlessly complain about the situation amongst ourselves, fixating on our discontent, without ever trying to proactively improve the situation through the means accorded to us.
Secondly, for both sailors and lay Catholics, it is pure insolence to disdain the chain of command. The Navy and the Church are organizations with complex hierarchies designed to maintain order and streamline operations. The mechanisms in place for the selection and promotion of authority figures are time-worn and battle-tested; they got to be this way for good reasons. That’s not to say mistakes don’t happen, or that once-good apples don’t sometimes turn rotten, but in general, the systems of both institutions deserve our respect.
When Ens. Keith testifies during Lt. Maryk’s trial, he insists that the Caine was “in imminent danger of foundering,” and that it was therefore necessary to take control of the ship. “Have you ever been in a ship that foundered?” the prosecutor asks. Ens. Keith admits he has not. “Mister Keith, how long have you been in the Navy?” Ens. Keith states that he has been in a little over a year. “Lt. Commander Queeg has served over eight years. I ask you, which of you is better qualified to judge if a ship is foundering?”
Both sailors convinced they can run the Navy better than the Admirals, and lay Catholics who believe they can run the Church better than the Pope, are guilty of grave hubris. From where we’re sitting, with the knowledge available to us, it may seem as though we coulda-shoulda-woulda done things better than the higher-ups in any given situation. But we never have all the facts, and our superiors have, well, a superior level of experience. As the prosecutor suggested to Ens. Keith, doesn’t that alone put them in a better position to make important judgment calls?
In the Church’s case, our superiors have been selected by God, and there is always a reason for everything He does. We may not understand exactly what that reason is, and that might drive us a little bit crazy. But having the humility to silence those “I-have-a-better-plan” voices, relax, and follow God’s plan instead, can work wonders for one’s sanity.
Furthermore, we Catholics have a massive leg up on those poor fellas aboard the Caine; we have God’s promise that He will not allow our ship to sink. Make no mistake—a monstrous typhoon is coming (if it has not already arrived); this world is doomed, and at some point in the not-too-distant future it may well seem to all of us beleaguered crewmen that the ship is about to go down. That’s when we must remind ourselves who built the ship in the first place, and that He didn’t build it just so He could watch it crash into little pieces a couple thousand years down the line.
And besides, look at our alternatives. The waters surrounding us are black, bottomless, and churning violently. If one jumps ship directly into them, one hasn’t got a chance. If one hops onto some stray semblance of a passing vessel, one is taking an equal risk. In all likelihood, given the current socio-political climate, one will be jumping onto some version of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat—it will either be commandeered by an idealistic but inept Marxist type who inadvertently sets a course to nowhere; or handed over to a fascist type who, singing gaily and confidently all the while, pilots his fellow passengers directly into imprisonment and slavery. But that’s fodder for another review.
The fact is, there is only one ship built by Christ and guaranteed to outlast the culture wars of this turbulent world. Everything else on the waters is just so much flotsam and jetsam. And only a fool clings to driftwood when he could be aboard a battleship.
So, even if the waves seem impossibly high, and even if we wind up with a Cpt. Queeg at the helm every now and then, the wise sailor will maintain his post and carry on with his assigned tasks—patiently, prayerfully, and unpretentiously—until we reach the shores of Paradise.