John Allen blogs on National Catholic Reporter about the myopia of both his Roman Catholic tradition and many Christians in deciding what really matters to the ordinary faithful. He compares our way of understanding the religious world to the way baseball was understood before Sabermetrics.
Serious baseball fans recognize that Lewis' book Moneyball "exposed a dirty little secret that baseball's best minds already understood: the categories that shape judgments about the game are often badly flawed."
Box scores, for instance, prize hits and RBIs, but on-base percentage is actually a more telling index of a batter's value (because it also gauges the ability to draw walks.) Pitchers win awards for their earned run average, but that statistic also reflects the impact of defense, ballparks, and plain luck; the ratio of groundballs to fly balls, however, is something a pitcher can control, and it's certainly worth taking into consideration, since nobody ever smacked a ground ball into the upper deck. By considering such under-valued abilities, smart teams can acquire game-changing players on the cheap.
Moneyball's point wasn't that ERA or batting averages are irrelevant, of course, but rather that excessive focus on those categories fails to bring the whole game into view.
Allen sees natural affinities between Catholicism and baseball, which we here at the Cafe have noticed also exists between Anglicanism and the national pastime.
Allen suggests that "a Catholic version of Moneyball might offer two challenges to the ecclesiastical box score: (1) Thinking not just in local or national terms, but globally. (2) Focusing not just on controversy, scandal, and newspaper headlines, but where ordinary Catholics actually invest their time and treasure.
"Ministry to the deaf," he continues, "is a relatively new pastoral category, [that has] emerged as creative impulses usually do, from ordinary Catholics seeing a need and trying to meet it. Officialdom is simply ratifying something already bubbling at the grassroots."
If you want a measure of how over-emphasis on a limited set of categories distorts perceptions, consider this: Barrels of ink have been spilled dissecting the Vatican's outreach to disgruntled Anglicans, which, realistically, might bring a few thousand new members into the church worldwide. Here you have an effort to integrate 1.3 million folks more thoroughly into the church, and it flies below radar -- because, of course, ministry to the deaf doesn't open a new front in the culture wars, which is a category we in the West take very seriously indeed..
This week's conference also helps account for something that otherwise can seem inexplicable: Why so many Catholics remain basically bullish about the church, despite all the scandal, division, and disappointment. Such Catholics aren't in denial, but their energy is invested in trying to do something positive.
When hope is what gets you out of bed in the morning, the landscape almost always looks more promising. In parishes, lay movements, schools, and other Catholic venues all over the world, that's still the case, even if it rarely attracts much notice.
Perhaps all this could be the basis of a new "box score" for the church, meaning a better set of categories for thinking about what really matters. If Sabermetrics can help the Red Sox break the Bambino's curse (and I say this as a diehard Yankees fan), its potential for generating winning strategies in Catholic life may well be almost unlimited
So the question to we Episcopalians is this: what things do we value and how does this distort or enhance our picture of the church, the world, and the people we are called to minister to? What would "Sabermetrics" for the Episcopal Church look like?