Trust in Institutions

I am thinking about the CDC. Monday last week they not only issued their confusing message about masks, they said don’t travel to Spain. The State Department accordingly said, with regard to Spain, “Do Not Travel.” It is their highest cautionary level. Although I could still go on my planned pilgrimage of walking the traditional Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela—Spain would admit me, being fully vaccinated, and the route is open—I have decided to delay it (again).
    In my mind is the voice of an old New York friend, who some years ago said, “Victor, you ought to go while you still can.” The Grim Reaper ever lurks in the shadows. On the other hand, another friend has pointed out that anybody can walk the Camino; what you need to do is go at the pace that is right for you. (So, don’t worry about the delay.) Yet another friend, a person confined to a wheelchair, wants to go someday; and “with a little help from his friends” (forgive the Beatles’ near-quote) he could.
    A bit more than a year ago, I read in The New Atlantis, a journal of science and culture, this old saying: Trust is gained in spoonfuls but lost in buckets. It is hard to build up trust yet mighty easy to lose it, and having lost it, exceedingly hard to regain it. It is not a judgment but simply a fact to say that major scientific institutions have lost trust in the past year. They will find it hard to regain.
    Thus, by presumption, I bristle at new CDC guidelines. I have seen the New York Times (even the NYT!) mock the CDC for bone-headed declarations; one NYT headline dripped with irony when it said (of a long-delayed accommodation to the exceedingly flimsy evidence of outdoor transmission), “CDC decides to follow the science.”
    And yet, and yet . . . just because trust has been lost does not mean that any particular declaration is wrong. If Covid is on the increase in Spain (as it is), and if Spain is, relatively to us, under-vaccinated, then it seems good to delay my pilgrimage to the spring, grim reaper to the contrary notwithstanding.
    We need to be honest with one another and to expect clarity and humility from such institutions as the CDC. At the same time, we need to be open to the possibility that even a much-beleaguered institution can still get something right. We need to be willing to acknowledge, indeed to hope to find, those spoonfuls by which trust can be reestablished.
    Which is just another way to say: Because God has made us social beings, there is an essential place for authority in our lives. (I seem to be unable to escape from my first book, Up with Authority.)
    Out & About. For the first time, I have preached on the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. It seems to me that he is in danger of squandering—of throwing away, which is something like the literal meaning of being a prodigal—the most important things of all. (So he has a claim of being the “prodigal” too.) Preachers who will be visiting this parable in Lent of 2022 might want to bookmark this for homiletic provocation! I called it, “Can this family be one family?” You will be able to find the sermon here:

The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."