Monday, February 13, 2006

The Papacy and Engineering: Bridge Building

A note: the following is another excerpt from my letter of 2/22/2002 to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels responding to his request in Ut unum sint, 95.
-- Dr. Thursday

IV. The Pope as Engineer: B. The Bridge-Builder
Heart of Jesus, substantially united to the Word of God...
"Things in themselves diverse cannot unite unless something causes them to unite."[26]
There is something wonderful in considering the Pontiff as Bridge-Builder. In the entry for St. Bénezet (April 14) in Butler's Lives of the Saints, we read that
The construction and the repair of bridges was regarded in the middle ages as a work of mercy....[27]
And St. Thomas Aquinas links bridges with churches as things to be built which are "conducive to the common good:"
A man may be led to beg by a twofold motive. First, by the desire to have wealth or meat without working for it, and such like mendicancy is unlawful; secondly, by a motive of necessity or usefulness. The motive is one of necessity if a man has no other means of livelihood save begging; and it is a motive of usefulness if he wishes to accomplish something useful, and is unable to do so without the alms of the faithful. Thus alms are besought for the building of a bridge, or church, or for any other work whatever that is conducive to the common good....[28]
There are a number of important things to be learned from the building of bridges – things which I think also apply to the building of the Church (and I do not refer to any mathematical aspects!)
First and foremost one must be an authentic realist to build a bridge. It requires a remarkable foundation in the acknowledgement of reality as such. Solipsists do not build bridges – for one who believes that there is solo ipse, [Latin: "only himself"] there can be nothing else for him to be joined to. Chesterton points out that Thomism has "a constructive quality absent from almost all cosmic systems after him...." and explains that " is the only working philosophy. Of nearly all other philosophies it is strictly true that their followers work in spite of them, or do not work at all. No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind. No sceptic who believes that truth is subjective has any hesitation about treating it as objective."[29]
In order to even consider the building of a bridge, first one must be certain that there are indeed two things: two separate things, and not just one-and-the-same thing, and also that there is something which divides them – a river, or a chasm, or something like that.
Then there must be something which provides a way of linking them together. There must be some way of making them one, even if they are only made one to a very small extent. When the Roeblings considered the planning of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, they did not consider that Brooklyn and Manhattan could be made one by mere legal fiat. It was not even sufficient that there was a ferry service between the two cities. No, they wanted to have a way by which a man could, all by himself, "go in and out" – just as our Lord promised when He offered Himself to us as the Way. (See John 10:9 and 14:5-6)
In order to build something like that, there needs to be some kind of initial crossing over of the division. This crossover does not have to be a large one – but it has to be large enough to begin the work. It might be as insignificant as a kite string! One of the most amazing beginnings of a bridge ever recorded, a bridge to span the St. Lawrence River between the United States and Canada, was begun in that very manner:
One of the first problems to be faced at Niagara was how to get a wire over the gorge and its violent river. Ellet solved that nicely by offering five dollars to the first American boy to fly a kite over to the Canadian side. The prize was won by young Homer Walsh, who would tell the story for the rest of his days. Once the kite string was across, a succession of heavier cords and ropes was pulled over, and in a short time the first length of wire went on its way....[30]
What poetry! Indeed, in Mary's fiat, in the manger of Bethlehem, in the little white host, the thin kite strings are laid which will begin a mighty bridge leading from earth to heaven itself. But such a great bridge needs a builder.
David McCullough's The Great Bridge explains a little of the effect of John Roebling's bridge at Niagara (the one begun by a kite string, and finished in 1855). After it was completed Roebling wrote his family: "The passage of trains [over his bridge] is a great sight, worth seeing it." For those officials and engineers who stood with Roebling in 1869 looking at that bridge,
...the sight must have been no less stirring even for the engineers – perhaps especially for the engineers. There was, after all, something quite special about a bridge, almost any bridge. Very few were ever outright ugly, and when built right, with everything in harmony, with everything superfluous done away with, with all elements doing exactly what they were supposed to, then a bridge was a thrilling thing to see, with its own kind of graceful majesty, something quite apart from the practicalities of engineering.
Of course for a nation so recently torn apart by civil war [1861-65], a bridge was a particularly appealing symbol. But beyond that a bridge seemed such a magnificent example of man's capacity to master the forces of nature, and that, according to the preponderant wisdom of the day, was what the whole age was about. Building a bridge seemed such a clean, heroic thing for a man to do.[31]
These are powerful words, and most suggestive: "All elements doing exactly what they were supposed to.... A clean, heroic thing for a man to do." Very much like what Chesterton saw in the work of Aquinas:
St. Thomas' work has a constructive quality absent from almost all cosmic systems after him. For he is already building a house... He has thrown out a bridge across the abyss of the first doubt, and found reality beyond and begun to build upon it.[32]
There are a number of other parallels, both philosophical and poetic, which might be mentioned here – just for example:
• The building of a bridge almost always means the coordination and the labor of many men, but also almost always the plan of just one man.
• In a suspension bridge, the individual strands within the cables both support and are supported by the others in the cable; all together they hold up the entire weight of the roadway, which is thence transferred to the great pillars and the anchorages on either side.
• The bigger the bridge, the more important and the more complex will be the plan, the more danger is dared in its construction, and the more useful will it be when finished.
• The two great pillars of the very famous Brooklyn Bridge are founded upon two piles of wood. This bridge was designed by John Roebling, and after his death constructed by his son Washington. While working in the compressed air required to erect those pillars, Washington contracted the bends and became bedridden; his wife Emily assisted him daily in his work, and the bridge was completed in 1883.
Coupled with, and perhaps the foundation of, the poetic and mystical aspects of a bridge, there is also the idea of the master builder: the authority, the Chief Engineer, who plans and calculates and consults, then gives his orders. It is not merely a question of vast expense, or complexity of detail, or special knowledge in a unique field, but far more the sense of responsibility in the face of truly awesome natural challenges. It requires a profound sense of commitment by the man in charge:
Before entering upon any important work, Roebling always demonstrated to the most minute detail its practicability ... and when his own judgement was assured, no opposition, sarcasm, or pretended experience could divert him from consummating his designs, and in his own way.[33]
And the work of the Chief Engineer is not limited to the large questions and the initial planning. He must be ready to respond from day to day, and from moment to moment, for only he has the entire grasp of the picture, and in summary, only he can be responsible:
Washington Roebling had known times like this during the war, when nothing much appeared to be happening, but every day counted, when a dozen plans had to be gotten up and decided on without delay, contingencies considered, countless little details seen to and orders given, any one of which might determine the whole course of events to follow. "There must be someone at hand to say 'yes' or 'no'," he liked to comment, "and it often makes a great difference which word they use."[34]
Here we see the connection with Thomism: technical details are necessary in every kind of engineering, but far more important is the foundation of engineering upon common sense. For Roebling, and for every engineer, there must be a difference between yes and no! And the Pope, being a bridge builder too, maintains the distinction. G. K. Chesterton echoes Roebling in his eulogy for Pope Pius X:
The great and good priest now dead had all the prejudices of a peasant. He had a prejudice to the effect that the mystical word "Yes" should be distinguished from the equally unfathomable expression "No."[35]
This mystical and practical division of yes and no leads directly to my next topic – computer science – which, like bridge-building, partakes of both science and engineering.

[26] Kreyche, Robert J. First Philosophy. 177, quoting Summa Theologica I Q3A7.
[27] Butler's Lives of the Saints. 2:93.
[28] St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica II-II Q187 A5.
[29] Chesterton, G. K. Saint Thomas Aquinas. CW2:542-543, emphasis added. For me, this suggests how powerfully engineering is linked with Catholicism.
[30] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY (1972) 76.
[31] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. 82-83.
[32] Chesterton, G. K. Saint Thomas Aquinas. CW2:543.
[33] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. 78.
[34] McCullough, David. The Great Bridge. 144.
[35] Chesterton, G. K. Illustrated London News. August 29, 1914. CW30:153.


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