Why are Catholics so stuck?

One of the best Catholic bloggers around, Amy Welborn, recently observed:

Political conversations among Catholics are stuck. Just stuck. Anyone who has been reading the politically-oriented Catholic blogs or websites sees this pretty quickly. Every single conversation – every bloody one – goes like this:

A: Obama’s positions are unacceptable to faithful Catholics because…

B. Oh, yeah? What about McCain’s positions. They’re unacceptable because….

A: But Obama’s unacceptable positions touch on more serious issues.

B. Oh really? The bishops say…

A. Oh really? But the bishops say…

That’s also been my experience of political discussion among Catholics this election year. Most of you would probably agree that it wasn’t any different back in 2004. In fact, I have found that it hasn’t been all that different from the above since Vatican II. Anybody who’s been around as long as I have, and been involved in as many Catholic left-right debates as I have, could have written Amy’s script by 1972. Only the names would need to be changed.

It is a bit different with strictly ecclesial matters, but not all that different. Whether the topic is liturgy, vocations, sexuality and marriage, or anything else of the sort that often makes it into MSM coverage of the Church, one could practically write the script. My own Catholic extended family of origin is like that. We don’t even bother debating politics and religion anymore. We all know our lines, and we don’t need to put on the umpteenth night of the show.

The proximate problem is what the late Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, pictured in our header, called “syndrome thinking.” For various reasons, mostly having to do with how the “chattering classes” influence everybody with a pulse, people tend to adopt their opinions rather uncritically in packages. For example, if you’re against capital punishment, chances are you’re “pro-choice” on abortion, and can see absolutely nothing ironic about the resultant disposition to spare the probably guilty while leaving the certainly innocent to die. If you’re against overt sex education in the schools, chances are you’re for the Iraq war, or at least prefer it to retiring from the field before the Iraqis themselves can defeat the same enemies we’ve been fighting for the last five years. Thus, you want to protect young people from their own sexuality, but see absolutely nothing ironic about the fact that you view the thousands of deaths and many more maimed young bodies and minds that the current wars produce as a price worth paying for our security. I am not now interested in who is right and who is wrong about any such issues in particular. What interests me is why syndrome thinking is so hard to unlearn. There are exceptions to it, of course; but the exceptions only make the rule all the harder to swallow. Must it be swallowed all the same, like stale bread one eats when there’s nothing else on hand and it’s too much trouble to fetch anything else?

Well, sometimes that’s just the way it is, and the people involved will see neither opportunity nor reason for it to be otherwise. But I have found that, among intelligent, orthodox Catholics who both can and want to think critically, it isn’t like that. They’re not syndrome thinkers. When they disagree it’s because, sharing the same principles, they either have different accounts of empirical fact, or different ideas about how applying common moral and spiritual principles to what’s agreed are the facts would actually work out. Such are the kinds of disagreement I’ve seen among intelligent, orthodox Catholics about health care, the wars we’re in, the extent of government’s role in regulating the economy, developing renewable energy sources, global warming, and many other issues of public policy. I’ve seen the same among such Catholics about strictly ecclesial issues such as priestly celibacy, marriage annulments, the state of the liturgy, and the development of doctrine. The disagreements are the kinds that intelligent people with the same principles can reasonably have with one another. Sometimes, minds are even changed. Such people are not “stuck.” So why don’t people like Amy Welborn, or the MSM for that matter, notice this more? Is it just that blogs and talk shows attract so many comments from reliable knee-jerkers?

I don’t think so. I think it’s because most Catholics don’t have the combination of time, talent, and good will to learn how to think outside their syndrome. As a subset of the Catholics who attend church, the number of intelligent, orthodox Catholics who can and want to think critically is miniscule. They are drowned out by the least common denominator—which is now as loud on the Internet as it is taken for granted in most parishes. And for most people, the easiest, most gratifying thing to do is to echo what they hear. The reason Catholics are so stuck is that the Catholics who could ease the deadlock are often too hard to hear, and offer thoughts which are rarely gratifying enough emotionally to be heeded when they are heard.

Perhaps that is inevitable in a democratic society where “climates of opinion” matter more than real thinking. But if more Catholics recognize the problem, perhaps more of them who could be part of the solution would be motivated to become so. What’s needed is a bit more spiritual maturity, so that there’s less of what the Russian Orthodox call prelest.

I can dream and pray, can’t I? And I can fast too.


24 Responses

  1. Unfortunately, this problem is not confined to Catholics; however, it may be more acute among Catholics because the Roman Church’s social teaching, firmly founded in the Tradition shared by all pre-reformation Churches, is “conservative” in some ways and “liberal” in others, confounding easy ideological labeling. This is all too the good, but virtually all of us, i suspect, are more in sympathy with some aspects of this teaching over against others and are influenced by extrinsic factors, such as socioeconomic considerations.

  2. Speaking of the instance of inter-Catholic debates on matters of faith — Often people will have a strong tendency toward left or right-wing politics that is thus brought into discussions on faith. If you vote Democrat you will tend to be ok with abortion and women’s ordination. If you vote Republican you will tend to be ok with the death penalty and the war. It ought to be the case that our politics are informed by our faith, not the other way around. Unfortunately, I see far too many occasions of politics informing positions on faith.

    Pray, fast…. good idea.

  3. I’ve noticed this problem myself, and I think there is a very simple reason why it happens: most Catholics identify primarily with their political party, and only secondarily (or thirdly, etc) with the Church. The sets of statements you mentioned may be contradictory, but they nevertheless are consistent with the platforms of different political parties.

    Alan Keyes recently wrote a rather lengthy piece in which he argues that Americans have gotten themselves into a soundbyte mentality, requiring everything to be simplified down for them. Any philosopher could tell you that the truth is never found that easily.

    Here’s the Keyes article:


    I don’t know what it said. It was too long, so I didn’t finish it. 😉

  4. I have to agree with phamilton: most Catholics, even intelligent ones. consider Catholicism way in the background of how they think. They might be very thoughtful, and even good Catholics when it comes to moral issues, but when it comes to the Church, the common attitude is: “what does the Church know about x?”

    That’s just how I felt growing up. Catholics were no different than anyone else. They were only different because you saw them in Mass on Sunday. The miniscule minority, who care what people on Catholic blogs and the hierarchy think, often think themselves far more important than they really are. “Catholic” for most is merely one small hat that they wear along with being a member of the NRA, the ACLU, or any other selection in the alphabet soup of organizations or ideologies.

  5. Gentlemen:

    I grant you that most American Catholics think like Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, before they think like Catholics. One might well conclude that their habits of thought aren’t Catholic enough. But I don’t think one can successfully explain that by citing the common assumption that “the Church” doesn’t “know” about political or economic issues.

    For one thing, more than 99% of “the Church” is us. So, what people seem to mean when they say that “the Church” doesn’t know enough to offer reliable guidance in political matters is that the Church’s lifers—the hierarchy, the priests, the religious—don’t know enough. And it’s true that the Church’s lifers aren’t specialists in such matters. In a democratic society, their personal opinions about political matters carry no more weight than anybody else’s. But nobody denies that. At the same time, the teaching authority of the Church presents a large body of social teaching and hasn’t been shy about defending it. That body of teaching contains a very rich set of principles to guide the thought and action of Catholics in the political sphere. What continues to puzzle me is how Catholics so often seem to reach diametrically opposed practical conclusions when they purport to apply such principles. And not only that: the opposed conclusions are usually reached and presented according to Amy’s script.

    Of course it is true that Catholics often don’t think like Catholics first when it comes to political matters, and that they often justify that pointing out that Church officials enjoy no special competence in such matters. But I’m talking about that minority of Catholics who actually take the social teaching of the Church seriously enough to study and apply it. Even they usually stick to their lines in the script. So, my conclusion is that they’re just not being ascetical enough in their lives as Catholics to gain the needed critical distance on their self-interest, their prejudices, and those thoughts of theirs which come from sources other than the Church.


  6. Remember what this battleground is all about:

    The message echoed and re-echoed:
    “Gov. Palin shares John McCain’s commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton in a statement issued before McCain had stepped out on the stage in Dayton, Ohio, with Palin.

    “She shares John McCain’s commitment to overturning Roe v. Wade,” agreed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi two hours later.

    “Gov. Palin and John McCain are a good match because they both want to overturn Roe v. Wade,” chimed in Ellen Malcolm, a Hillary Clinton adviser and president of the Democratic group Emily’s List, which backs women abortion rights candidates.

    “The last thing women need is a president — and vice president — who are prepared to turn back the clock on women’s rights and repeal the protections of Roe v. Wade,” said Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which backs mostly Democratic candidates.

    If McCain were to win the election but not serve out his term, it would be Palin nominating justices for any Supreme Court vacancies.

    SOURCE: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26460555/

  7. Mike — I think you hit the nail on the head with your diagnosis. You see the phenomenon very strongly among the staff of dioceses. Catholic Charities workers tend to represent one “syndrome”, those from the pro-life office a different “syndrome”, etc. And they’re the ones who are drafting bishops’ statements. Hence the confusion when people try to listen to their bishops.

    There is no doubt that many, many good and faithful Catholics are not thinking as Catholics (or even as Christians, for goodness sake — just look at the debate over the use of torture against terrorists), much less acting like Catholics.

    Archbishop Chaput wrote in his book Render Unto Caesar: “Ultimately, I believe that all of us who call ourselves American and Catholic need to recover what it really means to be ‘Catholic.’ We also need to find again the courage to be Catholic Christians first — not in opposition to our country, but to serve its best ideals.” Precisely.

    You’re also right about the course of treatment. We need more holy disciples, less loudmouths on blogs. The answer is prayer and fasting.

  8. I’ve spent a good part of this year thinking about this “stuckness.” I’ve come to the conclusion that our terminology on the abortion issue in particular results in Catholic dogs chasing Catholic tails. What I mean is this: there is no such thing as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” strictly speaking. Most pro-lifers believe, no matter their religious stripes, that abortions in the cases or rape or incest are okay even in the face of the “life-begins-at-conception” teaching of Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular. And on the “pro-choice” side, very few of them really believe that one should have the complete license for abortion as birth control. On Obama, for instance, despite his legal-philosophical position about choice, is no more likely to approve of a late 2nd or 3rd-trimester abortion than McCain. I mean, read Obama’s books: he’s a family man who owns liberal social policies. But enough about our two presidential candidates.

    My point is that the yes/no dichotomy as applied to abortion ~severely~ limits our conversations about these issues. There are a great many abolitionist pro-lifers who also won’t tolerate gradualism. It’s like the pre-U.S. Civil War era all over again. – TL

  9. Mr. Mechmann,

    There’s a big difference between the two platforms.

    For instance, Palin is actually and distinctly “PRO-LIFE”:

    Sarah Palin: A politician who lives her truth


    Sarah Palin’s Pro-Life Credentials

  10. Among orthodox Catholics? Interesting. I guess my answer is that Original Sin has given us an impressive ability to rationalize and cover up our real motives for our actions. It’s a constant fascination of mine that there are hardly ever paradigmatically evil people in the world, and yet evil is so rampant. Evil thrives, even though 99% of people would probably characterize themselves as good people. Original Sin also clouds our ability to see our own ugliness, even among those who are more aware of our ugliness than others.

    It thus seems plausible to me that even those aware of the Church’s teachings wind up getting caught up in ideology without knowing it. Only the men and women who are exceptionally humble know themselves well enough to know when they are standing in God’s way. Thus, I agree that prayer and ascesis are to be prescribed. And for those of us earning a D+ in life at the moment, a good dose of purgatory.

  11. *…even among those of us…* I am an amateur when it comes to ‘pro’nouns.

  12. Glad to find the blog! I like Amy Welborne’s blog, but I thought she was just wrong about that – given the negative connotations of ‘stuck’, it’s not true that Catholics are stuck. I think people could put faith first, be ascetic (both important points), and still disagree almost as much as they currently do about the application of Catholic social principles as immediate political policies. In fact, surely we all know people who are ascetic, put faith first, and think outside the syndrome, and still disagree, and effectively along left/right lines? I don’t even see why this is problematic.

  13. Perhaps those who are more keen to point out the ugliness in others should instead look into the sheer ugliness that exists in themselves?

  14. Francesca:

    Surely we all know people who are ascetic, put faith first, and think outside the syndrome, and still disagree, and effectively along left/right lines?

    I know no such people. In fact, I would even say that Catholics who disagree “along left/right lines,” where ‘left’ and ‘right’ have their conventional, contemporary political meanings, are ipso facto thinking inside the syndrome. And I say that partly because I cannot conceive how somebody who assents to the social teaching of the Church, and does so according to the mind of the Church, could arrive at only “left” or only “right” political positions with any logical consistency.


  15. Ok, I’ll rephrase. I agree the last five words undermine the contention! Take out ‘along left/right lines?’ Two Catholics who are equally faithful and equally ascetic, a St Dominic and a St Francis, could disagree on how to apply Catholic social teachings to any particular political case, and thus to many particular political cases, and each of these disagreements could in fact run parallel to the lines of disagreement between secular leftists and conservatives.

    Do you disagree with that?

  16. CatholiCity,

    A charitable reading of my post would be appreciated.

  17. Francesca:

    I see now. Instead of suggesting that two equally faithful and ascetical Catholics could disagree in such a way as to embrace Left and Right positions respectively and collectively, which I would deny, you’re saying that they could embrace Left and Right positions respectively on this-or-that particular issue. I have no problem with saying that. But given the lack of logical entailment between many Catholic social teachings and any particular “left” or “right” application of them, I should consider it highly unlikely that any two Catholics of the sort in question would, in fact, come out reliably left or right across the spectrum.


  18. No, not reliably across the spectrum, but on a number of individual cases.

    One reason is that the general moral principles and the social principles taught by the Church can be translated into different policies. It’s almost as if the principles were a white light, the situation is the prism and the practices are the colours.

  19. Dr. Liccione,

    I don’t think Francis, in particular, would even voice his opinion on state matters as this. Perhaps the earlier Francis who was so keen to embrace the honorable knighthood in Assisi, but not the type that sought only living out the Gospel.

    In any event, I don’t think one should ponder what the ‘spiritual’ Catholic after the manner of such great saintly figures would actually do in our case since they would most assuredly abstain from participating in any political fora for they would not concern themselves with things of this world.

    I believe a more practical assessment on the matter in the case of an ordinary Catholic would be more appreciated in this regard rather than the extra-ordinary.

  20. …they would most assuredly abstain from participating in any political fora for they would not concern themselves with things of this world.

    You mean like this one, this one, and this one? Or how about this one?

    I believe a more practical assessment on the matter in the case of an ordinary Catholic would be more appreciated in this regard rather than the extra-ordinary.

    My recommendation for the “average” Catholic comes in the last two sentences of my post. As for great saints such as Francis and Dominic, those were hypothetical examples introduced by Francesca. One could just as well substitute some people I know, who are not great saints as far as I know, but are nonetheless “intelligent, orthodox Catholics who can and do think critically.”

    I am troubled by the suggestion that the holiest Catholics would not even form political opinions. All of us are called to holiness, and some of us are also called to be active in the “public square.”


  21. Simply Philos:

    Possibly, but some of the Saints were rulers, such as Louis and Stephen of Hungary and there are other political types, such as Dorothy Day, who will one day be canonized. In looking at them, I think Dr. Mike’s point is made even more cogent, which leads me to wonder: when will the “hermeneutic of continuity” and the “reform of the reform” folks begin calling for a renewal of the ascetic disciplines, not only prayer, but also fasting and almsgiving, in the Latin Church, especially in such places as the United States?

  22. Dr. Liccione,

    I thought I had made specific reference to the case of a St. Francis in my post; however, if that was not clear, I’ll say it now for clarification.

    I’ve read much about St. Francis from both the Catholic and even the secular and Protestant perspective.

    From all biographical accounts, his purpose was more focussed on living out the Gospel with such faith and literal devotion; he hardly cared for matters of the world since what principally mattered to him then post-conversion was Christ and The Gospel.

    In fact, there were many controversies that resulted due to so profound a devotion; I am alluding here to the formalities demanded of him as regards the proper formulation of the Franciscan Programme as well as the Spiritual Franciscans.

    (In the case of the latter, just to be clear, I think they were wrong in not heeding the Holy See; the fact that even Francesco himself sought approval for his Regula Prima from Pope Innocent III should have set an example for all Franciscans.)

  23. I mentioned Dominic and Francis because, as contemporaries, they reacted to the needs of the Church of their time by forming Orders with obvious similarities (Friars) and obvious dissimilarities. They seem to have been temperamentally and spiritually different. One could say Ronald Knox and Martin D’Arcy.

  24. phamilton:

    My remarks was not necessarily only aimed towards you but to Catholics generally — including myself.

    Humility. It’s the Answer that eludes many of us.

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