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.