Cognitive Dissonance supplement 1/16/14

    1. Pope Francis’ tone
    2. Theology vs. abundant life
    3. A bridge too far


Although it is very difficult for those who see Catholicism through political lenses to grasp this, popes are not like presidents or state governors, and doctrine is not like public policy. Which means that a change of papal “administration” does not—indeed cannot—mean a change of Catholic “views.” Doctrine, as the Church understands it, is not a matter of anyone’s “views,” but of settled understandings of the truth of things.

At an academic conference years ago, a distinguished Catholic philosopher remarked (perhaps hyperbolically) that “If the pope said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I’d believe him.” An even more distinguished Catholic philosopher gave the correct, and far more Catholic, response: “If the Holy Father said that ‘2+2 = 5,’ I would say publicly, ‘Perhaps I have misunderstood His Holiness’s meaning.’ Privately, I would pray for his sanity.”

Thus the notion that this pontificate is going to change Catholic teaching on the morality of homosexual acts, or on the effects of divorce-and-remarriage on one’s communion with the Church, is a delusion, although the Church can surely develop its pastoral approach to homosexuals and the divorced.

(George Weigel) Meanwhile, at the New York Times, Ross Douthat engages a Damon Linker comment after Linker was on an NPR Talk Show and got a provocative idea from a caller. Linker:

After reading an endless stream of gushing commentary by liberal Catholics on Pope Francis, I’m beginning to wonder if they ever really cared about reforming doctrine in the first place.

The seeds of doubt were planted a couple of weeks after my TNR essay was published, when I appeared on an NPR radio show to discuss the pope. I repeated my argument, but then a caller challenged me. Describing herself as a progressive Catholic, she dismissed my skepticism about the likelihood of Francis reforming church doctrine. “Doctrine for a Catholic, now, is not even an issue,” said Trish from Kentucky (you can listen to her beginning at 24:43). “Catholics do not care about doctrine,” she said, adding, “It’s irrelevant. It’s a non-issue for Catholics.”

Douthat responds:

There are dangers in reading too much into an NPR caller, obviously, but Linker is putting his finger on a real tension within liberal Christianity today — or, if you prefer, a real fork in the road, with one path leading in the direction that he assumed dissenting Catholics wanted to take (which seeks to alter church teaching precisely because it still believes that teaching really matters), and the other leading toward a kind of Emersonian, therapeutic, basically post-ecclesiastical form of faith, in which “Roman Catholicism” just happens to be the name of the stage on which your purely individual spiritual drama is taking place.

Then he talks about cognitive dissonance in religion, using Orthodox and Conservative Judaism as an example, and winds back to Catholicism:

Gordis is raising an issue that any tradition-minded religious body needs to think through: Namely, how to make its hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments, and how to deal with the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent. And I suspect there are many Catholics who would be classified as “liberal” who want something like what he’s describing in Modern Orthodox[ Judaism] from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away. Hence their positive reaction to Francis’s rhetorical shift and their lack of urgency about actual doctrinal change.

I commend both Weigel‘s and Douthat‘s pieces, but if you only have time for one, make it Douthat, who with the cognitive dissonance perspective suggests something that was new to my thinking whereas Weigel just reiterated familiar (to me) themes.


As so often happens at the Spiritual Friendhip blog, someone has written so movingly and perceptively that it’s hard to know where to stop quoting, lest people not go read the whole thing. After writing the preceding sentence, and revising item 1, I realized that the first paragraph of this block quote fits Douthat’s “cognitive dissonance perspective”:

The idea that the conversation straight up ends with interpretation is, honestly, lethal to true religion, strangling the imagination out of faith and poisoning the endlessly complex “how then shall we live” of the Christian life. I think the rate at which gay Christians are abandoning celibacy is a pretty good indicator of that fact; though not always the case, the majority of people I know who have made the switch do so not because they’ve been convinced by “affirming” theology but because celibacy and an abundant life seem mutually exclusive, which, I need to add, is a kind of theological reason in its own right.

I think what this is revealing about conservative American churches, and perhaps churches in general, is that they are deeply mired in a failure of imagination.

When churches neglect to preach and model the good of singleness and celibacy, when they glut themselves on the opium of romance or oversell marriage to the detriment of both married and single people, they aren’t just straying from the truth of the Bible – they are corroding and constricting the imaginations of those in the congregation. What the men and women and children sitting in the pews can or cannot imagine as possible or good is greatly affected by what the church speaks of as possible or good.

At its redemptive best, this imaginative proclamation allows aching and isolated people to believe that there is a God who loves and desires them and that they can know his transformative grace and be welcomed into a community of hospitality and passion. But, tragically, that proclamation is often drowned in a flood of toxic sentiment, leaving many unsure of their worth and unable to form healthy relationships with other people or even God.

(Matt Jones, emphasis in original) Did I mention that you should read the whole thing? And Douthat. And maybe Weigel (if you’re unclear that Popes aren’t North Korean-style autocrats).


I’m admonished by Marcia Oddi at the Indiana Law Blog that it’s time to speak out on HJR 3. But before I do, I need to speak out on the sloppy sloganeering of her blog on the subject.

I stand with Jane Henegar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, who said Monday in calling for action now, rather than a referendum in November: “It’s not right for Hoosiers to put the rights of their neighbors up to a vote.”

I stand with Senior U.S. District Judge Terence C. Kern, who yesterday wrote when striking down Oklahoma’s constitutional prohibition: “Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed. It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions.”

It doesn’t matter how eloquently you say it: Oddi, Henegar and Judge Kern all are begging the question of what marriage is. Same-sex couples only have a right to it if the institution isn’t inherently gendered, if the state’s interest is merely giving a shout-out to special romantic friendships.

The authors of HJR 3, whatever else they were doing, were trying to make less assailable the view – held since time immemorial and apart from any Bible stories datelined “Garden of Eden, 4004 B.C.” – that marriage is gendered. Under that view, there cannot be a same-sex marriage any more than there can be round squares or funerals for people who haven’t died. And the evolving view is seen not only as wicked, but inchoately as insane or deliberately, transgressively perverse.

Unfortunately, my sanity about the meaning of marriage, my opposition to hubristic efforts to square the circle, this year in Indiana don’t give me a clear conclusion on HJR 3 because of that darned second sentence. But that has nothing to do with not “damaging our State’s reputation as a welcoming, 21st century place to live and work.”

It’s a real shame that people who (for reasons I must constantly remind myself of because they’re so counter-intuitive to me) want to redefine marriage have such a flawed product from “my side” to use as a smoke-screen.

That “smoke screen” reality leaves me in turmoil. My vote on a referendum can’t be merely a cathartic exercise in hoisting my team’s colors. I think I’m likely to vote against HJR 3 if it hits the ballot this Fall because of that second sentence, the virtual certainty of much litigation over the meaning (justified litigation – I’m not self-imposing a “heckler’s veto“), and the perverse likelihood that the second sentence makes the whole enterprise particularly susceptible to constitutional challenge — a bridge too far.

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

About readerjohn

I am a retired lawyer and an Orthodox Christian, living in a collapsing civilization, the modern West. There are things I'll miss when it's gone. There are others I won't. That it is collapsing is partly due to calculated subversion, summarized by the moniker "deathworks." This blog is now dedicated to exposing and warring against those deathwork - without ceasing to spread a little light.
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