Friday, January 11, 2019

Missing the Clues, Missing the Answer

Among the dangers of misunderstanding out there, one that comes to my mind is the fact that members of the faithful are all too quick to draw assumptions from what they think they know, treating it as all the information needed to form a judgment. The problem is it is easy to make mistakes over cause and effect, or assume that there is only one conclusion to be drawn.

Assumptions can be falsely positive or excessively negative. I’m reminded of some triumphalistic books written by English Catholics in the early 20th century about the rising divorce rate in Protestant countries. They rightly deplored the divorce rate (back then it was “only” 3 in 10 ending in divorce), but wrongly assumed that the problem was caused by Protestant theology and that Catholics would never run into these problems. Unfortunately, that assumption was based on false interpretation of information. Yes, the Protestant mindset about marriage caused this to appear more quickly among their denominations, but they mistook the cause and effect. The problem was a growing indifference to moral and religious obligations... something that would fester later (after World War II) among Catholics. The reaction of the authors was rather like the above (repurposed) comic by David Low. These authors failed to grasp that the growing threat put them in the same boat if the problem was left unchecked.

Another example might be one described by C.S. Lewis in his essay, “The Decline of Religion” (found in the book God in the Dock). Talking about the missed clues that led to the decline of attendance at chapel in Oxford, he pointed out that the assumed cause and effect was wrong. He wrote:

The ‘decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels. Now it is quite true that that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than ‘rollers’ (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.

In other words, when chapel was mandatory (and attendance was taken), the nonconformists had to report in early. So many came to chapel not out of conviction, but because it meant sleeping in an extra ten minutes. It could not simply be fixed by reinstating mandatory attendance because the attitude had appeared long before.

Another issue is mentioned by Benedict XVI in his work, Milestones. In discussing the attempt of the bishops to defend the schools from the Nazis (page 15), he discusses a problem that doomed their efforts:

Already then it dawned on me that, with their insistence on preserving institutions, these letters in part misread the reality. I mean that merely to guarantee institutions is useless if there are no people to support those institutions from inner conviction. But this was only partially the case. To be sure, teachers could be found in both the older and the younger generations who had deep convictions of faith, people who in their hearts saw Christian faith was the foundation of our culture and, therefore, of its work of education. But in the older generation there existed an anti-clerical resentment that was understandable, considering that the prerogative to inspect schools belonged to priests. In the younger generation there were convinced Nazis. So in both these cases it was inane to insist on an institutionally guaranteed Christianity.

Yes, the bishops were fighting to save an institutionally guaranteed Christianity, but the people didn’t.

This is why I think the Catholics who say things like “Vatican II caused X,” miss the point. The fact that much of our abuse scandal involved priests ordained before Vatican II shows the problem had another cause. The fact that there was a false “hope” among many Catholics that the Church would overturn the contraception teachings after the discovery of “the pill,” and the abandonment of Friday fasting from meat (even though some penance was still required) showed that a large number of Catholics didn’t obey previously out of conviction but out of compulsion. When the social upheavals of the late 1960s arose, many Catholics simply stopped obeying... and if they stop obeying, how can the magisterium succeed in standing for the Church?

It would be wrong to assume that “the magisterium” was to blame. Pope Pius XII was the first to warn about the loss of the sense of sin in the Church. His successors continued that warning, targeting specific evils of that time. It would also be wrong to blame one political faction. Yes, the Catholic “left” rebelled against sexual morality teaching. But the Catholic “right” rebelled against social teachings. Both led to the later Catholics believing they could set aside whatever they disliked. In both cases the rebelling Catholics used the same argument: the teaching they didn’t like “was not binding” and not free of error.

The Popes didn’t miss the clues though. They continued to teach on what Christians had to avoid, and continued to encourage us to go beyond the letter of the law. Pope Francis’ letter to the US Bishops (PDF) is an example of that—saying it was not enough to create policies. We had to change our hearts as well.

As I see it, the problem today involves a legalism which condemns whatever others do that we agree with while evading obedience which condemns what we want to do. In that, we’re little different from the students C.S. Lewis mentioned who only did something so long as it was required under pain of sanction. 

We need to stop assuming that the problem in the Church exist because we changed or did not change a discipline in the Church. That’s being so focused on our pet theories for cause/effect that we miss the real causes. We need to watch for the signs that people no longer care to defend the Church and live it wholeheartedly. If we miss those clues, we miss the solutions.

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