Tuesday 1 November 2011

On being open to the Church’s teaching…

                              There is no need to listen to the Church when the truth is inside you…

A rather interesting interview here with the psychologist William Coulson on the way in which therapy corrupted Catholicism (particularly religious orders) in the 1960s and 1970s. (Shorter version here.)  The gist of it is that, by encouraging nuns etc to focus on their own deepest desires rather than external authority, a whirlwind of disobedience and sexual misconduct was released.

I’ll leave it to others to decide how historically important such influence was post Vatican II. But in terms of the principles at stake here, we have a contrast between a world view that tells you to look outside for authority and a worldview that tells you to look inside, a contrast in part expressed in Charles Taylor’s distinction between the (pre-modern, Catholic) porous self and the (modern) buffered self.

(A brief posting by Taylor himself will have to do for the moment. I shall doubtless return to Taylor again. To be honest, I’m not always at all sure what I make of him. His breadth is striking; his intellectual Catholicism a reminder of what I love about the Church. But quite apart from any obscurity inherent in his ideas, he needs an editor.)

The broad conclusion is clear. You can’t rely on yourself to get things right, particularly in the area of sex. (As I get older, the linking of original sin and concupiscence in Catholicism seems to me an instance of the Church’s divine wisdom precisely in the area at which, as a younger atheistic fool, I’d have been most inclined to sneer.) To live well, we have to open ourselves to something greater than ourselves. For a Catholic, that greater thing is God, but a God mediated through an institution and a tradition: looking for a direct line to God all too often results in a direct line to the id. (If you’re an atheist, my advice would be to start with the tradition and see where it takes you.) In terms of the natural law focus of this blog, we should expect to find our proclivities and our desires constantly challenged by the teaching of the Church. That’s uncomfortable and often we won’t be able fully to live up to that challenge. But simply to ignore it and assert the unchallengeability of the buffered self is a recipe for personal and social disaster. The buffered self –particularly the teenage buffered self- will look inside and find precious little except (under various disguises) a raging libido. It needs to open itself up to influences that will lead it on to a fulfilling life. Catholicism has an answer to what that influence should be: the Church and through the Church, God. A socially conservative atheist has a (less complete but still viable) answer: the wisdom of previous generations sifted over time.

I’m not at all sure that modern liberals have any sort of answer at all. In most matters, you can’t even say ‘open yourself to the greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers’ because you’re convinced that most of these greatest thinkers are homophobic, patriarchal racists who got the answers wrong. Moreover, because their world view was so dominated by their acceptance of some version or other of bronze age religion, their mistakes are not just in their conclusions, but in the very foundations of their thought.

One symptom of this is the fury of the self righteous, displayed in incidents such as the quite shameful treatment of Gordon Wilson, the former leader of the SNP, who has been forced off the board (here) of the Citizens’ Advice Bureau because of his public opposition to same sex ‘marriage’. One of the most fascinating aspects of the same sex ‘marriage’ debate is the way that the comparatively weak arguments in favour of its introduction are regularly trumpeted as completely irresistible by its proponents. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this blind self confidence, but two in particular are relevant here. Firstly, there is companionship: it is a very lonely business being a buffered individual and here is an opportunity to enjoy the brief self-righteous community of the mob signed up to a fashionable cause. Secondly, there is the confusion of strong reasons with strong desire. If no authority can challenge what you have inside your buffered self, the strength of your case is not dependent on how well your case is supported by public reasoning, but by how strongly you believe in it: the more furious you become at the challenges to your views, the stronger your case is proved to be.

(Reflections prompted by Catholicism Pure and Simple’s post here.) 


  1. Well-written post. I have some sympathy for the situation Gordon Wilson found himself in, but at the same time I can understand why the CAB chose not to re-elect him. The issue was probably not so much that he opposed same-sex marriage, but the language in which he attacked it, which one CAB board member describes as "vocal and vitriolic" (see http://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/i_fell_victim_to_gay_marriage_lynch_mob_claims_ex_snp_leader_1_1937333 ). Reading through the controversial Solas document which Wilson co-authored, I tend to agree with her (read the report at http://www.solas-cpc.org/SolasResponse.pdf ). The CAB is an organisation which is meant to serve the community as a whole and make everybody feel welcome. If its board members are very publicly behaving in a way which seems to contradict that objective, then a conflict of interest emerges.

  2. The Solas document is a bit of a rant -a product of that Protestant mind set which sees it as important to witness to God's commands rather than try and persuade others by truths available to natural reason and, I suspect, a sense that the Government's mind here is already made up and you might as well go down fighting.(On the Scottish government's mind being already made up see http://www.thecourier.co.uk/News/Politics/article/18249/snp-fringe-debate-reignites-same-sex-marriage-row.html.) But it is a rant directed not against homosexuality but against a specific social measure -the rewriting of marriage law- and against the marginalization of Christians in Scottish public life. From an evangelical Protestant point of view, Solas could have argued that homosexuality was an abomination. (They didn't.)They could have argued for the abolition of civil partnerships. (They didn't.) All they did was to denounce a proposed legislative change that needs to be considered on its own merits as a contribution to the common good and not simply as a question on the rightness or wrongness of homosexual activity, and to complain (loudly)that Christians and Christianity were being 'ostracised and discriminated against'. If Wilson's denouncers had a shred of humour, they might at least enjoy the irony of that.