Wednesday 3 June 2015

Lacking experience: on being a Catholic zombie

                                                             An ethicist writes...

A lot of talk these days about the need to respect people's experience. We need to respect Bruce Jenner for having been a woman in a man's body and now being a woman on a magazine cover. We need to respect the experience of those who have this or that sexual desire which they're very attached to and to which the Catholic Church normally isn't...

Our nature as humans obliges us to use our God-given reason to sort out moral problems in the area of sexuality, and to use this reason in ways that respect the dignity of all people and communities. We need to work together to understand the meanings and purposes of human sexuality and the answers to our moral questions in this area. As noted, natural law demands that we examine all the evidence. That means paying attention to everyone’s experiences, listening to differing and opposing opinions, self-critically examining our own biases, and entering into dialogue with others.

(from US Catholic here)

The trouble with all this is that I don't think I've had any experience in the way the word is being used. As a conservative, heterosexual white Catholic, I don't have any experiences which lead me to question the truth of the church's teaching in  way that is normally what is meant by experience. I'm perfectly happy with (eg) what's in the Catechism and the Compendium of Social Doctrine: frankly, it seems far better and deeper than anything I came across before I was a Catholic. Of course, it may be that I just haven't had experience: having had quite a wad of privilege, I may have missed out on the experience that's usually meant: a discovery that one's own deepest being simply doesn't engage with what the Church teaches. I need to listen rather than talk.

This irritates me a bit. I don't particularly want to whinge, but I've had some pretty rough patches in my life and I've seen ('experienced') quite a lot more in those around me. When I heard on a recent TV discussion on euthanasia an audience member saying that no one who hadn't experienced the (extended) death of a loved one had a right to talk on the issue (with the assumption that those who had would undoubtedly demand euthanasia), I can't help thinking that it's not that I haven't experienced this, but rather that my experience (of the way dying gets in the way of normal life, of how it generates feelings of helplessness uncomfortable to the modern mind) rather reinforced in me an opposition to euthanasia: it strikes me even more as something that springs from a vice, from a threat to our buffered autonomous selves that ought to be welcomed rather than pushed away with the apparatus of state licensed killing. When I'm told that someone knows that they are trapped in another sex's body or that they knew they were gay since the age of 3 or something, my experience prompts me to think of the power of self-delusion, of the sheer impenetrability of the depths of our self and the distorting power of lust rather than to take such talk as clearly veridical.

Again, from that above article:

When my friend is told that her son’s sexual love for his partner is “intrinsically disordered” or “intrinsically evil” because he is not made to procreate with another male, she objects that the love between these two persons is so much bigger and more complex than the question of whether their “parts” fit. When other friends hear that they cannot use in vitro fertilization because sperm and egg must meet naturally (and thus not in a petri dish), they are astounded at this narrow understanding of human sexuality.

Fortunately, none of my children have presented me with that sort of 'experience'. It's clearly a very different sort of experience from any I have had because, whenever my children do present me with something I find rather difficult to take, my first thought isn't that they are obviously right and the Church is obviously wrong. All of us seem to be living in something like Plato's Cave: I don't blame my children for finding it difficult to navigate any more than I find it easy to navigate. My 'experience' such as it is, merely reinforces that Socratic sense of wading through intellectual treacle. My 'experience' is that the Church's traditional teaching is always rather helpful in such cases. But clearly, that's wrong.

And so I am left with the conclusion that I either have no experience or that my experience is the wrong sort of experience. But others, apparently luckier than me, are full of experience of the right sort. Must be nice for them. Back to munching on brains, I suppose.


  1. This is very good.

    Does it also mean that we (the Church, all of us who are Catholics in communion with the Pope, whose job it is to be the barrier against anything which threatens the Magisterium as handed down to him) can define "Catholic" to say that no-one can self-define as "Catholic" other than in terms of how Catholics self define?

    1. Well, I'm not sure you even need to be that definite. (I'm generally a fairly confused zombie.) I just don't understand how a) you can look at the weight and depth of Catholic teaching and be sure it's wrong; or b) think you can be a Catholic without some sort of serious engagement with it. I'd probably draw a distinction between the smart heretics and the ordinary (eg yes voting in Ireland) Catholic. I have no idea how the latter reconcile dismissing Church teaching in (eg) the Catechism with being a Catholic: most of them just seem to *know* the teaching is wrong without any explanation. The smart heretics on the other hand are professional theologians. Whatever has gone wrong there is too deep to be resolved easily and the Church just needs to make it clear through some public action (declarations or excommunications or whatever) that they are leading people astray.

      I suppose I wouldn't fight the battle on the label 'Catholic'. I'm not sure whether (eg) the ordinary Yes voter remains a Catholic. I am sure that they have gone dreadfully wrong.

  2. Lazarus, you must have had a pretty rough night before that portrait was taken; I also think you need to see a decent dentist!

    The ease with which many Catholics find themselves, ah, 'questioning' settled Church teaching is one of the depressing features of the age. Our contemporary society seems to find the notion that an objective sexual order exists particularly troubling; hence the attempts to overturn it based on appeals to the [right kind of] experience that you mention.

    1. My mother loves me! (Wife would agree I'm little sloppy on the grooming front.)

      I do think it's utterly bizarre, particularly in an area (sex) where we all know how easily we kid ourselves, that this claim of experience is made so unselfconsciously as *obviously* outweighing settled church teaching. To the extent that I have 'experience' it supports the Church. But clearly, as I say, I'm doing something wrong!

  3. Actually, on reflection, it is not just [the right kind of] experience that is appealed to, is it? The appeal to sentiment, especially to the unthinking feel-good variety, is strong too (weren't breathless celebrity endorsements a factor in the recent Irish referendum?).

    I agree that there must be an astonishing degree of self-deception going on - at least with the 'ordinary' dissenters. It is not exactly hard to discern the dismal fruits of the still-turning sexual revolution, even in its most common and widespread manifestations (broken hearts, empty hedonism, loneliness, objectification of women, broken families, and so forth).

    1. Agree with all that! Experience certainly isn't the only thing appealed to -indeed, in a lot of cases, it's hard to see what precisely is being appealed to in the way of reasoning: " *it* (add issue to taste) is obviously right and *they* (us) are obviously a variety of ....phobes." Still, one must must take pots shots where one can, and experience is certainly appealed to on occasions.