Catholic Manicheeism

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One of the difficulties I have most often with the Catholic Church and with the people in it is not a lack of intellect, but a focus so intense on the intellect that one would think that people are mere disembodied intellects wandering about without either sense or emotions. This comes up most often in the question of response to certain church teachings. I was reading a really fascinating book by John Allen, and he happened to mention Sister Joan Chittister--a person for whom I cannot summon up a lot of sympathy or empathy in many ways. However, the attitude I hear most Catholics take with regard to her central issue is not one of compassion for the hurt and sense of disenfranchisement it entails, but rather a "It's the law, get over it."

I'll be first in the line to enthusiastically trumpet that I believe it to be an infallible teaching of the Church that women cannot be ordained. I'll also be among the first to admit that I'm not certain I follow the reasoning entirely. My reasoning is drawn from Camille Paglia, of all places. Her observation that the female "cultus" is nearly always "transgressive" is argument enough for me. In facing the eternal, I don't particularly need transgression. However, that said, what does one do about Sr. Joan and thousands or hundred of thousands of women who feel this sense of disenfranchisement and a sense of being second class citizens?

"Get over it" is insufficient. Put the shoe on the other foot and walk in it for a while. How do we feel as Catholics when a group of nine men and women over whose election and office we have had no real say determines that key elements of the moral system we uphold and declare to the world have no validity? What recourse have we? What rights have we? Why are our voices not heard? This is only vaguely analogical, but if you think about how you feel when yet another ruling from the council of Death is passed down, you'll get a sense of how some women might feel at the fact that a council of people over whom they have no control and through whom they no sexual representation determine that the door is closed to them. Kind of like when some of us were kids and we had a clubhouse door with "No Girls Allowed" emblazoned on it. (As an aside, how refreshing it would be to see more of that among the young persons of our present age, rather than the present plague.)

"Get over it, your feelings don't matter only what is right matters," may be true, but it is not inclined to helping the human and humane person get over it. It is this fundamental insensitivity to a major part of human life that I find problematic. "Tenderness leads to the gas chamber" (a misquotation, by the way) is the mantra of the intellectual set. So, by all means, let us avoid tenderness or pastoral concern or care for those who have been wounded and hurt by Church teachings or Church practice. Actually, I know of no one anywhere in the Church who would support the statement made in the previous sentence. So obviously, tenderness and concern are important to us, why then is the thrust of many Catholics so violently apologetical as to dismiss this aspect of our lives?

Well, for one thing, we aren't all psychologists and analysts with days to sit around and listen to our brothers and sisters explain their difficulties with the faith. And of course there's the pastor and various church committees to listen to the problems of others.

These are mere excuses. We don't listen because we are in the "triumphant" class and more often than not the reality is we don't care how other people feel about it. The truth is, after all, the truth.

Time and time again I have been wounded and I have seen others wounded by the cavalier imposition of one person's "truth" in a way that neglects the emotional needs of another. "You're childless, oh well, too bad, that's just the way it is. Learn to deal with it because the Church (quite rightly) prohibits doing much of anything about it." "Come to our 'family day,' but if you don't have children you'll be made to feel like some sort of freakish outcast as we arrange all of our activities around those who do have them and there will be nothing for those not blessed with children--because, after all, God has singled you out anyway." "Oh, you have same sex attraction, well that's gravely disordered and you'll just have to put a lid on it anyway 'cause the church teaches that that is evil." And so forth. Not everyone is nearly so callous, but there is enough of it that if I were asked the great fault of the Catholic Church I would respond not that it has no head, but that it has no heart. Obviously, that is a vast overstatement, because it does. It has in fact many hearts, starting with the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus and extending to every Catholic who reaches out to feed the poor and comfort the afflicted. No, the real injury comes from the sheer thoughtlessness of the everyday and the devaluation of the life of emotion that is implicit in most apologetics, if not in the teaching itself.

The emotional life of the person must be addressed even as the truth is taught. It is insufficient to say, "You can't practice birth control and if the next baby means you will die, oh well, then you'll just have to live sexless lives from now on. The great saints did it." (Something actually said to a twenty-two year old married friend of mine.)

I'm tired of hearing that if you feel it, it must perforce be wrong. I'm tired of seeing people cast to the side in the name of truth. I'm tired of the dichotomy that says that reason is always to be trusted and emotions are to be repressed, suppressed and otherwise disfigured in its service. I'm also tired of hearing of the exaltation of reason. Right reason is a gift from God, but it is fabulously rare in the normal conduct of life. For some reason we're able to think quite clearly in the abstract, but I rarely see those who think these great thoughts put them into practice.

In short, I guess what I'd like to see from the Church is something akin to compassion. The Catholic Church in Florida is losing members right and left to various evangelical Churches. There are a great many reasons for this, but one of the primary reasons I hear is the friendliness and the welcome and the warmth of the Evangelical Churches. It's really funny seeing some of my evangelical Hispanic friends telling me about the wonders of the evangelical church right before they kiss their rosaries and join in the prayer circle.

If the Catholic Church continues to be the Church of cold reason it will continue to lose its members to Churches with doctrine less accurate, but with the ability to integrate the emotional life of the person into the fabric of faith. For the most part the Catholic Church fails spectacularly at this, noting mostly that to be a faithful Catholic you must suppress whatever you may feel. Right doctrine does not necessitate incapacitating the individual, and unless and until Catholics come to terms with that, the Church will continue to lose members throughout the world as Catholicism becomes a joyless but eminently reasonable way to believe. You may mock the megachurches, perhaps even rightfully so, but we could learn from their sense of hospitality, warmth, and true interpersonal consideration.

I guess my final statement here is to remember that the Church is the mystical body of Christ made up of the people in it with Christ as the head. When we're waging our war of reason against error, it is wise to consider the source of the error and address not only the facts of the matter, but the person with whom we are engaging in discussion. Compassion for the plexus of emotions that underlies much incorrect thought will not only help eradicate the error, but it will also help support the person in a way that will allow continuity in faith without bitterness. There will not be the sense of "this is a pill I must swallow," but "this is a liberating truth I can embrace." Above all else, take it upon yourself to be the smile and the handshake or hug of Jesus Himself. Have the heart of Jesus for all--and that means when the young man discovers he cannot sell all and follow Jesus, you don't follow him around with a harangue about how it is the just, right, and reasonable thing to do. Humans will not do the just, right, and reasonable thing in an unsupportive emotional vacuum.

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I confess to being among those who say "get over it" when it comes to the ordination of women. However, I think my reasoning is more on practical than intellectual grounds. I don't buy the "feeling disenfranchised" complaint; I am a married MAN who cannot be ordained to the priesthood any more than any woman can. I don't go around "feeling disenfranchised" because the Church has the right to determine who is elegible for the priesthood, and she has done so.

The question is long settled, and if we agree, as Catholics, that the Church is the "bulwark of truth", we have to agree that truth does not change with time.

The priesthood is not a "career" where one seeks advancement, as one would working at Microsoft. You don't seek to become a priest to get access to the levers of power in the Church, it is a vocation to which one is called.

Paz et bien

Dear Ron,

I think you make a common error in your reasoning. Just because you do not feel disenfranchisement does not mean that it is not felt by others.

Too often we expect others to have and hold our emotional reaction to things. Why should one's lack of a feeling preclude the possibility of that feeling for others?

Many people who do not have children are content in not having children. Does that mean that all who do not have children should be content that it is so?

And so forth. My lack of a feeling does not mean that the feeling is not valid.

In your comment above you go on to spell out part of the reasoning behind the law of the Church. And my point is not to challenge the law of the Church on this matter, but to challenge every person to hear and address the pain that it does cause some people.

I think JPtG when a great distance in attempting to do this with Mulieris Dignitatem. But our common reaction is, "Get over it." Wouldn't it be better to direct attention toward that apostolic letter and address the issues that arise from that. Ultimately we cannot make the person feel better about the matter, but we can have more sympathy with the feeling than Catholics tend to.

And it isn't just in this matter where sympathy is lacking. I can at least understand it here because it is such a point of agitation. But speaking out of my own experience, the indignities faced by the childless in the church are at least as great as those faced by the large-families. We have to get over the "if I don't feel it, why should you?" approach. It's human, it's common, but it is an invalid way to approach the emotional life. What a person feels is a reality, it is valid even if it is groundless. And that's the reality we face in dealing with the issues. Reason will not make them go away, but reason and friendship and kindness in the journey might.

(Of course, there are always some who are merely along for the sheer agitation of it. I honestly don't know if Sr. Joan feels the pain of disenfranchisement or revels in the glories of rebellion against the hierarchy. I don't know her or her work well enough to judge, and if I did, I would have to refuse to judge because of my own agenda in the matter. Of course I wouldn't refuse to judge because that's the kind of person I am, always ready to pass out judgments--but I'm confident God is assisting me on working on that.)

Thanks for writing, it's been a long time since I heard from you and it is a real pleasure.



Steven, I am with you, entirely, in this post, including what you uphold and why. Another place one often sees cold reason festering at the boiling point and a lack of grace is among the hard line proponents of a return to an all Latin Mass. In many ways I think I was lucky to have have been blinded by a love for our Eucharistic Lord just long enough to convert to not become ensnared by some rather ugly sides of this Catholic people or I might have chosen to remain an ordained minister among those already separated from the Church and divided amongst themselves.

I do understand your post, but I have difficulty with showing sympathy to the graying nun on the issue of women's "ordination". I do have patience with others on this issue, but again, not with the graying nun. I believe the Church has fallen all over herself trying to be understanding and gentle with these religious. Yet they simply will not accept.
A handout my children received at a Catholic school that concerned the sacraments mentioned that Ordination was the Sacrament whereby PEOPLE become priests and deacons. Hmmm, no matter how gentle, and understanding we try to be they do not get it and they push their agenda anyways.
Do they NOT see that their orders look more and more like a nursing home shuffleboard tournament? Where are all the young vocations? Hmmm, why are those nuns down the street, you know , those "pre-Vatican II", habit wearing ones, why are they so young? I know an order in Illinois that already has the plans drawn up for what to do with the property once the last nun dies. How utterly sad, yet when you try to tell them anything they just don't see it.
I guess I should have more sympathy, and I do when I think that we are all subject to the temptations of the devil, and I have my own issues to wrestle with. Yes, I have compassion in that sense. But to think that we need to somehow figure out a way to gently explain this issue to these religious? Nope, I think the Church is already blue in the face.

Dear Goodform,

Sister Joan was for illustration only. As I said, I have little sympathy or empathy for her for a variety of reasons. (One is that I get the impression that it wouldn't matter if woman's ordination happened tomorrow, there would then be some other reason for rebellion and disobedience. I could very well be wrong there, but I am talking superficial impressions.)

The point was not Sr. Joan, but the attitude we have or develop over time that ultimately alienates those with legitimate and deep hurts, people who need to be treated as whole people and not told to check some part of themselves at the door as they enter the church.

In my experience the Church, often meaning the people within it, have been nothing like gentle and understanding on an issue of importance. The shrillness procedes as loudly and as astringently from the progressive pews as it does from the traditionalist, and those poor few of us who simply came to worship God are often caught between and torn apart in the melee.



This really hit home. I've tended to be around folks on the other side: those for whom "compassion" means ignoring of downplaying the teaching, the truth (or even actively working against it). The expression I find most useful is St. Paul's ... "speak the truth in love" (Eph 4:15). Some places "trumpet" the truth, not very compassionately, others the opposite. Places that really engage both seem to be, in my experience, rare. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I like the blog and will be back! Pax et bonum.

To me, one of the odd things about the blogworld is that it's this combination of being public and being semi-private, in the sense that you're normally just talking to like-minded folks. My irritation over bloggers who took a sort of joy over the "for many" translation was perhaps partially due to my lack of recognition that their posts were meant more privately - to the like-minded Trad group. The fact that there was very little explanation of why they liked "for many" was a sign that the posts weren't intended for the larger public, and not meant to be instructional or in any way pastoral. I think it's more of a "concelebration" with like-minded friends such as you would expect Buckeye fans to post for other Buckeye fans after the victory Saturday.

But I suppose that's all beside the point of the focus of your post. I'm know I'm still learning about this compassion thing and have a ways to go.

I have been considering the people Israel whom God led out of slavery in the land of Egypt, and who went out into the desert after having been delivered from Pharaoh's forces. As the people wandered, they grew hungry and thirsty. Water from the rock and manna were provided them. But the people grew weary of the bleak desert and the bland manna, and they complained to the Lord through Moses. "We are sick to death of this manna. We want meat. Have you led us out into this desert to die? Would that we had stayed in captivity among the Egyptians. We had the leeks, the melons, the onions, the fleshpots to enjoy."

And it was said that the Lord grew angry with the people. I have heard it said that the Lord does not grow angry with us. Perhaps that is true; I do not know. I think He is saddened when we turn in on ourselves and on what we want, and on what we're not receiving, and on what we have to put up with. I think He is saddened because when we turn in on ourselves in that way, we cannot but turn away from Him. Perhaps it is in this matter of turning away from Him that the ancient Fathers have recorded God as being angry with His people.

When I consider my brothers and sisters in Christ who are particularly vociferous in expressing the difficulties they undergo due to concerns about gender equality and sexuality issues, I imagine that there might have been one or more persons among the Israelites who spoke out and who said, "All you who are eating this manna! Well, I have always had a digestive disorder that makes me allergic to bread and bread products. How can you eat this, while I starve?"

It's difficult, in that situation, to know how to respond. Is it judgemental to think to oneself, "I'm grateful for the manna God has given to His people. And I know at different times we would all like different things to eat. But God would never provide anything that some of us couldn't handle. The good God knows best what is good for His children, and asks us to trust Him." . . .?

There are many desert experiences for Catholics. Each has his or her own cross to bear. Some may have to do with gender or sexuality issues, yes, but there are lots and lots of others. There is always the temptation to cast the cross aside.


To listen to someone who seems to be saying, "But my particular cross is so very enormous, and so unfair compared to any that you might be carrying! Don't you agree that God ought to give me a different one?" . . . it can be a real trial to be around that sort of talk, especially when the implication is, "you're heterosexual (or whatever) . . . you have no clue how especially God has asked me to suffer. . . In fact, it is so unfair, this suffering couldn't be from God at all. It is something you all made up, made up just to be hateful and exclusionary toward us (women) or (GLBT), etc. This isn't from God at all!"

That's kind of what it sounds like.

Well, perhaps that is not what is truly meant, but, in many cases, I find myself wondering whether that is not what is being implied. And sadly, such a message is one that is bound to be alienating to others . . .

Dear Marion,

But isn't it true that none of us has any clue how anyone else is asked to suffer? And isn't part of charity to bear with that that we find most unbearable? And if talking about this burden is helpful or can be helpful in the right presence, is that not a good thing? And doesn't that kind of talk give you the opportunity to say, "You're absolutely right, I don't have any idea. But there are some people that do know exactly what you're going through," and then refer them on?

How does being angry about it, or lecturing them, or being short tempered, or spouting doctrine cultivate that person for Christ.

The truth must be spoken, but if we cannot speak it in love, then it is better to remain silent and allow our fellowship to do the speaking for us.

I sympathize with all you've said above. I'm tired of the bellyaching of a lot of groups within the church on both extremes. But I have not suffered what they have suffered and I do not know the depths of feeling that give rise to the complaint--so it is better simply to remand myself to "celestial bartender" and always point the way back to Christ.

Oh, by the way, I won't claim that I actually do this, only that I know I should.



The path, Steven, you so beautifully suggest, is the right one - combining steadfast fidelity to the will of God and to the teaching of the Church, with limitless patience and compassion toward our suffering brothers and sisters.

A difficult path! Comparable to scaling the summits of Everest!

Or Mount Calvary.

Would that with God's help we may remain on the path, and not give up and "cave in" either to the temptation to behave with ill-tempered impatience toward our neighbor or to the temptation to attempt to do away with the teaching so that our neighbor may have nothing more to complain of.

Dear Marion,

You hit the nail on the head, and I think have isolated the problem so many have with some of the Bishops as they attempt to find the pastoral balance and too often seem to be "softening" Church teaching.

As I said, I don't do this nearly as well as I would like, and my error tends, more often than not, in favor of the person before me at the moment. But then, I have to remember that a sympathetic ear is not an endorsement. And one doesn't spend one's time developing conversational gambits to inject the truth.

But you are so right in what balance must be struck and in how very difficult it is to do. God bless you.



A big part of the problem is lack of community. In community, I can have my eccentricities and you can have yours but something greater holds us together. Compassion is possible because others are actually part of our lives, we walk alongside them, love them, suffer with them.

But we live very separate lives and expect to solve each others problems in less time than it takes to microwave a bag of popcorn. It's impossible. We can't solve problems. We can only accompany each other, share the gifts God has given us, try to help each other up when we stumble and fall.

How different it is to hear a friend say, 'That's silly' than to hear a stranger say it. Even when feelings are wounded, there is a history of friendship which gives perspective and a relationship in which hurts can be addressed over time.

We must learn to be friends with each other and we must do it ourselves. It's not that our parishes are not friendly places, it's that we are not friendly people.

Dear Drusilla,

You make some excellent points. Most particularly your last one. Thank you.





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