More thoughts about the Buenos Aires letter: on ecclesial politics
With apologies to my readers, my thoughts have been particularly slow in forming on this blog in recent days. Still, further to my last post, here's a couple more: about the impact of this move on ecclesial politics.
A while ago I was asked by a journalist to comment on an article in L'Ossovertore Romano by Cardinal Ouellet, so I looked at this in some detail. Ouellet, like Cardinal Mueller, has been consistently putting out a very careful 'conservative' interpretation of Amoris laetitia. It is not so very different from the interpretation I gave on this blog when Amoris first came out.
His strategy has four parts.
1. He criticises conservatives worried about AL as misinterpreting it.
2. He also rejects those interpretations of AL which allow reception of Holy Communion, in circumstances condemned by the previous discipline, as misinterpretations ‘equally… (if not more so)’.
3. He stresses that what is really important in ‘pastoral accompaniment’ is listening and counselling, not access to the sacraments.
4. When he does turn to cases of access to the sacraments, his description of legitimate cases is such that they could be allowed under Pope St John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio.
What, then, can we take from AL, according to Cardinal Ouellet?
What is new, as I have noted, is the broadening of cases that are exceptional by virtue of the degree of subjective imputability of an objective fault, a degree influenced by the reasons noted above, especially unawareness of sin, and the weight of extenuating circumstances.
This could mean, for example, that just as Familiaris consortio envisaged the reception of Communion by couples living in an illicit second union if they had undertaken to live ‘as brother and sister’, so a determination by pastors that a couple were not in a state of mortal sin, for example for psychological reasons (lack of awareness of the gravity of the act, lack of consent), could lead to their reception of Communion, perhaps in private to avoid scandal.
However, when it comes to applying this conception of exceptional cases, Cardinal Ouellet becomes ‘hesitant’:
Some do exactly that, holding that a sincere intention of changing, even if it is not yet carried out because of limits in a person’s capacity for decisions, is enough to allow them to be admitted to the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist, on condition however of avoiding scandal. Such openness may be discerned in certain cases in the internal forum but must not be elevated to a general rule. I am personally hesitant about this approach because I am sensitive to the sacramental logic which demands sacramental coherence of persons who are communing with the faithfulness of Christ the Bridegroom giving Himself to His Bride the Church.
Certain immediate statements, even those of bishops’ assemblies, either opening the door broadly to communion or opposing the direction taken by the Pontiff, must be recalibrated on the basis of the Holy Father’s own text which seeks a genuine formation in the truth of the Gospel, one which certainly gives greater importance to individual conscience (AL 303), but not for all that encouraging the risk that “the exception might become the rule”
A number of people immediately worried - not without some reason, given already existing practices - that this would result in a general provision and a trivialization of Communion in many cases. Certain hasty statements by bishops may have given such an impression. This is neither the spirit nor the letter of the text.
The website of the Vatican has some weight, but it’s not a magisterial authority, and if you look at what the Argentine bishops wrote in their directive, you can interpret this in an orthodox way.
Some thoughts about the Buenos Aires letter
So, on the first question. The Pope can speak as Pope and as a private person. In the latter capacity what he says may be of interest as an indication of his thinking, but it wouldn’t bind the faithful to believe anything. Normally private letters wouldn’t be considered part of the magisterium. Putting something in the AAS is a way of making it part of the magisterium. It is a bit surprising to do this with a private letter but I think there are precedents. Certainly many things are in the AAS which were addressed in the first place to particular groups, such as Pius XII’s famous talk to midwives authorising NFP. Putting such things in the AAS is a way of directing them to the whole Faithful.
On the second question: There is, however, more to making something part of the magisterium, and therefore binding on the consciences of Catholics, than simply asserting that it is magisterial. The content of the document is also relevant. ‘Legal positivists’ claim that laws are valid just by virtue of a valid procedure approving them, but this is false and has never been accepted by the Church. Even in the case of human laws, a law will fail to bind in conscience if it is impossible to follow, for example if it is incomprehensible, retroactive, or totally unreasonable. In those cases it fails to be a binding law, or, really, a law at all. Law is by definition something which guides action, and such putative laws are incapable of doing that.
In a similar way, if we are to talk of a papal magisterial act binding Catholics to believe something, then it must be in accordance with the existing magisterium, and it must be possible to understand what it means. Pope Francis’ letter fails on both counts.
Let's consider the content of the letter in more detail. The letter makes it clear that Pope Francis approves of the guidelines produced by the Bishops of Buenos Aires, but it does not say that these are doctrinally precise and binding on everyone, as opposed to being a reasonable local adaptation of general principles. The attitude of Pope Francis expressed on other occasions, in fact, points more to the latter interpretation. Cf. Amoris laetitia 3:
The guidelines themselves are not entirely clear. They appear to say that a couple living in a state of objective sin may receive Holy Communion without repenting of their sin, since repentence would involve an intention not to return to the sin, and the guidlines' key scenario is one in which the couple have no such intention. The guidlines do not, however, propose the theological presuppositions which would have to be true if this position were to be possible. For example, they do not say that unrepentant mortal sin is not an impediment to the fruitful reception of Holy Communion; nor that Canon 915 (forbidding the giving of Holy Communion to those in objective states of grave sin) is invalid or somehow innaplicable; nor that penitents can be sacramentally absolved of deliberate sins without expressing contrition; nor that the category of mortal sin does not exist; nor that genital sexuality outside marriage is not gravely sinful; nor that a civil union lacking the form necessary for a valid Catholic marriage (let alone: in the absence of the annullment of a previous marriage of one or more of the parties), is a 'marriage' in the sense that sex for the couple is not gravely sinful.
On their most natural interpretation, the guidelines, in short, imply a contradiction with one or more of some very fundamental legal and moral principles, which Catholics are obliged to believe. Pope Francis has never attempted to deny these principles directly; on the contrary, Amoris laetitia implies strongly (in section 3) that it is not concerned with changing the teaching of the Church, and this has often been reiterated by the Pope’s supporters since then. In light of this, giving magisterial authority to this letter of approval of these guidelines seems besides the point.
To summarise, there is no act this or any pope can perform which can free Catholics from the obligation to believe those truths of Faith and Morals which are taught infallibly by the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium. Among those truths are many which appear to conflict with the Buenos Aires guidelines - though exactly which ones will depend on how those guidelines are defended. (Herein lies the unclarity.) Insofar as the guidlines are incompatible with those principles, including Canon 915, the publication of Pope Francis' letter in the AAS does not make it any more possible for Catholics to accept them as doctrinally sound.
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A reason to be cheerful
Thanks for all the prayers!
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Mgr Loftus: pro-lifers are 'terrorists'
|Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas|
I've waited to see if there if would be any reaction in the Letters page to Mgr Basil Loftus' latest outrage: an attack on Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, in which he described the Archbishop, and any anyone like him who was actively pro-life, as a terrorist. (Catholic Times, 24th November 2017.)
His column is, as usual, both bizarre and incoherent. Remember, as you read it, that the Catholic Times is sold in the backs of Catholic churches every weekend: this is a newspaper, in other words, with ecclesiastical approval. I transcribe the key section for the record, since the paper has no online presence, even for subscribers.
No-one is more supportive [than Pope Francis] of the rights and paramountcy of all marginalised people, including the unborn - but he is totally opposed to the purportednly pro-life antics of men such as Archbishop Naumann, the recently elected head of the American bishops' 'pro-life committee'.
Where Naumann would erect marquees in papal colours in front of every abortion clinic, and staff them with a 24-hour guard of what Francis calls "prune-faced" people reciting the rosary round the clock, Francis for his part would have smiling and empathetic women there, who khow what it feels like to lose a baby, ready to offer support to the mothers who come out of those clinics, to accompany them in the awful journey of their post-abortion realisation, and to help them to discern what this means. Francis' ideas are clearly articulated by Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, who recently lost the contest for chairmanship of that episcopal committee. He told his peers, and everyone else, that while strenuously defending the rights of the unborn child: "We should be no less appalled by the indifference towards the thousands of people who die daily for lack of decent medical care; who are denied rights by a broken immigration system and by racism; who suffer in hunger, joblessness and want; who pay the price of violence in gun-saturated neighbourhoods; or who are exectuted by the state in the name of justice." The US bishops preferred the argument advanced by Naumann, ...
Single-issue fanatics, whether they are exercised about sex and marriage, about maniples and Communion-on-the-tongue, about celibacy of the clergy, about contraception, or about the right to carry loaded firearms in America while attending Mass, are at heart essentially zealots. Sadly, too, it seems that those who insist on wearing birettas are often selfsame individuals who want to carry Berettas. All these fanatical partisans are by definition biased and prejudiced against any attempt to reason with them in a way that would seek to integrate their sometimes, but not always, rightful concerns within a wider context. Their extremist and sometimes violent propensities make them, in all but name, terrorists.
And sometimes worse. It is said, after all, that one can sometimes reason with a terrorist, but never with a liturgist! The priest who sweeps a child's teddy-bear off the tiny white coffin because it is forbidden by liturgical law, or who excludes females from the role of altar-servers, or refuses to wash their feet on Maundy Thursday, or who turns away from Communion a politician who voted not to criminalise abortion, or a bishop who refuses to back Pope Francis' plea for discernment in the matter of Communion for the divorced and remarried, and for those who live in non-conventional domestic situations, all of them are crypto-terrorists. They are numbered among those whom Paul condemns as ignoring the God's ways of righteousness in favour of their own ill-informed zeal (Romans, 10:3). ...
I hardly think it necessary to point out the contradictions and scandalous assertions in this article. But isn't it funny that he wants to bundle together so many positions he dislikes, in order to discredit them all, and then label people holding them as 'single issue zealots'?
The accusation of terrorism, though not larded with the casual racism which characterised his attack on Cardinal Ranjith ('the Sri Lankan cappa magna fetishist and Tridentine-rite devotee'), and not as theologically fundamental as his denial of the Bodily Resurrection of Our Lord or His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, is in itself the most serious insult of a named prelate that I have read in his columns, and also perhaps the most insane. It seems Loftus, who was a canon lawyer, has forgotten the right of Archbishops, like lesser folk, to their good name (Canon 220).
I detect in this extract the instinctive anti-abortion sentiments common in Catholic liberals of his generation: the hand-wringing refusal to do anything to oppose what they think of as this dreadful, dreadful thing. It makes his attack on Archbishop Naumann all the more morally troubling.
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The Psychology of Traditionalism
|Ordinations for the Fraternity of St Peter in Wigratzbad in 2009|
Before my series of posts about Norman Dixon's Psychology of Military Incompetence, I'd been writing about Mgr Basil Loftus, who exemplifies the attitude that respect for rules indicates a conformist, 'anal', weak-ego individual. This inference enables him, and many others, to conclude that theological and liturgical conservatism and traditionalism manifests a kind of 'rigidity' incompatible with pastoral effectiveness.
I have shown what is wrong with this argument in general terms. It is a truism that people with weak egos and an unhealthy fear of failure will be risk-averse, and will seek the approval of their peers and superiors by conforming. In the post-conciliar situation, however, this approval is not forthcoming to conservatives and traditionalists in mainstream Catholic or non-Catholic institutions: it is, rather, given to those who toe the liberal line. It is rather remarkable that Loftus and his like have not noticed this, but as I have observed that classical presentations of the psychological theory they draw from, including Norman Dixon's, are prone to confuse the risk-taking non-conformism of a person with a strong ego and moral courage, with the liberal violation of traditional norms, and with the norm-violation of the merely self-indulgent.
So to address Loftus' claim, which one also hears from Pope Francis, directly, what sort of people become traditionally-minded priests? It is people of a 'rigid' mentality, seeking safety and predictability in rules and stereotypes? No, it isn't, because conformists want to conform, and you can't conform through a set of views and preferences rejected by almost all your peers and superiors.
That's not to say that traditional Catholics are all perfect and wonderful; they are heir to all the weaknesses of humanity like everyone else. It is just to point out the obvious. It takes moral courage to defend conservative or traditional views in Catholic schools, in Catholic universities or university chaplaincies, and in seminaries. It is sometimes possible to survive by keeping one's head down, but that still requires a high degree of mental toughness, and a willingness to exercise one's own judgement in defiance of the consensus. In a thousand institutions in the West, it is the odd, isolated conservative who acts as the only brake on group-think.
What of conservative or traditional institutions? Surely there one can conform by being conservative or traditional? Yes indeed. But that means that they are no different from any institution with an identifiable character. Conformists will try to conform. It doesn't follow that those in charge of these institutions are seeking to admit or to create conformists. They would be hard put to do it, indeed, because the vast majority of those entering these institutions have spent a lifetime not conforming, up to that point. If they were conformists, they wouldn't be there.
Another factor is the kind of life traditional priests tend to lead: the missionary type. Their distance from headquarters, and immersion in an environment which is at least partly hostile, requires initiative, resourcefulness, and self-confidence. Conformists wouldn't be able to cope. It is obvious to anyone with any personal knowledge of the Traditional institutes that superiors are concerned to produce priests who are self-confident, who can cope, who can deal with unexpected situations.
In an earlier post I considered Dixon's distinction between the authoritarian and the autocratic. I don't think he does a good job of it but it remains important. The structure of conformism may be confused with, but clearly isn't the same as, a strictly disciplined, hierarchical structure. Think of an elite military unit, trained to go behind enemy lines. They will be as disciplined as possible and as flexible-minded as possible. They'll weed out people with the pathological fear of failure which renders them incapable of using their initiative, and also the people who break rules just to please themselves. There is no conflict here. Discipline and routine can be a screen for the conformist to hide behind, but need not be. What specialist military training aims to produce is a focus on the objective (blowing up a bridge, say) with complete open-mindedness about means. It aims to produce people capable of thinking in unconventional ways, but good trainers will not confuse this with self-indulgent norm-violation.
It is not a coincidence that Archbishop Lefebvre was a missionary, the product of an institution, the Holy Ghost Fathers, which was, thanks to its missionary purpose, less geared to producing weak-ego conformists than others of its time. Put a weak-ego conformist in a 1930s bush-station and he would wouldn't last a week. And what do we find in the Archbishop's later career? That he was able to resist group-think, that he had the strength of character to defy the consensus, and that he sacrificed the comforts and honours of a well-deserved retirement to do what he thought was right by those below him in the hierarchy: priests, seminarians, and faithful.
To ram this point really home consider the example of the SSPX which he founded. Aren't they terribly strict and fierce? And don't they draw many vocations from inward-looking communities in which traditionalism is the norm? Well, maybe, but as I've been saying, discipline is not the same as the kind of authoritarianism, seeking conformism, we have been considering. Can this be tested? Why yes. Anyone with the smallest knowledge of the history of the SSPX knows perfectly well that the priests of the Society are not, in general, weak-ego conformists.
How so? The individualism and resourcefulness of these priests has good consequences, but to make this argument convincing to those who dislike the SSPX, let us focus on something they will be less inclined to deny: a bad consequence. Every few years there is some kind of eruption in the Society leading to the departure of a group of them, and individual priests depart on a regular basis. Some want to be reconciled with the Holy See. Some become sede vacantists. Most recently a group has renounced its affiliation for fear that the SSPX as a whole will be reconciled with the Pope. What does this tell us? That we have a group of men highly motivated by principle, and not highly motivated by the safety and comforts of institutional life, or the soothing approval of peers and superiors.
Bishop Fellay, the superior, must sometimes feel that he is herding cats. It is interesting that his talks, which appear on the internet every now and then, seek to explain and defend his attitude and policies by extended rational argument, not by banging the table or denouncing traitors. It's not a cult he's running, but a group of individuals who very much want to follow their own convictions.
The SSPX is under particular pressures because of its canonical situation. Other traditional groups, lay as well as clerical, can exhibit similar fissipariousness when under pressure of one kind or another. Particularly when things don't seem to be going well, people disagree about means to the end, and if you end up with factions advocating incompatible strategies, you can get a split. This isn't something to boast about, but it demonstrates that members are, to repeat, motivated by principle and not by the ego-soothing benefits of conformism. Personally, I'd rather deal with a group of eccentrics determined to get the job done, than the other extreme, a bunch of people who enjoy the comforts of institutional life, and are terrified of rocking the boat.
I'm not going to succeed in opening the eyes of the likes of Basil Loftus, but the next time someone links traditionalism with rigidity, I hope I have given you, dear reader, the resources to understand where that accusation comes from, what it means, and why it doesn't fit the facts. If we can point this out to the more open-minded segment of opinion, that will be victory enough.
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The psychology of Ecclesiastical Incompetence
|Bishop Mark Jabale at the LMS Annual Requiem in Westminster Cathedral|
The reason I've been writing about Norman Dixon's theory of 'rigid' personalities and military incompetence, is that the Church has certain interesting parallels with the military. The Church is hierarchical and authoritarian; the Church's training institutions are places where people can enjoy the predictability of institutional life (particularly in religious communities) and the rewards of conformism. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Church, like the army, will attract conformists, and that good superiors in both cases must be on the look-out for those whose conformity to the necessary discipline of the institution hides a debilitating lack of self-confidence. Priests lacking in self-confidence will be useless in the field, so if they don't gain the necessary maturity they must be weeded out. Things will go very wrong if, on the other hand, the conformists gain the upper hand. In that scenario it is the self-confident ones who will be weeded out, and pastoral effectiveness will suffer across the board.
The tensions just described are built into the nature of things, and so the psychology of the use of authority in the Church, and especially in seminaries, could remain constant, in certain ways, through the Vatican II revolution. Institutions which had been taken over by conformists under the Old Regime could change their theology without, necessarily, changing their psychological dynamic, for the New Regime. Liberals might think that their 'let-it-all-hang-out' ideology had banished the authoritarianism/ conformism pattern of the past, but it didn't: it simply meant that instead of conformism meaning slavish adherence to late 19th century neo-scholasticism and the ruthless weeding out of liberals, it now meant slavish adherence to Hans Kung and his friends and the ruthless weeding out of conservatives. And indeed, since the products of such a system were priests who were conformists first, and conservatives or liberals second, a change of ideology would not even necessarily require a change of personnel.
I put forward these theoretical observations as a way to interpret certain historical patterns. Not all Catholic seminaries and communities were or are the same; nor were all the products of these institutions the same, with people bucking the trend in both good and bad ways. Nevertheless, I think few will dispute generalisations such as the following:
1. There was an exaggerated emphasis on conformism in many seminaries and communities before Vatican II.
2. This exaggerated conformism both fed the liberal critique of these institutions, and facilitated their flipping overnight from demanding conservative conformism to demanding liberal conformism.
3. The secular and religious clergy of the 1960s and 1970s were, let us say, more than one would wish, characterised by conformism, that is a lack of moral courage, than by rebellious, innovative, getting-the-job done, to-hell-with-others'-opinions, non-conformism.
Now what happens when weak-ego conformists are actually in charge of things? Can we find parallels in the behaviour of bishops for the patterns identified by Norman Dixon in his incompetent military commanders?
What we would expect to find, on Dixon's principles, are things like the following: bishops having regard for the opinions of each other, and of their superiors, at the expense of the wisdom or indeed the suffering of their priests and people; bishops seemingly incapable of absorbing or reacting to new and unwelcome information; bishops focusing on the appearance rather than the reality of success; bishops surrounding themselves with yes-men; bishops preferring easy or impossible tasks to difficult ones.
Readers with detailed knowledge of the history of the Church since 1960 will know well enough how widespread these tendencies have been. I will limit myself to two examples.
The Congregation for Divine Worship, in allowing bishops to permit altar girls, noted the importance of male altar serving in fostering vocations to the priesthood. This point has been vindicated by the experience of Lincoln, Nebraska, which is almost unique in the developed world in never permitting altar girls; by the isolated parishes which have maintained male-only altar serving; by the Traditional Institutes which recruit from chaplaincies with male-only servers; and by research on the influential experiences of seminarians.
It is theoretically possible for any bishop in the world to forbid altar females in his diocese. Almost all the diocese of the Western world are desperately short of vocations. Forbidding altar girls is a proven way to boost vocations, as shown by experience and affirmed by authority. A lack of vocations is posing an existential challenge to these dioceses. And yet they have not forbidden altar girls.
It is sometimes claimed that the reason for this is that these bishops - almost all the bishops of the developed world - don't actually want vocations. This is not so, however, as can be seen by the lengths they are going to in other ways to find priests: getting them in from overseas, for example, allowing in all kinds of new movements and religious institutes, and even giving parishes to traditionalist groups. No, nearly all of them want vocations, but they have lacked the moral courage to do the one thing proven to be effective in getting them, because there would have been a stink.
I'm not saying that this or that bishop should be accused of wrongdoing. Bishops are under all kinds of pressure and their circumstances are particular. What I'd say is that that fact that not a single one of the hundreds and hundreds of bishops who could copy Lincoln's example, has done so, suggests that as a group there is an unhealthy degree of conformism at work in the group as a whole. If a few did it, then many others, whom we could excuse now, would be able to follow.
Here's my second case. After Vatican II Cardinal Heenan set up a teacher-training institution in his diocese called Corpus Christi College, to re-educate Catholic school teachers in the new approach to Catechetics supposedly mandated by Vatican II. It was taken over by more or less open heretics who told the teachers not to teach the Faith at all. Daphne MacLeod and Michael Davies investigated it in detail and sent the necessary information to the Cardinal. Catholic teachers were being told, for example, not to affirm the Divinity of Christ or the Real Presence: pretty basic stuff.
Heenan, however, either refused to believe the reports, or refused to act on them. In the end, after years of pressure, the prospect of public scandal forced his hand and he closed the place down, but rather than distance himself from its teaching he claimed that the reason for the closure was financial. This allowed everyone involved to continue to claim that the content of the courses was officially approved.
Now it might be claimed, again, that Heenan acted this way because he agreed with the content of the teaching at Corpus Christi. This explanation does not fit the facts, however, for Heenan was quite clearly a theological conservative. The problem was the acute embarrassment and conflict which Heenan expected if he had acted against the College, which would no doubt have been supported by all the liberal intellectuals of the country and beyond. He lacked the moral courage to do it.
The history of the Church in the West in the first decades after Vatican II provides a vast number of parallels for these two cases. Collectively and individually, with exceptions notable for being exceptional, bishops failed to do what they knew could and should be done, even while priests and religious were leaving their vocations in droves, and the number of Catholics attending Mass dropped by as much as half in one decade. This was the Passchendaele of the Church in Europe and North America, and the bishops were the generals: stubborn in their weakness, refusing to see the problem, refusing to act, safe in the knowledge that they were following the policy of everyone else.
I write this happy in the knowledge that, outside certain institutional bubbles where denial is still maintained, everyone will agree with my analysis. Not because everyone will accept my diagnosis of the post-conciliar crisis, but because what I have been saying fits in, in a very obvious way, with something I've not yet mentioned, but which was reaching its fullest extent in this very time-period: the clerical sex-abuse crisis.
It is a truism to say that the clerical sex-abuse crisis was made possible by a culture of authoritarianism / conformism, and demonstrated a lack of moral courage on the part of many in the Church, but above all of bishops and religious superiors. It follows that, in these crucial decades, before and after 1970, the Church was characterised by this kind of culture. I'm afraid, dear reader, however much you may have been resistant to my argument so far, you will now have to admit that, even if my examples are wrong, my conclusion is correct.
Furthermore, as I noted in the last post, the liberal idea that breaking down the old rules would end this culture, is false. The authoritarian / conformist culture quite evidently did not end with Vatican II. The new rules were able to form the basis of authoritarianism and conformism too.
Finally, the liberal conflation of moral courage with self-indulgent rule-breaking finds its ultimate, painful, refutation, in the tragic cases of the abuse crisis. The stories of these cases precisely show how liberal norm-violation can coexist with authoritarianism.
May God forgive those whose moral courage failed when confronting these abusers.
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The Psychology of Military Incompetence
|The last stand on the retreat from Kabul (Wikipedia)|
In my last post, I described part of the theory of the 'anal personality' widely used by psychologists of the 1960s and 1970s, and to an extent both before and after. Stripped of its Freudian explanatory basis (which is a lot of outdated and indeed laughable stuff about potty-training), the theory says that people with a 'weak ego' and a fear of failure will seek the approval of superiors and peers by conformism and playing it safe. This is not so much a theory, in fact, as a statement of the obvious.
I described how this observation has been applied in a one-sided way, by looking for conformism solely in terms of strict adherence to traditional rules. If attention is fixated upon this specific model of conformism, then it can seem inconceivable that a person opposed to traditional morality or social forms could be a conformist. This is the state of mind of seminary rectors, for example, who see theological or liturgical conservatism in seminarians as prima facie evidence of a weak ego, which would in turn indicate that the seminarians in question would be incapable of the flexibility of mind necessary for pastoral work.
This also seems to be the way that Pope Francis thinks. I don't want to pick him out, however: this is a very widespread attitude among senior clerics of his generation. The situation in seminaries and religious communities is beginning to change as a result of the retirement of this generation.
One of the ironies here is that so many practitioners of this psychological theory, and those influenced by it, exhibit the inflexibility of mind, and the rigid use of stereotypes, which they condemn in others.
In any case, things become more interesting once one notices that the core insight - that those who fear failure will play it safe - means that people with weak egos will comform with whatever are the dominant values of the environment in which they find themselves. In light of this rather obvious fact, the observations of Norman Dixon, in The Pyschology of Military Incompetence, are particularly helpful. Here is a summary of his conclusions.
Military establishments are, by necessity, hierarchical and authoritarian, and in their training environments, and in general in peace-time, they offer the predictability of institutional life and rewards for conformism. They are thus attractive for people with weak egos: people whose fear of failure makes them want to play things safe. In a well-run army, it will be a constant struggle to avoid promoting only the conformist goody-goodies, and conflict between them and risk-taking non-conformists, people who don't care too much about the opinions of their peers and superiors, but want to get the job done, will be a fact of life. In badly-run armies the conformists will take over completely and establish a culture of conformism which will lead to military ineffectiveness.
The next question is what happens to weak-ego conformists when they are promoted to positions of authority. When they have the freedom and authority to do their own thing, at least to an extent, what do they do? Here Dixon is at his most interesting, because it is here we can see the irrational and counter-productive aspects of the pathological fear of failure.
The incompetent generals Dixon considers have in common a concern for the respect of their fellow-officers and a disregard for the welfare of their troops. When it comes to conducting operations, they combine weakness and dithering, and a failure to give orders, with being closed-minded to unwelcome information, which can look like stubbornness.
On the first point, their self-image depends on the opinions of their peers (and superiors), rather than their inferiors. Thus General Elphinstone, during the retreat from Kabul of 1842, refused to allow his men, literally dying of cold, to improvise puttees from horse blankets. Elphinstone said it would look scruffy.
We should not get fixated on the subject of Elphinstone's obsession: the smart appearance of the British soldier. What is critical is that a scruffy army was a way in which he might lose face with his fellow officers. For him, that was more important than the welfare of his men.
On the second point, the generals' stubborn weakness, the crucial issue is the desire, manifested in a irrational, self-defeating, form, first to avoid blame (by not giving orders), and second, to hide from the possibility or the reality of failure by refusing to face up to disturbing information. Lord Raglan, famously, failed to give any orders at all during the battle of Alma, during the Crimean War, after his first one ('Advance to the river'). The most extreme example of the failure to look information in the face must be General Percival, who was warned repeatedly, not only by inferiors but even by his superior, that the Japanese attack on Singapore could come from the north, the land-ward side. He refused to build defences or move guns into the area, as he could easily have done.
When asked why, Percival revealingly replied that it would be 'bad for civilian morale' if the possibility of a Japanese attack from the north was acknowledged. But it wasn't civilians' morale which was really at issue: it was his own. He couldn't bear to face the possibility that the Japanese could invade from the undefended, land side of Singapore. It would have crushed his fragile self-confidence.
Another characteristic of incompetent conformists is taking on (when there is a choice) only tasks which are either easy or impossible. This might seem surprising, but fragile egos like these tasks because either they will succeed, or they will avoid blame for failure. They also like to assign blame, if possible, either to inferiors, or to forces outside their control.
Dixon's explanations make sense. The competent general is prepared to take responsibility, not by backside-covering conformity to conventional procedures, nor by burying his head in the sand, nor by diverting his energy to impossible tasks, but by facing squarely the difficult and necessary job at hand in an open-minded way. Since force conservation is a military necessity, the welfare and morale of his troops occupies an important place in his priorities, and he will not hide from the ordinary soldiers in headquarters. He will take responsibility for failure as well as for success, and he will be able to learn from his own, and others', mistakes.
Dixon makes the point that, tempting as it is, it is a mistake to attribute the military failures he considers to stupidity. Many of the generals he considers were highly intelligent. Nor were they cowards under fire: in many cases physical courage was among the factors which led to their promotion. Nor, again, did they necessarily lack compassion. Field Marshall Haig was physically ill when he saw the dressing stations, and resolved to preserve his health by not visiting them.
No: the thing they lacked was moral courage: the strength of character to do the right thing at the risk of failure, rejection, disgrace, and ridicule. Moral courage is the quality which led great commanders to break the rules, on those occasions on which they did so: Nelson's blind eye to the command to retreat at the battle of Copenhagen, for example, or the young officer James Wolf, later the great General Wolf, who refused the order to kill the wounded and prostrate Macleod of Glenelg in the aftermath of Culloden. He said to the appalling 'Butcher' Duke of Cumberland:
My commission is at the disposal of your Royal Highness, but I decline to become a butcher.
And here's something which nails the liberal narrative which is developed out of the general theory Dixon is applying, and with which Dixon himself agrees: viz. that taking rules seriously indicates a weak-ego, 'anal', conformist, character, whether the rules are military orders, moral obligations, or social norms. It should be obvious that there is a very important difference between breaking rules (such as orders) which are of only subordinate importance, because one has the moral courage to realise that they conflict, in the circumstances, with the right thing to do, and, on the other hand, breaking fundamental moral rules out of self indulgence. The self-indulgent breaking of sexual norms, for example, is not an example of moral courage, even if a some famous commanders combined moral courage in military matters with sexual self-indulgence.
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The psychology of the 'rigid' personality
I've been reading Norman Dixon's 1975 classic, The Psychology of Military Incompetence. It has many insights, and also many flaws; one point of interest in reading it today is to see how psychology was done in the 1970s.
I was stopped in my tracks by one passage, a quotation (p254). It is from Peter Kelvin, The Bases of Social Behaviour, 1970. He is talking about the 'authoritarian' personality. (Elipses are Dixon's.)
These tendencies reflect on a type of individual who needs to feel that his environment is highly predictable ... he needs to know where he stands; and so he fastens on to norms: he does not 'let himself go', for fear of where this might lead; he looks to authority as a guide ... [He also] relies very heavily on stereotypes in [his] perception of the social environment. Moreover, the stereotypes used by an authoritarian personality tend to be very clear-cut, and the characteristic infelixibility of this personality leads to relative inability to modify the stereotype once it has been formed.
This is a concise characterisation of what progressives, in the Church and outside it, in the 1960s and 1970s, thought was wrong with their opponents. It also seems to match what Pope Francis has in mind when he talks about 'rigid' people. We don't have to imagine that he ever read Kelvin: these ideas which were widespread when the Holy Father was at an impressionable age.
It establishes a theoretical basis for the connections which seem to exist in Pope Francis' thinking between (1) a concern for rules / authority-figures; (2) self-restraint / lack of authenticity; (3) an inability to make nuanced judgements about persons and situations, instead attempting to force everything into one of a set of pre-determined stereotypes.
I'm not a psychologist, or a historian of the discipline, but it is apparent that this theory is dated, to put it mildly. Underlying it is a Freudian account of how character is moulded by over-bearing mothers and potty-training, and indeed there is so much emphasis on the latter that it is hard to avoid concluding that it is the author, and not the subjects, who has an anal-fixation. (Perhaps it is exposure at an impressionable age to theories such as this which explains Pope Francis' puzzling interest in coprophilia and coprophagia.)
Dixon wants to apply this theory to military organisations, and immediately runs into the problem that effective commanders are, in a popular sense, authoritarian, whereas he wants to argue that bad ones are bad precisely because they are authoritarian in the way just described. He deals with this by distinguishing the 'authoritarian personality' with the 'autocratic' one, which can include being a disciplinarian. He never sets out the distinction in detail, and it looks ad hoc. Dixon appears to put everything he personally doesn't like into his notion of the 'authoritarian' (including such disparate things as being religious and taking an interest in one's personal appearance), and everything he does like into his notion of the 'autocratic' (his is the only book where I have ever read the word 'womaniser' used as a term of praise). Dixon describes how the theory was developed with Nazism in mind, with the result that it is problematic, if not self-contradictory, to apply it to the megalomaniacs and mass-murderers of the political left. Crafting a psychological theory to further one's personal political preferences is, well, less than entirely satisfactory.
Dixon does have a lot of interesting things to say, and I will discuss them in a later post, but the significance for the Church of the problems I have identified with this theory has been incalculable.
It was psychologists with attitudes along these lines who advised religious orders and seminary directors in the 1960s and 1970s. An insider's account of this process is given by Dr William Coulson. (You can see a summary of Dr Coulson's ideas here; better still download an MP3 talk by him here. It is an eye-opener.)
On this kind of thinking, Catholic teaching is inescapably unhealthy, 'anal', because it imposes constraints on sexual behaviour. On the theory, people are well-adjusted just insofar as they are letting it all 'hang out', without guilt. Any concern with 'norms' is ipso facto a bad sign. Ritual is just the kind of thing an 'anal' person would care about, so if you don't want to be chucked out of seminary for being mentally ill you'd better not take any notice of rubrics. Political, social, or theological conservatism are all indications of a 'weak ego', a pathological need to conform and seek approval. As Pope Francis expresses it:
And I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.
Pope Francis and others of his generation can say this without any direct knowledge of the people he is talking about. Why? Because for them it is obvious. It just follows from a universal psychological theory.
The irony here is overwhelming. Didn't it occur to the religious superiors of the 1970s and later that, under their new regime, people seeking approval from their superiors out of a lack of self-confidence would be rigidly conforming to the anti-rules of liberalism? That is, not wearing a cassock, not following the rubrics, not being faithful to the office. That they would find new ways of showing off how much they were teachers' pet, not by an immaculate appearance and a pious demeanor, nor yet by vying with each other in exaggerated reactionary remarks, but instead by leaving pornography lying around and visiting gay bars. But no, liberal superiors never noticed this, because the theory was not conceived of as applying equally to any set of rules, but only to the rules of the past. The real insight behind it, that goody-goodies could be motivated by an exaggerated horror of failure with which their fragile personalities could not cope, was distorted by the social and, in the case of the Church, the theological goals of the people who applied the theory: like the drunk's lamppost, it was ultimately valued as support, not for illumination. Or, to vary the metaphor, it was just used as a battering-ram against the Faith.
Just ask yourself this. Who is the conformist, in the Church of today, in a Catholic university, seminary, or religious community: the eccentric conservative, or the one whose liberal ideas are safely within the comfort-zone of 90% or his peers and teachers? If you have a weak ego, if you are scared of being ostracised, being thought a failure, or not fitting in, will it be more attractive to you to be a conservative or a liberal?
The great value of Dixon's book, for me, was his account of what happens to the conformist when he himself becomes a superior. Dixon may have thought of his principles as only applying to conservative conformists, but there is a genuine insight here which applies to liberal conformists as well.
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Loftus on sacrality
|A glimpse of something a bit different from the everyday world.|
In my last post on the egregious Catholic Times columnist Mgr Basil Loftus, I noted his hatred of the Reform of the Reform and of the Traditional Mass. This hatred extends to the Ordinariate liturgy as well, to which he referred on 7 July 2013:
|Loftus on 8th April 2016|
For an expression of the liberal attitude, the extract in the photo will serve as a good example. There are various psychological explanations for the illiberal liberal, but as far as rational arguments go, it is simply a reiteration of the arguments made about the need for reform in the 1950s and '60s. It was said then that the Church was failing to make the impact she should make because the form of her liturgical and indeed cultural life was 'out dated'. Just as we need the latest cars and trains and computers (with lots of valves) in order to be efficient, so we need up-to-date liturgy, reflecting up-to-date ideas about liturgical history, scriptural scholarship, and also about effective communication, psychology, and the needs of 'modern man'.
Obviously, what in the liturgy was (in Loftus' words) 'culturally at odds' with the 'modern world', in the 1950s and today, was 'at odds' with it in the 1850s, and to a large extent the 1150s, because even then the Roman liturgy was famous for being ancient. Come to that, the language of the liturgy and the Bible was a cultural oddity in the 450s: it was evidently and strangely different from the language of ordinary speech. How often did people in the streets of Rome say to each other 'Quaesumus, Domine' or 'Amen, amen, dico vobis'? One might indeed ask, Is that even Latin?
So maybe the Church in her wisdom had some idea other than that of conforming the world, when it came to liturgy, just as she did when it came to doctrine. Certainly Loftus is correct to link the two. The doctrine which was a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles was able to save people from the errors of the ancient world, of the medieval era, and of the modern world alike, precisely because it did not conform too closely to changing preferences.
What is most amazing of all, however, is the idea that any alternative to the suicidally counter-productive policies of the last half-century and more would make things worse. Loftus is not alone in insisting on that. We can't, of course, know with any certainty what would have happened without the post-Consiliar 'auto-demolition' bewailed by Pope Pius VI, but we do know what is happening right now to ecclesial bodies which took the process even further. What Loftus would like to see is the Church's adoption of the model displayed by liberal Anglicanism, and if you want to know what difference this would make to the Church's fortunes, just look what it has done for Anglicans. The decade from 2005 to 2015 saw a 12% drop in their church attendance.
Just as Pyrrus realised he couldn't survive many more victories over the Romans, I don't think the Anglicans can survive much more of this kind of revival.
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Update on Mgr Loftus
|Eat your heart out, Basil. That's Archishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool with the FSSP
in Warrington, about to ordain two of their men priests.
I've not been blogging about Mgr Loftus recently; he is terribly repetetive and I've said pretty well everything which can usefully be said, while other issues have arisen. However, since the big push I made about him in March 2015 a few observations may be of interest to my readers.
Long-term readers may recall that at that time I prepared a dossier of his jems, and I didn't keep this document to myself. Reviewing my ever-growing paper archive of his columns since then, it is clear that this had some effect. Mgr Loftus must have been given some kind of warning by person or persons of authority, whether it be bishops or the Editor of the Catholic Times in which his screeds are published. So my project was not a waste of time.
The most obvious indication is the number of times he has been attacking English, Welsh, and Scottish bishops by name, or by clear implication. In the years up to 2015, this habit was completely out of control. He attacked Bishop Hopes for pointing out the negative side of people going up to Holy Communion without thinking about it. He attacked Archbishop Mennini, the Apostolic Nuncio, for getting the Nunciature's central-heating system mended. (No, I'm not making that up.) He attacked Cardinal Nichols for versions of both crimes. He attacked Bishop (now Archbishop) Roach, then of Leeds, for getting a coat of arms. He attacked Bishop Doyle of Northampton for telling his priests not to allow teddy bears on coffins in funerals. He attacked Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen because someone had defaced a notice on a noticeboard. On serveral occasions he attacked Bishop Davies of Shrewsbury and Bishop Egan of Portsmouth.
Not content with these targets, in the most appalling terms he attacked cardinals outside the UK, notably Ranjith, Müller, Bertone, and Burke.
Since then, the only negative references to British bishops that I found on my trawl through his columns (I may have missed some) have been to Bishop Keenan of Paisley on the funeral teddy bear issue, and 'Dr Egan, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth', for saying that Amoris laetitia has not changed the Church's discipline.
It is scandalous (or ought to be) for a retired Monsignor to attack by name bishops of his former and current countries of residence, in a Catholic newspaper sold in their dioceses, for the crime of maintaining the Catholic Faith. However, in the context of his earlier columns this is astonishingly restrained.
On foreign bishops and cardinals he clearly feels less need to hold himself back, and there are ferocious assults on American bishops Morlino, Cordileone, and Chaput; on Léonard, the retired Archbishop of Brussels; on Archbishop Gänswein; on the Polish bishops; and (lots of times) on Cardinals Burke and Sarah.
Since 2015 he has become bolder in his attacks on Humanae vitae and the Church's teaching on contraception. The unlawfullness of contraception was denied in his columns on 4th Sept 2015, 10th June 2016, and again on 9th Sept 2016.
He has become bolder about the ordination of women as well, making his position unmistakable on 17th March 2017.
The issue which seems to get his goat the most (if the expression may be excused), however, is the celebration of Mass ad orientem. He can't stand the 'Reform of the Reform' and detests the Extraordinary Form, but it is ad orientem which is most consistently mentioned as a specific problem, beating even the hieratic language of the 2011 English translation of the Missal (and that's saying something). Readers were privileged to peruse the great man's rants on the subject on 27th March 2015, 8th April 2016, 28th October 2016, and this year so far on 28th July, 1st Sept, and 22nd Sept.
My conclusions from this are several.
First, it is a mistake to imagine that Loftus is immune to pressure: he has obviously felt it and responded to it.
Second, it is a great pity that the pressure didn't extend to ending his column altogether, because even from the perspective of a bishop at the liberal end of the spectrum of opinion, his columns are embarassing, and undermining of the respect due to ecclesiastical office. For example, the bishops have decided not to reopen the Missal translation issue, and would like everyone to stop attacking it and just let it bed in, but Loftus will not shut up about it.
Third, Pope Francis has been well recieved by the Loftus column, but although many inches have been devoted to ramblings about 'mercy', Loftus' agenda remains his own. It is not possible to defend Loftus' remarks on women priests or contraception on the basis of Pope Francis' words, and as for celebrating Mass ad orientem, if this is a crime then Pope Francis is a criminal too.
Fourth, Loftus continues to demonstrate that mainstream liberals in the Church are far more embittered, and far ruder about bishops, than equivalently mainstream conservatives or traditional Catholics.
No doubt some will tell me Loftus is not 'mainstream', but all I mean is that he has a huge weekly column in the Catholic Times, sold in Catholic churches up and down the land, his name appearing fortnightly on the mast-head to advertise the fact. It is further adorned, and its prestige underlined, by a photograph often so vast as to leave little room for anything else on this broadsheet page. He is allowed apparently infinite space to reply to his critics in the Letters Page, and the Editor publishes the most pathetic imaginable letters of support for the old booby, suggesting he does not have many to choose from. This is supposed to be the 'serious' Catholic newspaper, read by serious people, in contrast to the more low-brow Universe. And for all this, it remains acceptable for this column to decribe two Cardinals of the Roman Church, Sarah and Burke, as 'rigid reactionaries' (9th December 2016), as if it were the record of school play-ground.
But as a wise man once said: 'Being censorious of others is often a defence-mechanism to justify our narrow-mindedness.' (Mgr Basil Loftus, 12th September 2014).
Tu dicis, Basil: tu dicis.
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