"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, October 07, 2005

Syndrome thinking

One of my pet peeves about political debate among Catholics is how it illustrates what the late philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe called "syndrome thinking." Such thinking is the juxtaposition, in the same person, of attitudes and arguments that don't have to go together logically but illustrate merely ideological prejudice. It's got to stop.

For example, those who work tirelessly—and in my view, rightly—to abolish the death penalty generally have no problem with abortion being legal. Why? If it's pro-life to seek to protect vicious murderers from a fate many of them arguably deserve, why does not the duty of being pro-life call for inducing the state to protect conceived children from an equally violent fate that nobody says they deserve? Frankly, I don't get it. Perhaps somebody somewhere has explained it, but I don't know who or where and I doubt I'd be impressed with their argument if in fact they have produced one. The whole attitude reeks of ideological syndrome-thinking: the thoughtless aping of knee-jerk leftism.

By the same token, however, many who rightly oppose keeping abortion legal, and who agree with John Paul the Great's statements to that effect in Evangelium Vitae, nonetheless vociferously dissent from his statement in that same encyclical:
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
Alongside the Church's traditional teaching on capital punishment, that last sentence was even inserted into the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) by way of revising its original edition. Now as a merely empirical judgment, that statement does not call for the assent of faith, only for religiousum obsequium. So I wouldn't call somebody a bad Catholic just for disagreeing with it. But why do so many right-wing Catholics treat it with such scorn? It seems to me pretty obviously true even if failure to accept it is compatible with Catholic orthodoxy. So whence comes the emotional energy of dissenters? I don't find their attitude on this point any more "pro-life" than the attitude of the Left about legal abortion. It's coming from a place other than Catholicism, and it's syndrome thinking of the sort well illustrated among American conservatives.

What this whole debate shows me is that many Catholics don't adopt Catholicism as their primary template of thought. Especially on matters of political significance, their thinking is formed elsewhere and brought to their Catholicism. That shows they aren't Catholic enough. Of course few of us are; if we were, we'd all be saints, and I'm certainly no saint. But granted I find it harder to behave than to believe, I can and do expect consistency of belief and strive constantly to attain it. I don't understand why more Catholics don't do the same.
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