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What Keeps Some Catholics from Facing the Modern Church’s Ugliness?

“The mind will protect itself from having to face something intolerable.” As I read a recent article by Rod Dreher, this line in it resonated with me. Perhaps it accessed that part of the attic where my brain stores my psychology studies. The paragraph containing that line begins with a reference to “cognitive dissonance,” a part of psychology that deals with how the brain copes with conflicts in an individual’s strongly held beliefs.

In the true-life example laid out by Mr. Dreher, a person he describes as a “faithful Catholic layman” had direct knowledge of widespread homosexual corruption in a seminary in 2002. The layman was close friends with Cardinal Bernard Law in the Archdiocese of Boston. The layman informed Cardinal Law about the homosexual corruption, and the cardinal did nothing. According to Mr. Dreher, the layman could not reconcile his love and respect for the cardinal with the fact that the cardinal allowed the corruption to flourish unaddressed.

That is a classic example of dissonance between two strongly held beliefs. Ordinarily, the dissonance is resolved either by changing one of the beliefs or devaluing one in relation to the other. But in Mr. Dreher’s example, the layman could do neither. He could not bring himself to examine facts he did not dispute and reach a conclusion about the cardinal. Mr. Dreher says, “He literally could not summon the will to face the terrible truth about his friend the cardinal, and the truth about the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.”

In Mr. Dreher’s example, the cognitive dissonance left the layman paralyzed, utterly unable to state how he harmonized both things that he believed to be true. My guess is that few “faithful Catholic laymen” find themselves in this position today. In 2019, we know that the widespread homosexual corruption that was allowed to flourish in the seminary in 2002 now permeates the priesthood and the hierarchy of the Church. Yet we do not hear of faithful Catholic laymen who are unable to process the seeming dissonance.

The reason is that there is no dissonance. There is no strongly held belief that Catholicism inherently conflicts with homosexual corruption. Such belief has been bred out of the faithful Catholic layman and replaced with acceptance of adultery, sodomy, and same-sex “marriage.”

Acceptance of sexual perversion is by no means the sole tenet of the apostate Church, but it should be the easiest for the faithful Catholic layman to reject, regardless of what he might hear from the pulpit. Training in theology is not required. Every person comes equipped with knowledge of the natural law. It is “engraved in the soul of each and every man” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1954). The immorality of sexual perversion is knowable from the natural law alone. Its incompatibility with the natural law is easily discerned.

In terms of the psychology of cognitive dissonance, the natural law has been devalued in order to keep it from being a strongly held belief and a source of intolerable mental stress for the faithful Catholic layman.

What has prevented the faithful Catholic layman from nevertheless using his intellect to perform his own analysis in light of the natural law? Poor catechesis seems to be the popular answer. That may well be the case when it comes to matters of faith like the Real Presence. But it is not a satisfactory answer when it comes to matters of morality that are knowable without catechesis.

In the same article, Mr. Dreher offers an intriguing hypothesis based upon the phenomenon of the Inner Ring, as articulated by C.S. Lewis in a speech delivered at Kings College, the University of London, in 1944. Loosely defined, the Inner Ring is a second, unwritten social system that exists within any formal institution. Lewis says, “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

Applying this phenomenon to his faithful Catholic layman friend, Mr. Dreher wonders, “Could it be that the man, the friend of Cardinal Law’s, was partly motivated not to see the truth in front of his nose, not just because it would force him to recognize something terrible about his friend the cardinal, but also because it could push him out of the Inner Ring?”

There is no denying the powerful pull of the Inner Ring. As the Second World War was drawing to a close, it was Lewis’s purpose that day to warn his young audience concerning their sure encounter with the Inner Ring. His observations, excerpted below, can be as valuable for us today as they were then, as we contend with a Church that is now controlled by an Inner Ring.

  • When promiscuity is the fashion, the chaste are outsiders.
  • In the whole of your life as you now remember it, has the desire to be on the right side of that invisible line ever prompted you to any act or word on which, in the cold small hours of a wakeful night, you can look back with satisfaction?
  • Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life[.] … Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.”
  • And then, if you are drawn in … it may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.
  • To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of “insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction.

Let us be more understanding, then, of “progressive” congregations that interrupt — or is “deplatform” the better word? — their new parish priest at Mass when he confronts their strongly held beliefs. Their minds are simply protecting them from having to face something intolerable, something that could expel them from the Inner Ring.

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