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Normalcy Bias and Papal Positivism


Over the past few years, we’ve all seen articles advising people what to do in an active shooter situation. The advice usually goes, “run, hide, fight.” But many articles point out that the biggest challenge for responding to a crisis isn’t necessarily knowing what to do, but overcoming “normalcy bias.” What is normalcy bias? It is the mental state people tend to enter when faced with a rare and disastrous situation. It is the tendency to deny the possibility that something disastrous is occurring. Even though the evidence points to something very, very bad happening, because we’ve never experienced it before, we assume it can’t really be happening. Thus, many people upon hearing a gunshot will first want to believe it is just a car backfiring. They can’t accept that they are in the midst of a crisis and need to react accordingly.

Normalcy bias is prevalent in any crisis. During the rise of Nazi Germany, the idea that Hitler was historically evil was simply too horrible to consider. So many Germans didn’t strongly oppose his rise to power. Normalcy bias has also been a primary factor in many Catholics’ reaction to the crisis in the Church today. We want to believe all is well, even if the evidence strongly suggests it is not. Nowhere is this bias more prevalent than with the pontificate of Francis.

Covering Our Father’s Nakedness

Orthodox Catholics instinctively side with the pope. We are willing to defend the pope – the vicar of Christ and the rock on which the Church is built – against attacks from both inside and outside the Church. Even when a pope does something imprudent, we desire, like the sons of Noah, to cover his nakedness to protect him from shame (cf. Genesis 9:23). Furthermore, we live in a time when the Church has been blessed for centuries with pontiffs who have generally avoided scandal and faithfully taught the Catholic Faith. Sure, there have been some moments when a pope has said or done something imprudent over the past few generations, but nothing as scandalous as some popes acted in the late middle ages. So, for us, it is normal for popes to faithfully and clearly transmit the Catholic Faith.

Thus, when a pope says something that appears on its face outlandish, even contrary to the Catholic Faith, normalcy bias may predispose us to assume we have misunderstood him, or the media misquoted him, or the translation was bad. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for we should always give our popes the benefit of the doubt. However, normalcy bias can be downright dangerous when these statements reach a crisis level. We can end up being paralyzed, or, even worse, defending the indefensible. We become papal positivists, proclaiming that everything a pope says is orthodox simply because the pope said it.

While normalcy bias plagues many Catholics today, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the opposite condition: worst-case bias. Someone with worst-case bias assumes that every situation is a crisis, based on the flimsiest data. If a Middle-Eastern man walked into a church, someone with worst-case bias would immediately assume he is about to start firing shots. Likewise, every action of a pope becomes a cause for alarm and another reason to believe we’re in the End Times. This condition may be uncommon today, but it can be found in some traditionalist circles, so we should be aware and guard against it.

Occam’s Razor

So although it is praiseworthy to desire to defend a pope from attack, there comes a point when the evidence is so overwhelming that Occam’s Razor should apply: among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. If we are doing mental gymnastics to make a papal statement mean something that it clearly does not, this is no service to the truth. Nor to the pope, for that matter. We should ask ourselves, if I heard another prelate, say, perhaps the Archbishop of Chicago, state the same things, would I try to make excuses for him and explain that he didn’t really mean what his words in their plain sense mean? Would I try to dismiss his words as a product of his culture? Or should I simply take him at his word? Our Lord said that we should let our ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ mean ‘no’ (Matthew 5:37). A corollary to this is that we should accept the words of others, including the pope, at face value. We should assume they mean what they plainly say.

To overcome normalcy bias, we must reposition what we think of as “normal.” If you live in a war-zone and you hear a loud noise in the distance, you will most likely assume that you heard a bomb explode. That would be “normal.” But if you hear the same noise in your quiet suburban neighborhood, you might assume it is the neighbor’s teenage son messing with firecrackers. Catholics of every age, however, live in a “war-zone,” not a quiet, safe neighborhood. For the devil is constantly on the attack. He attacks in ways both subtle and obvious, but he always attacks. So we should never assume it is normal for Church prelates – at any level – to be holy and orthodox. Instead, we should assume they are under vicious attack. So when a Church prelate – again, at any level – says something contrary to the Faith, we recognize what it is: a victory for the devil. Excusing or even defending it does no one any good.

Saints Are Not Normal

In a crisis, the person who first overcomes normalcy bias, and who has the courage to act, is usually lauded as a hero after the fact. However, in the critical moment he acted in a way contrary to most of the people around him – that is what makes him a hero. After you overcome normalcy bias and are willing to speak out against the crisis in the Church today, you will be acting in a way contrary to most people around you. That does not make you wrong, however. Saints are not commonplace, and they are willing to go against the forceful tide of their times to defend our Lord and his divine teachings. We too must break free of “normal” and speak out, in charity and clarity, whenever anyone spreads confusion or falsehood, no matter what rank that person might have in the Church.

36 thoughts on “Normalcy Bias and Papal Positivism”

  1. Bingo. This is noticed and discussed so very rarely. So important to be aware of this to guard against physical threats (violence or financial); but also spiritual threats which you cover so very well. Spiritual threats can kill the soul forever, so your message is crucially important.

    You must be AWARE of the threat before you can defend against the threat and if you are altering reality due to “normalcy bias”, due to an unprepared spiritual state; failing to gird your loins and take up the full armor of God in advance of battle, well the spiritual battle is already lost before the first shot is fired.

    Check out this great example of what you say. It includes both kinds of people: those prepared to fight, and those suffering from “normalcy bias” who will be killed but for the efforts of brave, prepared men.

  2. What people have to realise is that the current Pope’s utterences represent danger because they indicate what he is planning to do. So far his disciplinary legislation threatens to sow discord far more than his words (e.g. his “reform” of the annulment process).

  3. The problem with the Noah analogy is that the Bible says elsewhere that a husband’s nakedness is is wife’s (and vice versa): so it may well be that the passage refers to something different than just a father laying naked.

    The other problem is that Pope Francis is an exhibitionist running through the city square: absolutely refusing to be covered…

  4. “We should ask ourselves, if I heard another prelate, say, perhaps the Archbishop of Chicago, state the same things, would I try to make excuses for him and explain that he didn’t really mean what his words in their plain sense mean?”

    Absolutely correct. That reminds me of a friend who specializes in the mental torture of papolaters and papal positivists. Its a really fun game:

    1) Go to a forum or blog where they hang out and paste a Bergoglianism, but ascribe it to Hans Kung, some other loon, or a particular bogeyman for that group.
    2) Sit back and laugh into your coffee while they all pile in with a flame war against the alleged author, with cries of “heresy, anathema and apostate”.
    3) Re-enter the fray and confess and apologize for the error in your citation, affirmimg that it was actually the “Pope” who said/wrote it.
    4). Sit back and laugh into your coffee while they attempt to rationalize/justify/defend/interpret the abomination just because it was uttered by the “Pope”.

    It is amazing the number who will perform a mental 180 degree turn because of the sin of human respect. Occasionally, though, there are some who have the integrity to admit there is a problem and their eyes begin to open.

      • I used to do it myself many years ago on the Freerepublic religion forum when previous Popes occasionally came out with relativist nonsense. Then I got ordained and thought I had better act a bit less frivolously!

        CMTV does represent an ideal forum for “big C” Catholics who would like to indulge in the “game”, not that I could possibly recommend or encourage anybody to engage in such acts of mental reservation – I am not a Jesuit after all. 😉

      • That is such a sad site.
        I wonder how they are able to “rationalize” to themselves this ostrichness. It is a total joke.

        • They rationalize it by, of their own authority, declaring those in other media outlets who draw attention to the contradictions and dangers of Francis’s improvisations as being in schism, their forums and outlets “sewers”, and of being “Halloween Catholics” who simply outwardly pretend to be Catholics.

          Of course, they never actually provide any real evidence as to why their position is the only valid one, other than to simply appeal to an authority that only they seem to believe they possess. Judging by the lack of activity in the comboxes of late, as well as Voris’s own admission that premium subscriptions have plummeted, it appears as if CMTV is well on the way to being irrelevant, having driven away the very audience it is intended to reach.

    • It is amazing the number who will perform a mental 180 degree turn because of the sin of human respect

      Finally! Someone uses the exact term that I have been thinking of with regards this Papacy and those who ignores the truth about the “Francis effect”.

    • We have done this in reverse, posted a MEME of something that Lefevere said, put Pope Francis said it on the bottom, and what Trads rip it to pieces. You should see the look on their faces when they find out it was a Lefevere quote and they were set up to expose their own Bias, rofl… good fun! 🙂

  5. I agree that it is very hard to face the self-evident if it doesn’t suit your normal world view. However, I am not sure that the quiet coming from most bishops etc concerning Francis should be read as mental gridlock. My guess is that a growing number of them are well aware that something is wrong and they must know that a very high percentage of the faithful are confused and very unhappy.

    I don’t know what is to be done. Sites like this one are a good if they keep on the pressure and point out every deed or word coming from the Vatican that leads the Church closer to an informal accommodation with a shallow and decadent secular culture. But I don’t see the Vatican changing course as long as Francis believes he has mass support among the people (which he does, although it is arguably inversely related to the faithfulness of the individual Catholic) and is not opposed openly by priests and bishops. The problem is that priests and bishops have to listen to their flock and many still view Francis as either a good representative of the Church (he does have the gift of gesture) or think their non-Catholic friends and neighbors like him. The strong counter-cultural stance that JPII and Benedict were clearly intending for the Church had and has the deepest support of many believers that the Church needs badly. The faithful that have been fighting abortion and same sex marriage have clearly been abandoned by Francis.

    There’s another factor that I’ve been thinking about. After looking through my “Francis archive” again after the null marriages debacle, it strikes me that Francis holds a very deep and orthodox view of Jesus. He has no fear of talking about the resurrection and the supernatural. He seems to view Satan as more than symbol. And there’s no reason not to believe him when he states (often actually – AL very clearly) that those people who grow closer to the Church, closer to Christ and closer to God will be much the better for it. Judging from the Kasper’s mid-70s work on Christology, I don’t think you could say the same there.

    What may be the real problem is that for some reason – I cannot guess – Francis honestly believes that the great danger to the Church comes from within – from those following “rigorism” or legalism or aggressive intervention into individual lives (“sticking their noses” into other people’s morals). If this is so, there is logic in Francis mind to change the pastoral nature of the Church if it opens more doors to those believers who have or are falling away.

    I pray to be in error but I am nearly certain Francis is making a monumental blunder and is doing serious damage. If the problem facing the Church is not rigidity or careerism in its ranks and teaching but the furious pressure coming from 21st century secular humanism with its battle cry of individual autonomy” then the road Francis and his Euro bishop allies has embarked on is exactly the same as the one already paved by the “mainline” Protestant denominations. And that road is leading rapidly to irrelevance and possible oblivion. (The Church does not head for oblivion, but a short glance at its history shows clearly that bad leadership can do terrible harm lasting generations.)

    If an arrogant “progressive” like Kasper or Marx was Holy Father I think rebellion would be open and wide spread. But it’s harder with Francis. The man is doing so many things wrong that it’s impossible to support him. He may mean well and the intent comes across.

    I would be amazed if the unfortunate Francis dialogue with the world ends soon. So it seems we must remind others (and each other) that Christ’s mercy is boundless but has meaning only in the recognition of sin. A truce or, worse, a peace treaty, with our wicked culture blurs exactly that distinction. In a sense this has always been true – that is why the Church honors tradition, takes teaching seriously and expects followers to attempt to be better people than they are. And when they fail, which they will, to confess and repent.

  6. Other than one dismissed news story, I have no evidence for what I am about to say but here goes: I simply can’t believe B16 is so chill about the state of the church since he left except that the Lord gave him a clear indication that, as IANS put it, the whole Satanic circus is about to go lights out.

    Just a hunch.

  7. And I know B16 went thru any number of contortions to salvage V2 as something good, the fact remains that his writings over decades show he is now either bereft of his senses or divinely reassured that there is not a whole lot to worry about, last call coming soon.

  8. “So we should never assume it is normal for Church prelates – at any level – to be holy and orthodox.”

    Surely I’m mis-reading this, but if that is true, then why bother with a Church in which every one of the ordained are automatically and always suspect? I can understand a “Trust, but verify” middle course between the above and papalotry, but that is not the sense I’m getting from the statement.
    What am I missing here?

    • My point is simply that we cannot assume that just because a Church prelate said something that it is orthodox or prudent. It must conform to the tradition of the Church.

      Also remember that the holiness and orthodoxy of the clergy does not impact their ability to transmit the sacraments, which is our primary means of grace and holiness. So while it is subjectively ideal to have a holy and orthodox clergy, we will still objectively receive the grace of the sacraments from them.

      • Well, if you go by the Pope’s word’s it seems intention, holiness, etc does affect the ability o transmit the sacraments. We live in a provisional culture so therefore, we cannot be sure that people are really married. Which means it is possible also that priests are not really priests, their ordination being questionable.
        So going by the Pope, we cannot be certain of anything vis a vis the Church.
        So was it really Jesus I received in communion or was that simply a wafer because it turns out the priest was not really a priest. Or will we never know.

  9. Very well stated and to the point. One must recognize as well that normalcy bias is well normal. It is the human way to make sure there is not an over reaction to something outrageous. We can see this when the abuse crisis broke in Boston. Priests abusing children and standing trial, who did not think it was as aberration, a few bad apples who were finally found out and charged. Then as the years rolled on, more stories came out, victims began to speak, testimonies heard, Grand Jury reports came out, etc. That is when one can not deny the magnitude of what was going on. The same could be said about the Magdalen Laundries and orphanages, and what seemed to be every nook and cranny of the Catholic Church. Even today there are those who will not allow the full comprehension of the horrors committed and fight against change, accountability, restitution. However, when someone loves something so much, whether it is children, spouse, parent, friend, faith, church, there is a real reaction to stand by them no matter what the charge. However, just as God/Jesus stands by us, loves us, no matter what, He does require that the truth be acknowledged, accepted, and a penitent heart to try our best to not do it again.

  10. I have often said that this precisely what is happening with those who refuse to acknowledge that something is terribly wrong. But that is okay, we have plenty of sand.

  11. Thanks Eric. Hopefully your essay will help some folks to speak out. It is one thing to know that the Pope is not speaking the truth of the Catholic Church and quite another to inform your friends about it. At the present time, I believe, very few Catholics have issues with the Pope’s statements. Many, including my own kids, think he is the best Pope we have ever had. Why? Because Pope Francis is merely catching up to what most Catholics already believe which is a highly Protestantised, secularized and bastardized form of Catholicism. Pope Francis is not as much responsible for the current dismal state of Catholic morality as is Vatican II and it’s aftermath.

  12. Thanks for the great article. This really seems to be the current experience to say the least. Like you describe, people keep looking at me like I’m crazy when I say that we are under attack and bombs are raining down upon us. Even when I take them to the craters and we measure them together, they often write it off. St. Michael the Archangel, defend us!

  13. Personally, I think we should just do the opposite. With each new heretical statement that Francis makes, we should remind our listeners that Francis is a self described “loyal son of the Church” and surely he didn’t mean that. What he really meant was… (and quote magisterial teaching). If we could get enough bishops and cardinals doing this, Francis would no doubt take the Benedict option.


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