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.

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