Conservatives vs. Liberals: Who Are the Real Catholics?

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Several years ago, I was involved in a frustrating and interminable exchange about Catholic sexual morality over e-mail. At some point in the conversation my interlocutor sent me a copy of the entire chapter of the Catechism that covers the sixth commandment, heavily highlighted to show the errors in my position.

I recall reading it and being not so much alarmed as angry. I had read that chapter dozens of times, and yet the text that I was now reading seemed almost unrecognizable. Was this really what the Church taught? Was the teaching actually just way more rigid and out of touch with human reality than I thought it was?

I stopped. Took a deep breath, pulled my own copy of the Catechism off the shelf and read the chapter again without the highlighting. Immediately, it reverted to being the familiar text, which has always come across to me as a difficult but ultimately sane attempt to seek balance between a high moral standard and the challenges that human beings actually face.

This experience brought into relief one of the problems that we all face in trying to come to an understanding of truth. My interlocutor and I were both reading the same text, but we were selecting (mentally highlighting) different aspects of that text as we went. Specifically, we both gave greater weight to those passages which supported our own pre-existing beliefs about human sexuality.

The technical term for this is “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the tendency of human beings to seek out and prefer information that bolsters their own beliefs, and to avoid contradictory data or view it with suspicion. We all do this. It’s not a matter of how intelligent we are, how faithful we are, or of whether we’re on the left or right end of the political spectrum.

Changing our beliefs, especially if it involves having to publicly retract previous statements or admit that we were wrong, is a very psychologically troubling experience. If the belief is deeply entrenched, especially if it’s a conviction that has significantly shaped the way we live, the mental and emotional costs of challenging that belief can be very steep, even traumatic. For example, someone who leaves a valid marriage because it has become abusive and then remarries in order to be able to support her children must pay a high psychological price to see the abusive marriage as real, and the loving marriage as adulterous. Similarly, someone who permanently alienated their own child as a result of homophobic behaviour may have a strong emotional motivation for rejecting a document like “Always Our Children”; questioning whether their actions were really required by the Church would involve accepting a painful burden of guilt. Like other adverse stimuli, we tend to avoid or defend ourselves against information that calls our deeply held convictions into question.

Understanding how confirmation bias works is, I think, essential in understanding the tensions that exist between “liberals” and “conservatives” in the Church. The common supposition is that one’s own side understands Catholic teaching more deeply and fully than the other, and that one’s opponents are “cafeteria Catholics,” deliberately selecting only those aspects of Scripture, Tradition and Magisterial Teaching that happen to support their own view and blithely ignoring the parts that they find inconvenient. We assume that we are acting in good faith, and that those who disagree with us are acting in bad faith.

I would like to suggest that these tensions can be understood much better, and much more charitably, if we first understand how confirmation bias functions and particularly how it interacts with large data sets.

Researchers found that if you give people a brief summary of research that challenges their opinion about an emotionally charged issue, they are likely to falter somewhat in their conviction and move towards a position of greater openness towards the opposite conclusion. However, if you then provide those same people with the full text of the contradictory research, they will tend to move back towards their original belief and perhaps even become more certain in their convictions.

Why? Basically because the larger a data set is, the more opportunity there is to privilege those aspects of the data that support one’s own opinions. As is usually the case in real life, the (fictitious) research papers used in the study presented ambiguities whereas the brief summaries suggested clear findings. The more complete text therefore provided more, and better opportunities for study participants to find evidence that could be used to corroborate their beliefs.

In the case of Vatican documents, we have a data set that is absolutely ideal fodder for rampant confirmation bias. First of all, it’s an absolutely enormous body of text; much larger than any single human being can possibly read, retain and correlate. This means that right from the get-go even the most educated Catholics are going to be making decisions about which documents to read carefully, which documents to skim, and which documents to ignore.

Research suggests that, generally, people are more likely to read documents which confirm their beliefs (presumably for the simple reason that reading agreeable things is more pleasurable). We’re more likely to hastily peruse less agreeable documents, to rely on secondary sources to learn their contents, or to simply not familiarize ourselves with them at all. Of course, when we look to secondary sources we’re more likely to seek out those which will interpret or even dismiss problematic documents in a way that is palatable to our existing belief structure.

Secondly, Vatican documents tend to be written or at the very least edited by committee. Anyone who has ever participated in the production of a committee-written document will understand the problem such a process presents: you can’t say anything unless it has approval of the whole. This means that the more vague and multivalent a statement is, the more likely it is to be included in the document. It also means that contradictory considerations are often presented side-by-side in a non-conclusive way using formulae like “The council is aware of…” or “It must be considered that…”

The result is that the moral and practical considerations that are most important to both sides of any particular debate are likely to be reflected in the documents while rulings concerning which of those considerations are paramount may be couched in more ambiguous terms.

For any given reader those paragraphs, sentences, or even sentence fragments which most conform to their own presuppositions will seem the most resonant, the most important. This is not a conscious process – nobody “decides” to “ignore” the aspects of the text that are inconvenient, rather we are unconsciously attracted to the parts of the text that integrate smoothly with our current views.

Being aware that this is something that we all do, that it is a function of how human brains prioritize information rather than a matter of deliberate malice or bad will, can help us to be more compassionate in our disagreements. It can aid us in being more open to the other, more humble before truth, and more willing to accept that a diversity of opinions may authentically manifest Catholic fidelity.

 

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