The Limitations of Listening

I was watching Marcus Grodi’s interview with Msgr. Steenson, the Ordinary of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter the other morning, and Msgr Steenson observed that in the  Episcopal Church things went down the drain because whenever there was a controversial issue the leadership of the church urges everyone to “listen” to the experiences of those who were unhappy. The narrative was that the hierarchy of the church were cut off from “real people” that their “rules” alienated these “real people” and that by “listening” they would be able to respond with more sensitivity and care.

It all sounds very nice and cozy and caring. However, beneath this sweet exterior is a revolutionary agenda for the people the church hierarchy are to listen to are not just the poor, the homeless, the bereaved and dying–not just the immigrant and the victims of war and persecution, but we are also expected to “listen” to the women and  the homosexuals. There is a very subtle bit of chicanery going on here. Women and homosexuals are put into the same category as the poor, sick and needy, and the call is not just to listen to women and homosexuals, but to listen to a particular brand of women and homosexuals: the feminists and homosexualists.

I distinguish homosexualists from homosexuals because not all homosexuals wish to overturn the social order just as all women do not subscribe to feminism.

The fact of the matter is, it’s pretty hard not to listen to the feminists and homosexualists. They seem to have every channel on the mass media, every newspaper, magazine and radio station and they also seem to have taken control of the politicians and lobbyists not to mention the vast majority of our schools and college campuses. Furthermore, their voices are loud, insistent and often angry. Instead of listening could we have a break from listening for a time? Because to tell the truth, they’ve got their message across. We’ve already heard it.

What the nice folks mean when they say we should “listen” is that we should give in. I had the experience in the Anglican church once I was opposed to women’s ordination. They insisted that we “listen” the “listen again and listen some more.” They didn’t seem to get it that we had already listened and understood fully, but that we thought they were wrong.

What they really mean by saying we should “listen” is that we should submit to the tyranny of sentimentalism which demands that we change our moral teachings because we feel sorry for people. We should change our beliefs as a result of being bullied, and let’s be clear, there are two ways to bully someone–by being aggressive and negative, and by being a sweet as honey pie. It is religious people who specialize in the second form of bullying–and they do so with an especially manipulative and cunning form of bullying: by being nice to everyone. “How can you be so unkind!” they say as they  put on their hurt and “saddened” expression. “How can you be so judgmental!”

What they’re really doing is blackmailing you into going along with their agenda because we all know they are the ones who are really genuinely kind, loving and accepting. I don’t buy it. It’s a creepy con game, and I first recognized it when I was an Evangelical and was surrounded by those kind of folks who slap on a smile with their after shave in the morning and keep it pasted there for the rest of the day. They are there with their tyrannical artificial niceness just daring you to be Mr Grumpy so they can slap you down with a smile and skewer you with their “sadness.”

The “listening” game is one more tool in the toolbox of the tyranny of sentimentalism, and we should realize that sentimentalism is just another form of relativism. Msgr. Steenson went on to observe that the assumption behind all the “listening” was that personal experiences were more important than eternal truth. Behind this assumption is a heresy called “historicism” which treats the events of history and therefore the documents of history, as being merely socially determined.

For example, the New Testament, for the historicist, is merely a religious document from first century Judaism. It has interesting things to say about that time period and those people, but it has little to say to us, and it is certainly not authoritative. Likewise with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The moral teachings and dogmas were developed at a particular time for particular needs, but they are not relevant to us today. What is relevant for us today is our own experience. Our pain is what is important. Our experiences are all that is really valid. Thus all the need for “listening.”

OK. So I’m all for listening, but listening is a two way street. The sort of listening I’d like to recommend is that we all decide to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to our age–that we listen to the voice of  the Holy Spirit speaking to us through Sacred Scripture. That we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church. That we listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through our own successors of the Apostles.

I’m happy to listen to everybody else too, but if people don’t mind, I’ll compare what I hear from the man in the street to what I hear from Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and I don’t think it will be much of a contest which of the two I decide to obey.



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  • Cheryl

    I love your last paragraph. It says everything.

  • Pilar

    Amen Fr. Longenecker! I couldn’t agree with you more because this has been my experience with so many people, especially those who fill the pews next to me at any given Mass. Thank you for your voice of reason today. I needed it!

  • Mrs Sheepcat

    Fr Dwight, as an Anglican convert to Catholicism, I very much appreciate what you’ve said here about so-called listening. I’d go even further and say that it is non-feminist women and non-homosexualist persons with SSA who can suffer the most from this form of bullying. So thank you so very much!
    However, as the wife of a former gay activist who engages in plenty of peer and pastoral counselling related to same-sex attraction, I have a request. May I ask you to please not use “homosexual” as a noun? Just as you make the distinction between homosexualists and others, contemporary Catholic pastoral care for SSA-related issues makes a tripartite distinction between the person, inclination, and action. “Homosexual” as a noun cannot adequately distinguish between unchosen attractions and chosen identities and behaviours — including those of “a child of God” and “the pursuit of chastity.” “Person with same-sex attraction” gets the job done and honours the universal call to holiness.
    For an elaboration, please see the remarks here from Fr Paul Check, executive director of Courage International. Thanks and God bless!

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    yes. Thanks for the advice.

  • Wills

    Well done, Father!

  • John

    I believe the last Lambeth Conference was an exercise in “indaba,” in which “listening” was emphasized amongst the Primates. Bp. Jack Iker of Ft. Worth called the baloney what it was, and indeed, the whole proceedings were an exercise in handwringing and back rubbing.

    This Easter marks my fifth year since crossing the Tiber from Canterbury. Thanks be to God.

  • Paul Rodden

    I’m not 100% sure, as I’m no expert but, it seems to me that what you’ve laid out here is a richly illustrated example, and strong defence, of what Blessed John Henry Newman taught what the Church meant by conscience. Thanks.

  • Nobody

    Thank you for sharing your observation of evangelical niceness … something I experienced and found creepy … but you are the firsst clergymen I’ve heard acknowledge it. Makes me feel less alone. Thank you.

  • Martial Artist

    One of the clearest indicators that the request to be listened to is not sincere, is the fact that the requestors invariably show no interest in listening to their opponents. I have attended and participated in but one of these listening sessions, about 15 years ago when I was still in The Episcopal Church, and it was patently obvious that the homosexualists (and I fully concur in Father Longenecker’s usage of that term) had absolutely no interest in listening to those who disagree with them on any sort of rational basis.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • Pau Rodden

    Hi Keith.
    I come across the same with fundamentalists and their questions. They don’t want to listen to any answers, but simply delight in watching the Catholic they’re questioning squirm because they trick us into believing they set the rules of what true Christianity is, and we have to make Catholicism fit their biblical glove which, of course, it won’t.

    In a similar way I’d suggest the homosexualist plays the same game. They define their own moral and epistemological criteria (their ‘glove’) and, lo and behold, the Christian cannot fit into it.
    This, I believe, is a deliberate ploy to halt all dialogue in its tracks, even before it begins.
    To them, everyone’s beliefs are social constructs (plausibility structures), whilst theirs are true.

    They are really ‘gay’, whilst the religious person isn’t really religious, but deluded. And because the religious person is deluded, whilst they’re able to know reality, they argue the religious person as epistemologically deficient, so any argument they put forward must be ideological instead.

    It’s a very clever ploy – a form of deep self-deception – yet people seem to be unable, or reluctant, to see through it (akrasia). Read Harry Frankfurt’s paper, ‘On Bullshit’.

    ‘What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempts to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.’

  • Pau Rodden

    Corrected link to Frankfurt paper:

  • Paul Rodden

    Just saw this again – and realised how ambiguous it was!
    I suppose it should have said, ‘…it seems to me that what you’ve laid out here is a strong defence, of what Blessed John Henry Newman taught what the Church meant by conscience, and a richly illustrated example of what it is not’. :)