We Must Use The Right Narrative

We live in a society which lives on and thrives on narrative.  What is believed by someone is a narrative. Philosophical questions and debates, though important, become subsumed under the narrative one follows. Since the narrative reigns supreme, since the narrative becomes the lens in which one understands the world, the narrative can be used and is used to create explanations; this is done, not through analysis but through confirmation bias. What we want to believe, we see; what contradicts what we want to believe, we find a way to ignore it through some quick secondary narrative which we believe answers the question at hand.

Now, this is not to say, how one answers the difficult questions are necessarily wrong. One can be right but have no way to prove one is right. But, through the way we read the world, through the way we have been led to read the world and follow the world through the collective narrative given to us, we find it easier just to confirm a given narrative than it is to understand its faults. If we can provide an explanation, no matter how farfetched that explanation is, we are satisfied. Conspiracy theories are becoming more and more prevalent in our society because they follow the path of narrative; the story can be a story well told and a story which allows all kinds of outs for when the conspiracy theory does not meet reality. It is, indeed, conspiracy theories which are becoming a prominent feature in political discourse today. Blogs promote conspiracies, and political pundits enjoy hinting at them because they know how easily they move the undiscerning mind. Left, right, center, progressive, conservative, liberal – they all have their narratives, and they all people promoting conspiracy theories as a way to understand why their narratives do not meet the world at large.

Sadly, I find this kind of narrative is becoming mainstream within the Catholic Church today.  Now, we must remember, there have been conspiracies and sometimes conspiracy theories ring true because conspiracies exist. Far more often, however, they are not true; people create them through the inclusion of a secondary narrative, one which tries to create patterns where none really exist. Many feel that when Catholics are being mistreated, there must be some grand anti-Catholic conspiracy behind it. If we look at the conflict which is brewing between the Obama Administration and the USCCB, can we not see elements of the conspiracy theory narrative slowly developing and being used to reify positions instead of trying to figure out a way out of the conflict? It’s easier to see anti-Catholic bias instead of looking to the full picture, a picture which extends way beyond the Obama Administration and the way the United States has been set up from the beginning. Religious toleration is always a difficult thing to get right, and in the history of the United States, we can see many religious practices outright prohibited without any concern that religious liberty has been violated. And this is often good: we don’t want to promote human sacrifice.  Sometimes, it has not been so good, as we can see in many of the conflicts against Mormons. Nonetheless, there needs to be religious liberty and freedom of conscience for religious believers to act in accordance with their beliefs. The problem is that this religious liberty, this freedom to follow the conscience, has for a long time been repudiated by the United States. Catholics have freely given it up – indeed, many of the same Catholics now upset with what they see happening today had no problem giving it up in the past when it was their party in charge of the nation. After all, have we not had the US Bishops speaking out for a long time to allow soldiers to have a right to follow their conscience in regards to wars? And have we not seen many Catholic mock such a position and say it was unnecessary and indeed, that it would hurt the military if such was allowed? Should this be seen as an anti-Catholic conspiracy which lay behind this denial, as an assault against the foundation of religious liberty? It is a question of religious liberty and, again, many have given up religious liberty here. When we find soldiers are being commanded to directly act against their conscience, and nothing can be done, and indeed, their questions ridiculed, are we really surprised that remote material connection to evil can be and is enforced as well? Is such, indeed, anything new? Of course it is not. When we look at it only under the political narrative and discuss it as some sort of culture-war or anti-Catholic initiative by one party, we really fail to see the real problem, and how long standing this problem has been in our culture. It is good to have this question brought out, and to work for the right of conscience objection in society; however, we should not just limit it to the question of paying money to insurance which covers contraceptives. Is that really where we want to fight the fight?  Are we not being led into the political narrative instead of keeping to our own Gospel narrative in this process? That, I fear, is a problem we must address if we want to engage the so-called culture war and find a way to “win.” We must look to the fundamental problem. It’s not about contraceptives being paid for by insurance. It is the right of everyone to follow their conscience. This has ramifications way beyond the question of health care and contraceptives.

Are we willing to stand for the whole of religious liberty? We must be. Anything else will allow a new narrative to be imposed on the Catholic Church, one which will make the Catholic Church look ridiculous to outsiders looking in. They don’t want to understand our objections to contraception; they just want a narrative to follow. Our narrative must be religious liberty, and one which does not stay tied to one violation of it.  Yes, we can and should point out such violations, but only when connected to a grand narrative, that of the religious heart of humanity and the need for each person to follow through with their religious quest wherever it takes them. All major political parties have become infested with secularism and use it to denounce the religious narrative when religion desires something contrary to their political agenda. As long as we keep our own debates within the partisan narrative, we will end up defeating ourselves as our party ends up denying our religious liberty in one fashion or another. We must speak beyond the parties, beyond the politics. We must control the narrative and stop being used as a tool by partisan hacks as they take the narrative away from us. If we don’t do this now, everyone loses.

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  • Thales

    After all, have we not had the US Bishops speaking out for a long time to allow soldiers to have a right to follow their conscience in regards to wars? And have we not seen many Catholic mock such a position and say it was unnecessary and indeed, that it would hurt the military if such was allowed?

    Was there/is there a lot of this mocking from Catholics? What mocking are you thinking of? I’ve been under the impression that the possibility of conscientious objection has long been recognized and generally respected.

    Regardless, I’m with you on your main point: that the whole of religious liberty should be protected, even (and especially) with religious views that we don’t necessarily agree with.

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      I’ve consistently pointed out to many supporting the war in Iraq how the USCCB has long desired for soldiers to have the right to object to being in wars which they believe are unjust. Many Catholics have indeed laughed at it, saying it is for the government to decide just wars and soldiers, because they signed up to be soldiers, just have to obey.

  • johnmcg

    One way to start that would be that when the party one tends to favor enacts a policy offending religious liberty, one speaks loudly and unambiguously against it.

    Or one could use it as an occasion to point out the inconsistency and hypocrisy of some who favor the other political party. I don’t think that’s going to get us anywhere, though.

    And have we not seen many Catholic mock such a position and say it was unnecessary and indeed, that it would hurt the military if such was allowed?

    Actually, no — I did not see many Catholics mock the concept of conscientious objectors during the Bush Administration. I saw Catholics take many terrible positions in support of the Bush Administration, such as supporting torture. I saw some Catholics mocking various Catholic bishops’ challenging whether we had truly exhausted all alternatives to war. But I honestly do not recall much mocking of either particular conscientious objectors or the necessity of the concept.

    This leads to the other narrative I wish we would set aside — that any Catholic objection to government policies is politically motivated, and that those claiming a principle did not object when their own party violated that same principle. I think it is a stretch to claim that Republican-leaning Catholics tolerated violations of religious liberty when the GOP was in charge, but it fits the preferred narrative, so we’ll go with it.

    Perhaps HK should set aside his preferred narratives before he lectures us on ours.

    • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

      I actually saw many say soldiers had to obey, even if they objected to the war. And there has been all kinds of violation of religious liberty through the years; it’s been ignored. It’s not just one party or the other, it’s all parties. But I do find lots of pro-abortion things under the Bush administration accepted. Or excused. I still find it funny how many forget Bush promoted himself as the first president to federally fund embryonic stem cell research. Of course, he was GOP so it’s ok. Really? What about all the religious liberty of the people who opposed it under Bush? Oh, that’s right. Not a religious liberty issue then…. It’s been like this for so long. Excuse after excuse. Remember, even the pro-life groups rallied under Scott Brown. It’s politics and parties. Always.

      • Thales

        I don’t want to get into a side debate, because I think your point about religious liberty is a good one, but I feel compelled to respond to this comment. In my experience, pro-life people didn’t forget or ignore or condone Bush’s pro-life failures; nor did pro-life people hold Scott Brown up as the paragon of pro-life politicians. In politics, you inevitably have to choose between two bad options — and you choose the option that is the least bad. Scott Brown isn’t completely pro-life — but on the subject of abortion, he was definitely the “more pro-life” option compared to Coakley. Bush wasn’t completely pro-life — but on the subject of embryonic stem cell research, he was “more pro-life” when compared to Obama.

        • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson


          In my experience, they promoted Bush as a great pro-life warrior, giving him great accolades at pro-life festivities. This despite his outright giving in to all kinds of anti-life positions which didn’t find support before him. The fact that people are willing to promote someone as pro-life who fails being pro-life should be a concern for all; once you can promote them as pro-life, things really fall apart. But you are right, this is more than pro-life issues, more than contraception, more than questions of how to treat illegal immigrants, more than conscience objection in war. All are important issues, but what I wanted to point to is how easily we let things go for the party.

      • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

        If one wants another religious liberty violation often promoted by those of the so-called right, even in the Catholic Church (though not all in the Church), one just needs to read the reaction to illegal immigrants. The Catholic Church has worked to promote their general welfare, even when laws are being made to force Catholic Churches to give no aid. That is a religious liberty issue, too.

        • johnmcg

          If one wants another religious liberty violation often promoted by those of the so-called right, even in the Catholic Church

          This is my problem with your commentary; you start with your preferred narrative — those objecting to the Democrats’ violations of religious liberty didn’t object to Republicans — and then hunt for evidence.

          I’m sure you can always play this game forever. If you prefer to comment on the hypocrisy of those objecting to a policy than in offering a straightforward witness against that policy, I am quite confident you will always be able to do find evidence to support that position.

          But where does that get you? I guess it gets you out of an uncomfortable spot. It’s easier to launch criticism against those perceived to be on the other side as those who are on your side. But I don’t think this does much to improve the state of discourse.

          If you want to change the narrative, change the narrative! Don’t lecture about how awful others are. Model it yourself.

          And yes, this goes for both sides.

          • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson

            And the whole point is to go for the narrative of religious liberty; this requires one to understand where one has failed to do so oneself.

      • Thales

        Fair enough.
        …what I wanted to point to is how easily we let things go for the party.

        • http://roadgoeseveron.wordpress.com Henry Karlson


          Glad we agree to the main point. That, I think, is what is important.

  • Rodak

    People voted for Bush. Abortion is still legal. And tens of thousands of people have died in unnecessary wars. That’s my bottom line on it.

  • johnmcg

    I also challenge the basic premise that one ensure all actors are working from a coherent and consistent narrative before the work can begin.

    Our country was founded on the basis of freedom and equality. Yet, an entire race of people were still enslaved — indeed many of the heroes and intellectual leaders of the Revolution were indeed slaveholders. Women and those who didn’t own property were disenfranchised. Most of the Founders were OK with this.

    Would it have been better if all our Founders were acting from a consistent narrative of freedom that they were willing to defend in all cases? Certainly. Should they have delayed their actions by one minute in order to do so? I’m inclined to think not.

    Indeed, this type of thinking would lead to the type of commentary I suspect the VN contributors find most tiresome — responding to every post about some social justice issue with “what about abortion?” Indeed, if acting from a coherent and consistent narrative is what’s crucial, what sense does it make to talk about, say, health care, when an entire class of people have no legal protection from arbitrary killing? Aren’t many of the people (some of them Catholics) who raise social justice issues either silent or supportive of the current abortion license?

    But, as we’ve seen, all this does is lead us to talk in circles, and have the same tired back and forth about whose violation of principles is worse, and helps ensure that no progress is made on either social justice issues or abortion.

    People are opposing the Administration’s action for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. Some are consistent defenders of religious liberty. Some will oppose anything from this president. Some people are only concerned because its their ox being gored. Some see a political opportunity.

    I don’t really care. This is a bad policy, and it is worth opposing. And I think opposing it is a higher priority than checking whether everyone else opposing it is doing so for the right reasons, and if they have been consistent defenders of the principles they claim to be defending.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I agree with Henry that the absurd narrative that Obama is out to destroy the Catholic Church is simply ridiculous and needs to be challenged.

    I’d question whether this is really a religious liberty issue, because the Church does not claim her opposition to contraception is a religious issue, but one of her interpretation of natural law, and hence applicable to all from right reason. Of course the elephant in the room is that 98% of Catholics, the overwhelming majority of the papal commission on contraception, most priests and very many bishops and even cardinals disagree.

    It’s really a conscience issue but the issue actually is where the conscience of the Bishops meets that of their employers who might in good conscience choose to contracept, and where the Bishops conscience meets that of the state authorities who are obliged to uphold the Common Good as their conscience sees it. Which is exactly what the Obama administration seem to be doing.

    God Bless

    • Thales


      1.I’d question whether this is really a religious liberty issue, because the Church does not claim her opposition to contraception is a religious issue, but one of her interpretation of natural law, and hence applicable to all from right reason.

      This distinction has no relevance to the current debate. Under the law, talk of “religious liberty” goes hand in hand with “rights of conscience” or “freedom of conscience.” And “rights of conscience” encompass both purely religious (i.e., strictly theological) beliefs, and moral convictions that may have grounding in religion or natural law or both.

      2.Of course the elephant in the room is that 98% of Catholics, the overwhelming majority of the papal commission on contraception, most priests and very many bishops and even cardinals disagree.

      Why? The very notion of “conscience rights” in the first place is a notion where the majority recognizes the freedom of conscience of a minority; it’s a notion of respecting the liberty of an individual who has strongly held religious beliefs or moral convictions that the rest of society doesn’t hold. The fact that most members of society don’t have the same moral view about contraception is not relevant to a debate about whether society should recognize the conscience rights of the individual who does takes issue with contraception. What does it matter that some members of the majority who see no problem with contraception call themselves Catholic? That’s not relevant to the fact that there are individuals in society who have a strongly held moral conviction against contraception.

      3. Your last paragraph is a little convoluted, so I don’t follow (did you mean to say “employee” instead of “employer”?) As I said in the other comment thread, respecting an individual’s religion or conscience always involves placing a limit on the the views made by the majority. That’s just the way a civil society works: in order to have a truly free society, we make accommodations to the religious and moral views of the minority. In this case, the majority sees no problem with contraception; while a particular individual employer sees contraception as a grave moral evil. So the question is, what is a reasonable accommodation? To me, requiring the employer to pay for the contraception is not reasonable, because it forces him against his conscience to do something that he has a strong moral objection to; and if the employer’s conscience is respected, the burden on the employee seeking contraception is not that exacting because the employee can still obtain contraception through other means.

      4. Keep in mind that the new HHS regulation covers sterilization procedures and abortifacient pills, in addition to contraception pills.

      • Kurt

        Keep in mind that the new HHS regulation covers …abortifacient pills, in addition to contraception pills.

        The HHS policy does not cover abortifacients. It strictly excludes coverage. There are pills that the Bush Administration determined not to be abortifacients (to which the vast majority of professionals in this field concur, along with the makers of the drugs) that a small number of persons outside the professional field claim may accidently have an abortifacient effect.

      • Thales

        It seems that you’re getting faulty information. From what I understand, it covers Plan B and ella. Those are abortifacients. Every Catholic bishop and commentator that I’ve read on the subject has acknowledged that fact. (I don’t care, and it doesn’t matter, if the Bush Administration thought differently.)

  • Kurt


    I agree with your first point that the narrative that the President is out to destroy the Catholic Church is simply ridiculous and needs to be challenged.

    But I disagree with your second point suggesting that this is not a religious liberty issue. Those litigating against the “individual mandate” in the Affordable Care Act claim that going without health insurance can be a perfectly rational human choice. They are wrong. And because they are wrong, Catholic insitiututions cannot simply not provide their employees health insurance benefits. Yes, if the conservatives were right about the individual mandate, then why should these Catholic employers “force” their employees to take part of their compensation in health care benefits. But that thinking is flawed just as is the Administration’s proposal.

  • Bruce in Kansas

    From here it sure looks like Sec. Sebelius issued a one-year “episcopal mandate” for bishops and their priests to preach what the Church teaches and why when it comes to contraception, sterilization, and abortion. Despite lots of blogs and secular commentary, many Catholics don’t have enough instruction “from the horse’s mouth” to understand and defend the Church on this. So the Church needs to get cracking. I guess that’s my narrative.

    • johnmcg

      So the Church needs to get cracking.

      That includes us.

      • Bruce in Kansas

        Amen, my brother!

  • Peter Paul Fuchs


    There is a lot I could say about this interesting post. But I am not going to because it touches on issues I do not discuss here. But I would like to make this general and existential observation. Conspiracies are the bread and butter of the very unhappy and unsuccessful. In a certain sense, since we are all going to die, and are not successful at avoiding it ultimately, we are all unsuccessful. But in a more general sense the misery that has been propagated for much of human history, often at the behest of religion of course, leads to misery…..in hoc lacrimarum vale. But then again, not. Of course, all religious themes have potentially more positive interpretations, and that is what happy people, and successful people do with them. But the truth is that much of humankind seems in love with misery. Thus they can do nothing but create conspiracy. As you suggest a lot of people in the RC Church today seem crazy for it.

    The bottom line is that once religious impulses are turned to good and life-affirming aspects the conspiracies disappear. They disappear not because they are closely refuted, but because they are no longer needed. Yet there are always those working to do the opposite, and fight real freedom for others. For example, there are Catholics like a certain Fr. Gallagher, if I remember his name correctly, who is giving how-to seminars (on the Florida Gold Coast very ironically– what a misprision!) on the spiritual life on EWTN. He is basing it all on Ignatius, and it centers entirely on conspiracy. It is the conspiracy of the “the enemy” who is doing everything down to absurd minutiae of spiritual calibrations to destabilize you and cause “desolation.” Or more perversely, to use “desolation” for a million different tricks to trip you up. It is hard to believe such paranoid tropes still get taught seriously. Of course the good Father is there with a detailed plan on chalkboard to fight.

    The answer is in accepting that human beings are far from great. We all have such an abundance of atavistic instincts and tendencies — to say nothing of psychological peculiarities we pick up — that it becomes farcical to believe that anyone thinks we need an metaphysical “enemy” to confound us. We all potentially confound ourselves. If we can slowly choose better and not worse scenarios and solutions for ourselves we will all do better than concocting a grand plan against our little old selves. And that is just for “normal” healthy life, which is difficult enough. When you add to that the vast numbers of the psychopathological who are untreated we have a world ripe for the suspicious narratives you discussed. I think it is tragic that this is often all religion is for people.

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