Because I’m a Contrarian

A while back, I mentioned that I am a contrarian. That fact, explained here in a post originally published May 14, 2010, is one of the reasons why I am Catholic.

My wife can tell you that I am wired differently than most people. I tend to go against the crowd. Webster Bull wrote a post a while back called Because I am Usually Howling with the Mob. Not me. I tend to avoid mobs, crowds, and popular opinion.

I worked for Merrill Lynch briefly out of college. I did so because I confused “investing” with “selling investments for a living.” Successful investors often avoid crowds too. They are called “contrarians.” Successful purveyors of investment products, on the other hand, are usually about being popular, well liked people. Many (not all) of them are bogged down in that quagmire of alliances that bind, and assail, many of us (fear, lies, and power anyone?).

In case I’ve lost you, here is the definition of contrarian as found on Wikipedia,

A contrarian is a person with a preference for taking a position opposed to that of the majority view prevalent in the group of which they are a part.

Uh-huh, a weird bird then. The sworn enemy of group-think.

In the investing world, a contrarian makes decisions based on objective values. The crowd makes decisions based on subjective ones. The great contrarian investors, like Warren Buffet, John Neff, and John Templeton are (were) successful because they were doing something different than the mob. They looked for bargains and usually found them among the unloved and unknown assets when everyone else was chasing the latest fad. Or they bought good assets cheap when everyone else was selling them for pennies in fear.

Jeremy Grantham, a modern contrarian investor of some renown, expounds often on the career risk that true contrarians face in the investment world. It takes courage to be “contrary” to the conventional wisdom of the day. Sometimes being right isn’t enough to save your job. You might be right, but at the wrong time to make your client happy. Result? You are fired. In terms of the eternal, however, being a contrarian will save your soul, if not your paycheck.

As a contrarian, I like to buy what other people shun or sell what others clamor for. I like to go on vacation when others are working. I like to eat at restaurants at “off” times. My family and I left California in the summer of 2005 when “everyone” knew that California real estate had nowhere to go in value but up. That it wound up going nowhere but down (ahem, and a lot) surprised a lot of people, my wife included. Not me (ask her). I had done too much reading, too much research into the matter to be surprised by Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

That is the title of a book that Charles Mackay wrote and published in 1853. Here is a little tidbit from the preface of that book:

In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first…Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.

In his  gospel,  St. Matthew (9:38) writes of Our Lord that

“At the sight of the crowds, His heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”

Remember conventional wisdom at the trial of Jesus? “Give us Bar-Abbas!” was their cry.

The key phrase for me in the Mackay quote is, “They only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” Which brings me to Catholicism and being a contrarian. Remember when Pope Benedict XVI warned us to be prepared for martyrdom? Does this idea scare you? It is definitely a contrarian idea.

You know, you can easily undergo a form of psychological martydom today. Right now. Heck, right this minute. Interested?

Just tell everyone you know that you are a happy Catholic Christian. Just saying that alone may be enough to turn you into a pariah in some parts of the country or among some of your Facebook friends the world over. These days, your government may even take an interest in this predilection of yours.

But if you really want to do the job right, tell everyone you know that not only are you a happy Catholic but also that you absolutely believe all of the teachings of the Church.

The teaching on capital punishment, abortion, contraception, just war, helping the poor, the Real Presence, divorce, marriage, the Assumption of Mary, the Immaculate Conception, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, etc.

Say, “If the Church teaches it, then I believe it.”

See what happens.

Fr. Francisco Vera, executed in Mexico for saying Mass in public, 1927

Will you be run out of town on a rail after proclaiming you are a happy Catholic? Will lynch mobs come for you? Maybe not physically, but mentally? You might already be a martyr.

It is a hard enough road being a Catholic Christian, actually trying to live the faith day in and day out under “normal” circumstances. But just in case you thought it was going to be easy street, the entire Church has been sifted with a scandal that made Watergate and Iran-Contra seem innocent in comparision. Truth? Ninety-six percent of priests haven’t abused any children, you say? That fact doesn’t sell any newspapers or ad space on the 15 different news channels vying for the time and attention of the crowd. Besides, any percent less than 100 is totally unacceptable to anyone with a brain. Right?

So says conventional wisdom.

Which brings me to another contrarian thought. I’ve written that I hope to share some thoughts with you on solitude, silence, and prayer. Look now at those three words. Note how contrary they are to our modern world. Solitude? Nobody wants to be alone, right? Not for long anyway. Just us contrarians. Silence? How long can you leave the radio off in your car during your commute, or the television off in your home? I could go forever without listening or watching either. My kids on the other hand? Hmmmmmm. And finally, prayer. Certainly allowed in your home and at your parish church, but is it allowed anywhere in between anymore? Maybe it is not outlawed (yet), but do you feel comfortable doing it? This the key question.

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said,

If I were not a Catholic, and were looking for the true Church in the world today, I would look for the one Church which did not get along well with the world; in other words, I would look for the Church which the world hates.

Spoken like a true contrarian. Guess which Church that is today? You’d have to be living under a rock not to answer “the Catholic Church.” Though the scandal rocking our Church has really bothered me  (how could it not?), I intend to stick with the Church. But  unlike many, I don’t want the Church to be reformed. I was called to join the Church as She is, and I did so willingly because I believe that everything She stands for and teaches is True. I did the research and everything I came across points to Rome.

It still does.

And everything I know points to another fact. I am the one who is in need of reform.

So here is another contarian saying I like by one of my favorite authors,

So far as a man may be proud of a religion rooted in humility, I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are most commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds (as my journalistic friends repeat with so much pertinacity), for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated. —G.K. Chesterton

Jesus, though, is the ultimate contrarian. As Simeon proclaimed at His Presentation,

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (Luke2:34).

In his excellent commentary on the Scriptures, Friedrich Justus Knecht writes about this fact as follows,

In what way has Simeon’s prophecy that Our Lord should be a “sign of contradiction” been fulfilled? Even when He was an Infant, He was persecuted by Herod, and had to flee. When He began His public life, He met with the greatest opposition, especially from the Pharisees and Sadducees. The inhabitants of Nazareth thrust Him out of their city. The Pharisees slandered Him and said He was in league with the devil; and, on the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, the Jews wished to stone Him as a blasphemer. He was accused before Pilate of being a seducer of the people etc.; and His enemies never rested till He was nailed upon the Cross.  Even after His Resurrection the opposition to His doctrine and His Church continued. “Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling-block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness, but unto them that are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor. i, 23. 24). And this contradiction on the part of the unbelieving will continue till Christ comes again to judge the world.

So there you have it.  I’m a contrarian and a Catholic. If I wasn’t, there would be something wrong.

  • Laurie

    Hey Frank, me too. :) Thanks. p.s.I could pray twenty-four hours a day (sometimes do), feel really empty if I go two days without attending Mass (or weekly confession), and would rather listen to Pavarotti singing Panis Angelicus than just about anything else. Guess it's the wiring.Thanks.

  • Allison

    Well I am not (just being contrarian here!) I have often felt Catholicism is a crowd of introverts.

  • Ruth Ann

    I, too, belong to this club of contrarians—especially the silence, solitude, and prayer wing! Thanks for the post, Frank.

  • Athos

    I never watched an episode of Seinfeld … or American Idol … or, way back, Dallas. On the other hand, I think Bernard of Clairvaux is a main man and I'll die a Pope's man.Do I qualify, Frank? :O)

  • Frank

    @ Allison, introvert ≠ contrarian. Where did you get that idea? ;^)@Laurie & Ruth Ann, thanks for reading!@Athos, No doubt of that. I hear the last episode of "24" just aired…never saw one minute of it. Yawn. I 've watched lots of baseball games though…Go Dodgers! ;^)

  • Deacon Les

    As a Deacon I often upset partishoners because I hold up a mirror and say look at yourself. This is not how to win friends and influence people. My investments go the same way.

  • Anthony S. Layne

    I wouldn't call myself a contrarian by nature. In fact, in many respects, I'm an old "poke-easy". But I'm a Catholic because you gotta swim against the current if the destination lies up the river.

  • penmom

    I have always been known as a Doubting Thomas, but I have never wavered in my belief in God. But today is really hard to listen to all the lack of prayer, caring, compassion and common sense. I guess I am a Contrarian too. IRISH45

  • Patm

    I am an introvert, too. And a contrarian. In fact I am such a contrarian that I have no choice but to suggest that in this world Evangelical Christians are despised almost as much as Catholic. Differently, in the sense that Evangelicals are usually considered unsophisticated and stupid, while Catholics are considered smart and mean, but still, they are hated.

  • Anonymous

    Frank, you said it all, I'm with you.

  • Michael (NZ)

    Hey, Frank! Join the club! I am as contrarian as they come! It has been said that to be in a good flock of sheep, you must first be a sheep. I could never do that. There are pros and cons attached to this: the pros include that you maintain your individuality and your independent philosophical stance on life and its challenges. One of the cons is that you exclude yourself from membership of organisations, where you would love to belong, but can’t – if you are true to yourself and your life’s principles. That has been the case for me. I could never, for instance say: If it is written (e.g. Canon) it is written. I have and maintain very contrarian views on issues such as inerrancies, contraception and abortion, to name but a few. This does not mean that I would “throw out the babe with the bath tub”. But it does mean that in matters of dogma or doctrine I approach it in the same way that I would approach eating a chicken: You eat the pieces you like and the bones you can’t eat, you throw away. I am, of course aware, that this approach would not necessarily find everybody’s approval. And that’s why I am “contrarian”. The world needs “Contrarians”. One of them came to bring salvation to them that would accept him and his teachings. That was 2000 years ago. Galileo was a “Contrarian”… and now the earth revolves around the sun!Contrarians challenge the status quo, they force others to think, examine their views, beliefs, principles. Contrarians bring about the evolution of intellectual human capital without which there might just be mental and spiritual stagnation.The Roman Catholic Church has become one of the biggest contrarian organisations in our time! Why? Because it is a firm bulwark (contrarian) against moral relativism, against atheistic demons of darkness…If have my fish story correctly, you can either be a powerful salmon, swimming against the stream for the re-generation of life, or you could be a Lemming and where does that lead you? Hmm, where does this rather secular argument leave the sheep? Maybe I should reconsider my contrarian stance re being a sheep and qualify it a bit more. Why? Because I’m thinking: Sheep are utterly dependent on man for survival, which leads me to the analogy that I am just as much, utterly dependent on my “Shepherd” for my survival (Ps.23). Perhaps I should go back to being a bit of a sheep.Regards and blessings.

  • Maria

    “Experience usually teaches that there will be greater profit where there are more contradictions”.St. Ignatius of Loyola

  • Anonymous

    THANKS FRANK! You made my contrarian day. :)

  • The Catholic Science Geek

    …Your post has made me realize that I’m a contrarian! All this time, here I was thinking that I was someone who just cheered for the underdog…all the time. I refused and still refuse to support many popular people and notions out there. When everyone else wanted to jump in on Iraq, I was one of very few high school kids that was willing to voice concerns. When everyone else was voting Obama…I was one of very few college kids who voted for him. Here I am now, defending the Church and old school Catholicism when anyone dares suggest that she should “keep up with the times” by allowing a lot of the crap out there today that’s passed off as “acceptable” by our culture. Contrarians Unite!

    • The Catholic Science Geek

      I was one of the few college kids who *DID NOT* vote for Obama… Sorry for the massive typo!

  • Ellen

    I guess I am a contrarian too. I love to read, but not the popular books that everyone is reading. I love silence, solitude and thinking. If only there was a monastery for Carthusian nuns in the USA, I’d fit right in.