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.