The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 1D--Real Catholicity

In the last part, we talked about the idea of why it is important to accept that all of us are wrong, and all of us are always capable of being wrong.  So, let us begin with where I know I have been wrong.

I may well be wrong on the gay issue. That is to say, wrong in my belief that the discovery that there is just such a thing as being gay, is part of how the Gospel has worked in our midst, teaching us to discover what God’s creation really is by teaching us how to detect our lies and violence in ganging up on scapegoats. I may well be wrong about this. But I do not think I am wrong to trust that God wants to make it easier for me to discover how wrong I am, not more difficult; and he longs for me not to head up paths that do me no good, rather than capriciously leading me into them.

But this means that there is a very serious obligation on me to make it easier for those I consider to have got it wrong, not more difficult. To reach them, not to provoke them. It means, for instance, that it is a very grievous ill when I use what I regard as their wrongness in a self-indulgent manner, to make me feel better about myself.

I will say flat out that I have not met this standard, either on this blog or in my own life.  I have used the wrongness of others (or, more accurately, what I believe to be the wrongness of others) "in a self-indulgent manner [ ] to make me feel better about myself.  Father Alison has, in a good way, exposed me, and for that I am grateful.  I will attempt to do better in the future.

Of course, neither I nor anybody else can force people to come to the table and talk about things. What we can do is help to create ways out of their current situation such that they may be less afraid to go down that route when they finally lose confidence in their current rhetoric and way of doing things. And this creation of loopholes for others is perhaps best done by people who don’t need to be in the front seat at the banquet, who don’t need approval, recognition and so forth. Only those who are at the lower seats at the banquet and whose absence won’t be noticed can take time out to run off and start to plan the menu and fetch in the provender for the next banquet, since the food for this one seems to be running low.

This is why common ground is important.  Suppose that time will make clear that gay relationships are fine and blessed by God.  If everyone is operating in this space where the focus is on relationships and how to maintain them and support them, then those who formerly held onto the old ideas about gay people can simply, and quietly, let those ideas go and blend in with the rest of the crowd.  Everyone is happy, no one is humiliated, and we can all go on with our lives.  It is the ultimate soft landing.

By contrast, if all of us are staring at each other across the No Man's Land of the culture wars, the losing combatants must either surrender unconditionally or fight to the death.  The identity of the those losing combatants is tied up in their resistance, and it will be extremely painful for them to give up that identity.  There is no soft landing, and there can be no soft landing, for anyone.  As Alison mentioned previously, that road leads to "the mutually incorrigible umbrage of mirror-image sects," who are incapable of putting down their arms for fear of losing their identity completely.

If what I have been saying is true, then we will be judged not by how excellent we were at putting forward our own rightness and the wrongness of others, but by how excellent we were at creating space for those we consider to be wrong. By how easy, in fact, we made it for them to repent.

I take it for granted that we would agree that the whole purpose of repentance is not God wanting to humiliate people because of our pride and wickedness, but God wanting people to be able to be in on the party, which means having all that stuffy narrowness of heart and self-righteous heroism which makes us stand-offish at the prospect of such a common and plebeian festivity, undone.

Alison is suggesting that it is not simply that we should encourage people who disagree with me to find common ground for reasons of tactical advantage for my position (though there are such tactical advantages).  No, I have an obligation to try to foster common ground, because common ground makes it easier for the other side to let go of their position.  I have a positive duty to try to create a soft landing for my ideological opponents, to facilitate their ability to discover that they are wrong.

Again, framing this whole discussion is the basic fact that it is the will of God that everyone be inside the velvet ropes of this big party known as the Kingdom of God.  If I take seriously the idea of doing the will of God, I must always be on the look-out for ways bring people inside the ropes--even if that means some measure of discomfort or dislocation for me.  I can afford to take on that discomfort, that lower place, because I know (or I should know) that my place inside the ropes is secure.

The ultimate ideal of the Church is not a place where everyone agrees about everything; the ultimate dream is a place where everyone gets along in the midst of the disagreement.  Our job is to try to make that reality come to pass.  Making that reality come to pass is going to require everyone to take a few hits.  It is terribly easy to accept in theory the notion that everyone should be allowed inside the rope line, with the unspoken caveat "as long as it doesn't cost me anything."  But it doesn't work that way.

This is why I have concentrated on the Doctrine of Original Sin. It seems to me that, within the framework of Catholic doctrine, this is the way those who may need to save face will be able to. If I were speaking to a Catholic audience on the subject of a way ahead in this area, it would be the Doctrine of Original Sin which I would major on. Where I have had the opportunity of doing this, I have tried to emphasize how what this doctrine does in its Catholic version is make room for us all to be wrong together, and yet all able to be rescued together, and all able to learn together.

There is a temptation to turn what Alison is saying into a sort of noblesse oblige, "well, sure, there are these people out there who are obviously wrong but I have an obligation to do what I can for them and help them out when the finally realize their confusion and stupidity, poor dears."  That's a dangerous delusion.  We are always in the same boat as everyone else.  Whether or not someone sitting next to me needs the soft landing, I can be very certain that sooner rather than later I will need the soft landing.

Once again, the key to making all of this work is to flatten everything out.  All of us are the same, with the same problematic patterns of desire and the same dysfunctional coping mechanisms.  Part of those coping mechanisms involve maneuvering ourselves into a higher perch were we can look down on other people that we think are somehow "really" different from us.  But they are not, and we are not.

And this means that a considerable part of the theological effort which I think is called for is the courtesy of constructing bridges for the benefit of others, being vulnerable on their turf, exercising magnanimity towards foes. It is for this reason that I think that the patient work is not engaging in debates in the here and now, since the agonistic structure of such things almost invariably seduces us into the need to win, but slowly trying to construct ways of talking into which people will be able to relax when they tire of the current fights.

What are some practical suggestions of how to do this?  What ways of talking might we use to build these bridges?  In matters sexual, I might humbly suggest that a focus on relationships might be a way forward (see also the Another Theology of the Body series, especially this one).  I think the great moral and ethical project of our time is to build a vocabulary and a set of practices for thinking about and talking about how people interact with one another that is better than our current set of tools.  My view is this language should be the starting point for any analysis of sexual morality.  But even if you don't believe that, even if you think that all of the old acts-based prohibitions must be held to with absolute firmness, one can still benefit from a strengthened focus on relationships.  Again, the kind of dysfunctional relationship described in that Taylor Swift song is bad for both participants, even if both parties are scrupulously avoiding fornication.

A set of better tools for thinking about and talking about relationships is relevant for everyone, regardless of what they think about gay marriage or premarital sex.  So called "conservatives" can insist on the old rules about sex and so called "liberals" can say that those rules are outdated, but both sides can agree on models for relationships, models that cover the period of time when the two people are not having sex with each other.  Which, after all, is the vast majority of the time for people who are in a sexual relationship, and 100% of the time for non-sexual relationships (which is the vast majority of everyone's relationships).  Said another way, if both "liberals" and "conservatives" can agree on the right way for two college students who are dating to interact with each other in the context of their dating life (and the best ways to teach those young people those skills and values), there may still be profound disagreement over whether or not those two should be having sex.  But that disagreement is bracketed and limited by the multitude of things that all parties do agree on.  There is common ground there.

One of the benefits of this approach is that it has the potential to disarm many of the fears that lurk behind the resistance to changing sexual mores.  Many people have the fear that relaxation of sexual restraints leads to generalized chaos and unrestrained license.  Talking about relationships can provide a vehicle for making very definite statements that certain practices and structures are unacceptable and cannot be tolerated, soothing people's fears that only plastic frameworks like "consent" will be left to regulate behavior (see, for example, a Michael Sean Winters jeremiad along those lines).  Some are worried that loosened restrictions on sexual behavior have led to the exploitation and denigration of women, particularly emotionally.  Well, perhaps this will provide a set of tools by which women may insist on (and which men will understand) ground rules for the emotional health and protection of both parties.

Moreover, it gives traditionalists a place to move into, without insisting that they toss out everything that they believe is definitive and important about sexuality.  Too often, the rhetoric in this area from progressives is framed as "your ideas about sexuality are dumb, old-fashioned, and destructive.  Cast them over the side and then we will talk to you."  This forces a kind of existential choice, one that few people are willing to make, and even fewer enjoy feeling like being pressured into.  By contrast, this game plan allows people who hold to traditional ideas but seek some measure of common ground to find that ground.

Perhaps most importantly, it might allow actual people who are actually struggling with sexuality to find some measure of safe space to work through those questions without getting drafted into and co-opted by culture war agendas.  Folks like Melinda Selmys and Eve Tushnet and others who identify with the "New Homophile" movement call for deeper understandings of friendship and relationship, but spend a big chunk of their time fending off attacks from people who see them as some sort of nefarious fifth column, or otherwise seen as deluded "traitors to the cause."  If everyone was talking about and thinking about and working on new and better ways to think about our relationships to each other, maybe these folks would be given some time and space to breathe.  Or, and I think this is likely, they might be seen as leading the way for the rest of us, as opposed to some kind of pernicious source of confusion.

A common, level playing field can be found if people are motivated to seek it out.  Alison, gently, is telling us is that God is mandating that we do this, so we better get with the program.  If we set about the business of finding the right field, God will take care of the rest.


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