The Hobgoblin of the Mindless

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with the shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said to-day…to be great is to be misunderstood.   –Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance.”

The above quote is one of the more famous eructations by that court prophet of the  early 19th century middle classes.  Emerson had a philosophy ready made for Euro-Americans who had shed and were shedding customs, traditions, and beliefs inherited from their ancestors:  you have God within you, you don’t need to conform to anything but your self.  Do exactly you as please, say whatever comes to mind–it is all divine!  Emerson’s half baked, dumb-downed version of German Romanticism was the philosophical accoutrement of the Whig party, that Northeastern political concoction which arose in response to”The Democracy” of Andrew Jackson.  The Whig party prided itself on being an elite of “talent” rather than birth, the ancestors of our modern day, meritocratic “creative” or “knowledge” classes.  Even if he disdained logical consistency in his writings, Emerson was the personification of consistency in his career: he told the newly minted bobos of his day exactly what they wanted to hear his entire life long, and made a damn good living at it, thank you very much.

Of course, some change in one’s thoughts, opinions, beliefs, is necessary and good; but this presumes some sort of end or good outside of ourselves to we which strive, and which we did not invent, and therefore some consistency in the nature of these changes.  To presume otherwise is to make make changes willy-nilly, as one pleases, with no regard for anything else, which, when it concerns things of serious import, is insane.  C.S. Lewis, writing about those who would reject the idea of natural law, said that “an open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful.  But an open mind about the ultimate foundations of either Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy.  If a man’s mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose.”  (The Abolition of Man, “The Tao”) If one is not committed to basic logic–i.e., the law of non-contradiction, that what is true today will be so tomorrow, and years from now–then there is simply nothing to talk about.  No one who disdains this can be reasoned with in any meaningful way, since they can never be held to account for their beliefs, since they can change from moment to moment.  They just go on making things up as they go along, and there is nothing you can do at that point.

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited — to everyone and in every case — to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost…

…The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behaviour prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments… You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness” (Mt 19:17-18).”  John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, no. 52

“Since “the degree of responsibility is not equal in all cases,” the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same… a subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently… a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved… while upholding a general rule, it is necessary to recognize that responsibility with respect to certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases… General rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations… For this reason, a pastor cannot feel that it is enough simply to apply moral laws to those living in “irregular” situations.””   Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, nos. 300-302, 304-305

It is clear to anyone who has bothered to notice that Pope Francis doesn’t care about logical contradictions either.  For him, faith is a matter of intuition and feeling, of direct apprehension of truths.  Anything than can’t be, that requires close, careful study,  cannot be truth for him.  It must be felt, directly apprehended, or else it is merely an externally imposed “form” which can be sloughed off without consequence.  In essence, his Holiness is a “bosom burner”:  he thinks, much like the Mormons, that one can discern the Holy Spirit by following the “burning” in his bosom (i.e., his strong feelings at the moment).  As he told the Polish bishops in 2016, addressing the topic of pastoral theology, “I’m not a brilliant pastoral theologian, I just say whatever comes to mind.”  To be restrained by what you said yesterday or the day before, or ten years ago, or what a previous pope said twenty years before, is incompatible with “the Holy Spirit,” and therefore is of no concern once your mind has changed.  This is why, for a long time now, I ceased to pay any attention to the details of this or that public utterance by the Pope.  Increasingly, far more eminent persons than myself are coming to much the same conclusion about Francis.*

I say all this as prelude to my main point:  Catholics who wish to influence his Holiness should not expect pointing out contradictions in his thinking to have any effect.  If you are disturbed by his ambiguities, contradictions, and outright silly comments, you are not going to move him by appealing to logic.  Thus, there is no point in publicizing the fact that he is giving encouragement to heresy, as some have done.  All that will do is anger ordinary Catholics for whom loyalty to the Pope is a visceral, not a logical, component of their faith.  Most will instinctively defend him, whether such accusations are true or not, and not inquire further.  And he himself is almost certainly not spreading heresy purposefully. From all accounts, Jorge Bergoglio was confused about what the Church teaches well before coming Pope, as many clergy who came of age in the 1960s tend to be.  This is probably why he is so popular with the vast majority of Catholics in Western countries, who came of age at roughly the same time he did.

Instead, those who wish to sway him should appeal to his Marian piety, which is genuine.  Or tell him a heart wrenching story about those couples who have sacrificed for years to live the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, or those gay people who live out its teachings on sexuality.  Or focus on how his teaching is disloyal to the magisterium of Benedict XVI and John Paul II.  I guarantee he doesn’t think of it this way, but if you showed him how his teaching was opposed to theirs, it might change his mind.  He genuinely cares, I think, about being loyal to authority (or at least to his predecessor’s memory).  He gave a speech in 2004, in which he praised the teaching of John Paul II’s teaching in Veritatis Splendor on the necessity of absolute and exception-less moral norms.  The fact that he is now teaching (or allowing to be taught) the complete opposite with regards to the divorced and remarried, is no contradiction in his mind.   This was the teaching of his boss at the time, and Francis considers himself a “good son of the Church,” by which I take him to mean that he believes whatever the current pope says is true about scripture and tradition.  They have no objective meaning for him otherwise, as far as I can tell.  (Again, he seems to know the actual beliefs of much of his flock better than the orthodox in this regard.)

I say this with no ill will toward the man himself.  He is, I think, doing only what comes naturally to him, something the more liberal members of the Cardinalate understood when they backed him for Pope at the last conclave, as many who voted for him must not have.  Those liberal Cardinals try to spin every thing he says to further their cause, quite confident he will never steer a consistent course.  That was probably their gambit, and they certainly are making the most of it.  But no one should waste their efforts trying to prove he is spreading heresy or confusion; that would require consistent, well thought out principles, which he cares for not a whit.  There is no reason not to go on respecting his office; it is of divine origin.  But neither his “ideas,” such as they are, nor those of his apologists, deserve any respect.  The idea that loyalty to the pope trumps everything, or that once a person has that authority he can say whatever he intuits to be true, consequences be damned; that this is somehow the “Holy Spirit” which is “doing new things”; that causing a “revolution in the Church,” is what the papacy’s charism is for–what else is this but the hobgoblin of the mindless?  In the end, all you can do is pray for the man, and for the Church, and keep living and proclaiming those truths of the Gospel, and await God’s providential judgement on all of this–in His good time, and at His good pleasure.  As the Pope Emeritus reminds us, God wins in the end.  Fiat mihi secudum verbum tuum.


Alypius Minor


*Rusty Reno was particularly caustic:  “I have given up trying to keep track of controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia. The details don’t matter. Pope Francis and his closest associates have no interest in the sacramental coherence of their positions on matters such as divorce and remarriage, nor do they care one wit about defending the logic of the arguments they put forward,” ( “Bourgeois Religion,” First Things, December 2017).    Robert Royal, discussing Pope Francis along with Father James Martin, says of them that “because neither is a serious theologian nor even a serious thinker, they regard anyone who raises questions about consequences as an irrational enemy (rigid, homophobic, etc.) rather than – as we’ve always had in the Church – someone trying to develop a deep and consistently rational way of understanding what Our Lord asks.”  Indeed.  (The Catholic Thing, “Pope Francis, Father James Martin, and Faith Without Reason.”)


~ by Alypius on November 11, 2017.

2 Responses to “The Hobgoblin of the Mindless”

  1. Re debate on Amoris Laetitia, a contribution:

    The Sarah case:

    The case for absolution:

    A possible reply to the dubia of the four cardinals:

  2. Reblogged this on Controversiae Ecclesiasticae and commented:

    This is a blog post from 2017, from my old personal blog, concerning the fallout from Amoris Laetitia. This was less than a year before the revelations about Theodore McCarrick, and my opinions of pope Francis have hardened since then. But it basically holds up, I think.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: