Catechetical Fading

Dr. Leonard Wong of the U.S. Army War College recently published a report entitled, “Lying to Ourselves:  Dishonesty in the Army Profession.”  After years of studying the dynamics in the Army related to the ever-growing list of various requirements (actions, audits, reports, training, tests, etc) handed down from above, Dr. Wong and his co-author interviewed over 100 officers across a range of ranks about how and whether they actually accomplished all these tasks.  They don’t, because they can’t possibly do them all. However, most reports turned in indicate near 100% compliance.  Thus, Dr. Wong’s titular conclusion that a form of dishonesty pervades the Army.  The reasons are not explicitly relevant to this post, but the phenomenon that drives officers to respond that they are honest men and women in an eminently honest profession, when in fact they frequently pencil-whip reports, is known as ethical fading.

Ethical fading allows us to convince ourselves that considerations of right or wrong are not applicable to decisions that in any other circumstances would be ethical dilemmas. This is not so much because we lack a moral foundation or adequate ethics training, but because psychological processes and influencing factors subtly neutralize the “ethics” from an ethical dilemma.  Lying to Ourselves:  Dishonesty in the Army Profession, Wong and Gerras, United States Army War College Press, 2015

I believe there are similarities between what Dr. Wong found in the Army and a form of “catechetical fading” that allows us Catholics to accept outright heresies and perhaps even repeat them, while blithely thinking ourselves “good Catholics.”  I was stunned when last month I attended a parish catechesis event featuring a basic teaching about the Last Things.  During a quiet subsequent discussion period, a parishioner finally raised their hand and said, “I believe what the church teaches, I always have… except Purgatory.”  Not an uncommon struggle, to be sure.  Then suddenly each of our other table mates heartily agreed with the first, until finally someone admitted that not only that but they just couldn’t believe God would send anyone to Hell, either.

Considering the well-worn and bleak statistics about Mass attendance, disbelief in the True Presence, obstinacy regarding birth control and abortion, and now let’s add the Last Things to the list;  is it possible that in our quest to be ecumenical and inclusive, we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s okay for Catholics to profess the faith but not really believe it?  Maybe in trying to dance around the essentials of the faith and make them palatable to everyone, or find ever more media-savvy ways to teach them, we’ve really just created confusion and danger.  To paraphrase Wong’s definition above,

catechetical fading arises because psychological processes and influencing factors subtly neutralize catechesis from a catechetical dilemma.

The causes of this fading might be a timidity in expressing our belief in Church teaching, afraid of hurting feelings or causing a ruckus.  Eventually, however, without any sort of apologetic practice, even if it’s within the realm of our own interior doubt, and surrounded as we are by secular and other non-orthodox influences, we can fall into a dangerous contentment.  For what is honesty, if not the firm expression of the Truth, at all times?

What might we do to reduce catechetical fading in the Church?  For the Army, Wong recommends distilling regulations down to the essentials and understanding when near-completion is good enough.  Perhaps similarly, we might try the following:

1. Teach simply the Creed.  In a relatively few words, it’s the fullness of the Faith.

2. Teach from the (or a favorite) Catechism.  In a few more words, it reduces the Faith to everyday practice.

3. Separate the layman from the theologian.  Studying the faith is meritorious, but it’s impractical to think every Catholic can be a super-apologist.  We need good lay teachers, to be sure, to help us with items 1 and 2.

Even as I write this, the last item is the most problematic for me, because I love to try getting deeper into the theology; sometimes I get a light bulb over my head and sometimes I just squeeze my temples in utter confusion.  When I reach those road blocks, I have to fall back on the Holy Spirit calling me into the Church several years ago, and by that Grace I simply believe.

Maybe, as Wong suggests, 85% is good enough.  Let’s face it, if we could get 85% of professing Catholics to really believe in the True Presence, the world would be a much different and better place.

NOTE: in reading Hythloday’s post of yesterday as I was preparing, I’m happy to consider this post to be a sort of follow up riff on his.


One comment

  1. John Bonham says:

    I know that the thrust of this post is not about the military, but I just wanted to mention that the Army situation isn’t particularly new, although it has undoubtedly gotten worse in the past few decades. When I was a Lieutenant we called those situations “Bet your bar.” You would be given two contradictory requirements that could not both be fulfilled (as in “you must do A, but you cannot do B”), and you would simply ignore B to get A done. I still recall a couple of awkward situations quite well.

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