Recently I discussed the irrationality of public discussion today, and tied it to social tendencies that have been growing ever stronger.
I didn’t say much about solutions, but noted that Catholic tradition offers the resources to do better. I could have put that more strongly, and said that Catholicism is the sanest of outlooks, and even that outside the Church sanity eventually becomes impossible.
We can define sanity as an habitual way of thinking and acting that’s reasonable because it takes into account, in a sensible way, all aspects of the world that are of serious human concern. So it’s catholic in a broad sense, because it includes a great many things that must somehow stay in balance. That’s why we say that people whose sanity is doubtful are “unstable,” “unbalanced,” or “not playing with a full deck.”
A requirement for sanity is that we can’t act simply at random or on impulse. We need a systematic way of sorting through our experiences and drawing conclusions about the world and what to do. Catholics have that, of course, but so do a lot of crazy people. The conviction that the world is run by shape-shifting alien reptiles is a wonderfully systematic way of making sense of current events.
So orderly thoughts aren’t enough, because without a sense of reality they go mad. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason.”
But how do we come to grasp reality? It’s a complicated business, and we constantly fall short. Most of us eventually conclude, from our dealings with family, friends, and coworkers—not to mention situations we get into ourselves—that no one is completely sane. Life must nonetheless go on. If complete good sense is beyond our reach, how can we come close or at least closer to keeping our ideas in order and including everything we need to include in our way of thinking?
We start in the most ordinary way, with experience, observation, and memory. We need to get the facts straight, and notice the patterns in what works and what happens. We also need to cultivate habits that work and suppress those that don’t. And we need to combine retention of what we’ve learned with alertness to the unexpected.
All that’s hard to do, and requires correction from others. So we need to combine what we learn ourselves with what others have learned. If all goes well, then facts, insights, and helpful attitudes and presumptions will accumulate and settle into an order in which they confirm and illuminate each other. And that—we hope—will give us a reasonably sane way of understanding life and dealing with it.
The world’s a big place, and life is complicated, so it takes the experience of a whole life and many lives to bring it into focus so we have a reasonable grip on what’s going on and how to deal with it. In other words, we need the tradition of a community to understand life and live it well. Only such a tradition can give us a way of living that takes into account people’s experience in all the stages and situations of life.
That’s why cultural radicalism makes no sense: by rejecting tradition it rejects everything except immediate impressions, abstract ideology, and naked will. That’s no way to build anything solid, let alone a whole way of life. Similar problems apply to mass-market variations on anti-traditionalism. Pop culture is based on what is flashy and salable, youth culture can’t reflect what happens as we age, and therapeutic culture only looks at things from the standpoint of individual subjectivity. The result is that they ignore subtle points, other people, and how things turn out, and so give us a remarkably bad guide to life.
To be sane and grounded, then, is to take tradition seriously, and Catholics do that. Tradition though is not enough. One problem is that traditions conflict. Another is that the complex experiences that produce tradition have mostly vanished without record, and that makes it a bit like a scientific theory whose supporting data have been lost. To the extent it’s generally accepted it seems likely it’s well-founded, so we should mostly defer to it, but how far should that go?
In the case of a scientific theory, the original experiments could be redone, but in the case of tradition that would take lifetimes. So how do we tell whether a particular tradition is the equivalent of a good theory, a bad theory, or a theory that no longer holds because conditions have changed? The answer may not be obvious, and the point can always be disputed.
For that and other reasons tradition needs to be combined with reflective thought. We shouldn’t think of it as simply a matter of habits accumulated from experiences now forgotten. That would exclude one of its sources, since reflective thought is a basic human capacity that is always at work and whose results are reflected in tradition itself.
Reflective thought tries to articulate the principles tradition points to that guide how we should act—in other words, natural law as it emerges from past thought and experience. But it also clarifies, systematizes, and justifies tradition itself, and makes it reflective. To that end it looks at what it is, what it tells us, and how it works, and compares traditions with each other, their history, and what we know from other sources. And it looks for harmonies among aspects of tradition and other sources of knowledge that seem intuitively compelling if not logically demonstrable.
Take Christian sexual morality as an example. It’s ultimately based on Christ’s development of Jewish moral law in the direction of greater substantive rigor, and Christians accept that development as authoritative. Reflection helps us see the result as an expression of natural moral law. It also helps us understand it by considering its role in the life of believers and the community, and its relation to other traditions and ways of thought. It makes a big difference in our attitude toward Christian sexual morality that it has always been a characteristic part of the life of the Church, it coheres with a larger ideal of wholehearted devotion and fidelity, it has an obvious social function maintaining respect between the sexes and stable functional family life, and it has many points in common with other traditional views regarding sexual conduct, and where it differs seems superior.
There’s a great deal of back and forth among kinds and sources of knowledge in which each corrects and illuminates the others. Even so, a combination of everything discussed so far is still not enough for sanity. However much we try, conflicts within tradition remain, and the more people are involved the more numerous they become. Reflective thought can try to untie the knots, but history shows it leads to its own tangles.
Under such circumstances, how can we have good grounds for confidence in our own tradition? Other traditions conflict with it, it conflicts with itself in some respects, some people reject it on reflection, and human projects eventually fall apart. From that point of view, confidence in a tradition seems ultimately a matter of habit and arbitrary belief for which no further grounds can be given. If so, tradition becomes more a stopgap than a reliable source of truth.
So ultimate rationality requires something beyond tradition and reflective thought that anchors tradition and connects it reliably to truth. In the case of modern natural science what does that is physical observation. In the case of religious and moral thought that’s not nearly so effective, and it’s hard to think what would work other than revelation. So rationality cannot exist without revelation. But revelation can be interpreted differently, and the differences don’t go away, so it also requires an authority that can ultimately resolve conflicting interpretations. That means we need a pope and a magisterium or the equivalent.
I can’t go into the arguments here regarding the rationality of accepting revelation, papal infallibility, and the indefectibility of the Church. All I can do is note that those doctrines are extremely important, not only for Catholics but for the possibility of human thought that is ultimately rational. Because without them we lack good grounds for confidence in our tradition of religious and moral thought and so should rationally become skeptics or fideists—which are not sane views.