The Other I

January 24, 2012

Addendum to Catholic thinking

Following my post yesterday, Leanna politely pointed out that, despite her Catholic socialization, she is what I think Jung would have called someone who put feelings or what I called experience, ahead of thinking.

It made me realize that I was so focused on analyzing my own thinking that I failed to make it clear that not all Catholics are thinking types, nor are all thinking types Catholics.  What I would also like to say is that neither thinking or feeling types are better or worse.  We need both, and as we mature, we need to learn to do both.  But I tend to agree with Jung that we are born with a disposition toward one or the other.  I have been a thinking type for as long as I can remember, which is about the age of two, and I was analyzing how being socialized as a Catholic thinker has shaped me.

In this context, thes issue of thought and feeling is closely related to the question of which comes first – religious teaching or personal experience.  The Roman Catholic Church has historically taken a pretty strong position on this issue in favor of thinking.  Dogma comes first.  Galileo looked through his telescope and concluded with Copernicus that the earth revolved around the sun, not vice versa.  Rome hauled him in and said that his observations contradicted dogma.   Under threat of the rack, Galileo publicly – if not privately – recanted.

This issue remains alive today.  Evangelicals, for instance, reject many of the findings of science on the grounds that it contradicts Biblical truth.  There is, for them, an over-riding idea that cannot be contradicted under any circumstances, whatever they experience, whatever conclusions may rationally be suggested by science, or whatever anybody else might think.

I suspect that Catholic theologians more often tend to be thinkers in a way that many Protestant theologians are not for two reasons.  The first is Rome’s doctrine of papal infallibility.  Under pain of excommunication, one cannot reject teachings which Rome has declared to be infallible.  The virgin birth, the immaculate conception, the assumption, the resurrection and ascension, original sin, the trinity of God, for instance, have all been declared to be literally (not just metaphorically) true.  Catholic theologians cannot not publicly take another position, whatever their conscience may require.  At this very time, a Catholic priest has been excommunicated by Rome because he publicly supports the ordination of women, a position that Rome has forbidden Catholics to defend.

I think that celibacy also contributes to a continuation of a one-sided emphasis on thought among Catholic thinkers.  Celibacy is defended on the grounds that it represents a higher calling than a sexual partnership and raising a family.   I was taught this and entered the convent with this conviction.

My experience no longer supports this view.  I think a close sexual partnership is one of the most demanding experiences of human life.  A committed, enduring partnership with another person with different preferences, different points of view, different strengths and weaknesses requires a diminution of ones own egocentrism in the way nothing else does.  I emphatically do not agree that a life of celibacy is more difficult.  In fact, I think celibacy often permits the celibate (or at least the uncommitted if not celibate) priest to blithely proceed on a path of self-diagnosed belief in the superior rightness of their personal beliefs.

This is not to say that Catholic doctrine in itself tends to produce this outcome.  I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus tend to turn us into thinkers at the cost of feeling.  Nor is Catholic doctrine the only system of thought that can give us a sense of righteousness.  I have seen scientists as rigidly committed to their theories as any theologian in Rome.  Science, however, in the end is committed to the primacy of using experience to validate thought.  Rome, with its position of infallibility, emphatically is not.

This is an extremely complex question, and although I obviously have thought about it a great deal, my discussion began as one of self-exploration, and I don’t want it to suggest that I think all believers are rigidly bound to a single system of ideas.  They are not.

I would be particularly interested in comments on this topic.  If you agree, disagree, or think I’m missing something significant, I’d hugely appreciate your saying so.





  1. I was a little surprised to see you identifying thinking with Catholicism. I was educated by nuns and Jesuits, and yet I still found your statement surprising (I didn’t say “wrong”). There can be a lot of ratiocination without real thinking, i.e. free, delving thought. I find it hard to identify this characteristic with any of the religions I’m at all familiar with. Orthodox Jews are as close-minded as any member of the Curia, as are Protestants of the same kind of background. I’ve found the freeness of someone’s thought can be deceptive–very liberal in one area and shockingly prejudiced in another.

    Take my experience with Protestants in New York City, where I live. Excluding African Americans and Hispanics, they are a small minority, New York being largely a Catholic and Jewish town. The Protestants I have in mind, liberal, secular, even non-believers, bristle at the slightest imagined suggestion of anti-Semiticsm but will put forth ideas about Catholics that are the equivalent of believing Jews have tails. And I have heard them so do with total ingenuousness.

    I wonder if the tradition of thinking you recall didn’t have more to do with some other factors, such as inherited tradition–German-American Catholics, e.g., are supposed to be more liberal than the Irish church that dominates the East Coast.


    Comment by pianomusicman — January 24, 2012 @ 8:30 pm | Reply

    • Tom – When I identified thinking with Catholicism, I was thinking of it in Jungian terms. It has nothing to do with the quality of thinking, or the IQ of the thinker. The kind of liberated free thinking you describe reminds me more of what I would call creativity.

      What I think intellectuals who are Catholic often do is to start out with assumptions which are assumed to be infallible, and then try to draw conclusions from there. So abortion is murder, for instance, because the assumption is that a soul exists from the first moment of conception, giving the embryo all the rights of personhood. Or any kind of birth control except for rhythm is wrong because the unquestionable first premise is that the purpose of sex is procreation, not the expression of love or – god forbid – pleasure. There are some great Catholic universities, too, but they aren’t the very best universities for the same reasons. There are things that they simply do not – cannot teach. Possibilities that they simply cannot entertain, ideas that cannot be explored.

      I think the inability (or refusal, whichever it is) to question the first premise or the given dogma has severely limited Catholic thought. It is, in my view, the single biggest reason why more scientific break-thru’s have occurred among those cultures which are not Catholic. The scientific revolution began in Italy, but after Galileo, it moved to Britain and other parts of Europe, and to some extent it has never returned.

      You say you know Protestants and Orthodox Jews who are as close-minded as any member of the Curia. I agree. So do I. I know scientists who are as well, people who think they don’t believe in any kind of God. And I think they all suffer from an inability to question their personal dogmas. Science by definition cannot claim infallibility, however, so they can’t claim God is on their side. However absolutely positive a scientist might be, there is a chance that he or she may be dethroned by other evidence supporting another scientist’s theory. It’s happened in science more often than most people appreciate. The history of science is not an accumulation of right answers.

      Yes, my own thinking has been influenced – for better and for worse – by a German tradition as well as by Roman Catholicism. I am an organizer par excellence. I strongly suspect the down-side would be the capacity for obsessive-compulsiveness. I’m pretty good at cleaning things, though I have not yet ever been tempted to start picking up papers on subway platforms.

      Thank you for your comment. I’d be surprised if you don’t think we are close to being on the same page on this subject. I’d be interested to hear if you don’t. And why, of course.


      Comment by theotheri — January 25, 2012 @ 3:43 pm | Reply

  2. Hi Terry – I am keen to leave a huge big comment – I liked yesterday’s post also. I am frazzled right at this second – but hope to either leave a lengthy comment or blog on it and leave a ping-back.
    Looking forward to stretching my mind around this 🙂


    Comment by sanstorm — January 24, 2012 @ 10:11 pm | Reply

    • Oh great, I can’t wait! I recognize the feeling of wanting to stretch my mind around something and being too occupied to do it though. So I will wait with sympathy. How is the kitty cake coming along? Terry


      Comment by Terry Sissons — January 24, 2012 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

      • Just back from my daughter’s sixth birthday party at soft play. 28 children. Cake long gone! (shop bought…)


        Comment by sanstorm — January 24, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

  3. I suspect you’re right about our being on the same page, Terry. Not sure I see where Jung comes in. I know little about him except an impression of his racial memory and universal ideas (if I haven’t got even that much wrong).


    Comment by pianomusicman — January 27, 2012 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

  4. […] I have two examples of what I mean, taken from Terry Sisson’s blog – in a pair of posts beginning with “Still thinking like a Catholic.”(Terry, if I have the thrust of your post wrong, I apologise… oh yeah… we are reminding ourselves that wrong answers have a place!…) Here’s the link to the second blog post. […]


    Pingback by What should we look for: right answers or creative solutions? « Wee Scoops — January 31, 2012 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

  5. It seems to me that belief underlies both thinking and feeling, as a separate function. As you point out, beliefs (whether religious, scientific, or otherwise) are gates that swings open or shut on possibilities, and thus can impair or set us free, depending on what we have bought into. Why we buy in (or cash out), involves the interplay of influence, developmental stage, and awareness. Your early influence and training, and perhaps your innate constitution, made you a discerning thinker–but a change in the substrata of belief always involves something more fundamental, more like a personal encounter with reality, as opposed to thoughts (or feelings) about it. You’re right: this is a complicated thing to talk about, even though the gate is as simple as binary code. The human leap from instinct to belief is what’s shaped this world (for better and worse), and there is no more important endeavor in terms of its future than increasing our ability to recognize, expose, and consciously choose or discard those beliefs. If you’re interested, some parts of this rambling post deal with the distinctly human wildcard of belief that’s been inserted into an otherwise Darwinian world:

    P.S. Very happy to have found your very thoughtful 🙂 blog!


    Comment by Barbara Sullivan — February 1, 2012 @ 5:31 pm | Reply

  6. My apologies for taking so long to tell you how much I appreciate your comment. I’ve been to your blog as well and it’s a little like looking in a mirror, albeit one that probably belongs in Alice’s Wonderland.

    I’ve been think about your suggestion that Darwinian theory falls short when it comes to adding belief to the mix. I have long thought that the theory’s biggest hurdle is inter-species altruism. Perhaps they can both be explained as manifestations of our overwhelming hunger for life. But I can’t see that they can be reduced, as socio-biology would have it, as drive to pass on our personal genetic legacy. You have obviously thought about this quite possibly as thoroughly as I have – and from the perspective of psychology as well. I will definitely keep tabs on your blog to follow.

    Thank you.


    Comment by Terry Sissons — February 4, 2012 @ 9:46 pm | Reply

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