The Catholic Thing
Against “Ideology” Print E-mail
By Kristina Johannes   
Saturday, 10 May 2014

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Have you noticed how the common usage of the word “ideology” has changed? I find it unsettling when I hear someone today talk about his “ideology.” To my way of thinking that is like advertising that you cannot be convinced by any evidence to the contrary.

I am of a generation that learned from Sister in eighth grade that we should cultivate ideals rather than ideology; that we should strive to be reasonable rather than unreasonable, “ideology” being defined by Sister as the latter, while “ideals” were principles that stood the test of right reason.

We rightly expect our laws to be based on ideals, not ideology. Ideals denote a process of deliberation, a search for truth that involves a willingness to recognize error and to self-correct. Ideals presuppose transcendent truth and our ability to discern it.

Ideology requires none of that; it merely requires a pledge of allegiance to a preferred idea with no need for correction. In fact, correction is unthinkable because ideology, while often scorning objective truth, relies on the concept for its own justification.

The Founding Fathers realized that ideology, thus defined, could give rise to a mob mentality. Yet despite the danger, they embarked on this grand experiment of government by the people. They did so because they believed that, in the end, ideals would trump ideology in the human heart; that the force of right reason was strong enough to make certain truths self-evident.

Of course these ideals rested on their belief in God and His Word. Several generations now have largely failed to pass on even the basics of the religious heritage they received. So the question becomes:  can this system, based on the recognition that God exists, long endure?

Catholics understand that the formation of the conscience and the cultivation of virtue that make self-government possible is a lifelong task. To develop a right conscience, we draw on many sources, including the word of God, the teachings of the Church, and the advice of others. To develop the virtues, we rely on the grace flowing from the sacraments and prayer. These are gifts of inestimable value and effectiveness.

But what of the growing number who claim no church membership or who do not believe in God? Can their consciences serve them adequately as citizens? Can they develop the virtues needed for self-government? Or are they a sign that the experiment is entering its end game?

In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis (building on a text partly finished by Benedict XVI) points out that “Anyone who sets off on the path of doing good to others is already drawing near to God, is already sustained by his help, for it is characteristic of the divine light to brighten our eyes whenever we walk towards the fullness of love.” [35]

This is an important reminder and should give us hope. The person of good will, even if a non-believer is already experiencing the help of God. His conscience is being enlightened day by day. As long as he continues down that road, he can make progress in right reason, forming ideals rather than becoming a slave to ideology. The necessary ingredient is good will. While it is not as reliable as Church teaching, it ensures that the heart remains open to what Cardinal Newman called the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ” – conscience.

I’ve often felt that one observation (at times attributed to P.T. Barnum, at times attributed to President Lincoln, at times attributed to an unidentified journalist) gives a better defense of the possibility of our form of government than most others: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

As Americans, we rely on that last point – that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. Although it seems a weak and messy foundation, it does not contradict Church teaching on the distinction between the political community and the Church.

In 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal note on this subject. It is worth reading in its entirety; almost every line is quotable. But this one seems particularly important:  “Christian faith has never presumed to impose a rigid framework on social and political questions, conscious that the historical dimension requires men and women to live in imperfect situations, which are also susceptible to rapid change.” 

Imperfect situations; these we will always have with us. The “Note” goes on: “The Church. . .is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.” 

History shows that it is actually more difficult to sustain ideology than ideals over the long run. And this makes perfect sense. In the end, it is the transcendent character of the human person supported by God’s grace that makes our form of government possible.

Kristina Johannes is a registered nurse and a certified teacher of natural family planning. She has served as a spokeswoman for the Alaska Family Coalition, which successfully worked for passage of the marriage amendment to the Alaska Constitution.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by schm0e, May 10, 2014
Nice, refreshing read.

Can this "experiment" continue? Why not?

Let's not be naïve: this nation -- more a body of ideals than collection of borders -- is being attacked at its core: its ideals. This attack is not happenstance or random in nature.

Alexander Solzhenytsin warned us in 1978 in his Commencement Address Harvard that the decline in morals in the West would render it powerless in the face of "communism's world strategy." If it was a condition worth noting 36 years ago, more recent events at Harvard are a siren's alarm.

He concluded by saying, "We have nowhere to go but up." The context indicates not that we have reached bottom -- hardly -- but that our only hope is in God. Perhaps if he had been more specific, they wouldn't be making public sacrifices to Satan there today.

I say, "Why not?" Why not, indeed. And yet, I honestly wonder if this is that inevitable Big Point in History where it all comes down; where the tools of acquiring power and the means of spreading lies are effective enough to fool enough of the people that dark scheme of counterfeiting God's plan for mankind can finally be carried off. I think it is, but I dread the ramifications of that thought.

In any event, it leaves me with the question, "what manner of [person] ought [I] to be?" And there seems to be work to do in that area.

God bless America, and whatever it was that George Washington was saying to God when he knelt under that tree, "Amen".
written by ken tremendous, May 10, 2014
I agree with part of the article. But if you read this page most any day of the week you will see that it is almost wholly authored by people who overwhelmingly identify with Reagan era political conservatism. Their Catholic faith in other words flows all too seamlessly into an ideological affiliation and vice versa. And the fact that this site is co-sponsored by Newsmax whose main readership is conservative senior citizens tells you virtually all you need to know about its readership--that it is overwhelmingly 1) old 2) right wing and 3) likely to get its news from outlets that specialize in that particular demographic. There is in other words an echo chamber.

I say this not to throw stones. One would find the mirror image of this sort of thing in, say, the National Catholic Reporter on the left.

But we have grounds to be very suspicious of the tendency of ideological affiliations to distort the public presentation of the Catholic faith. And to be suspicious of anyone whose politics flows all to seamlessly into his understanding of the faith.

And we have grounds to reject the idea that "ideals" rather "ideology" is really the solution. The fundamental question is---do we really go back to the sources of Scripture and Tradition together with magisterial teachings to construct our ideals or do we turn Jesus Christ and the Church into a projection of our own ideals which we have mostly constructed from other sources (von Hayek, Reagan, Buckley Leo Strauss etc.).

Most readers here have chosen the latter.
written by ron a., May 10, 2014
Is MODERN man, in the West, ruled by 'ideas'---or by 'appetites'? I suggest, because he is drowned in Materialism, it is 'appetite', in fact, that rules. This condition is the result of an ongoing PROCESS during which vulnerability only increases.

There is, that said, a sub-group, an 'elite'. They are are the "idea" people, and they control the rest. In addition to controlling, they are, at once, rationalistic and utilitarian---and, of course, materialistic. They have, and continue to acquire, effective methods and tools to accomplish their ends. These are the ones who know best what is good for everyone else.

WHAT DEVELOPS IS A CLASH OF CULTURES. The more an individual (a society) embraces materialism, the further he (it) becomes alienated from God. AND, AT ONE TIME, GOD WAS CERTAINLY CENTRAL TO WESTERN MAN.

Each of the synoptic Gospels express the same thing: " is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." Basic, core Christianity. Decidedly, not Secular. When we leave the Spiritual for the Material ( Mammon vs God) we become one with the World. The result? To quote one of the greatest philosopher/ theologians of the 19th Century: "As soon as God's kingdom comes to terms with the world, Christianity is abolished."

THE CLASH: SECULAR MATERIALISM/HUMANISM VS.CHRISTIANITY. There are, and will always be ("I will be with you always"), those voices "crying in the wilderness"; but, the ruling class, the 'ideologues', are the secular engineers, hard at work, shaping society into a "Utopia", totally at odds with Christian Revelation.

Back to the point of the essay: in order for 'ideals' "to trump 'ideology'", in my opinion, the stranglehold 'ideology' has on modern culture in the West will have to be broken. I see NO signs of THAT happening!

written by Brad Miner, May 10, 2014
Of the errors of Tremendous Ken I could go on and on. However, just this: TCT is in no way 'sponsored' by NEWSMAX and has no affiliation with NEWSMAX whatsoever, except that NEWSMAX advertises on our site.
written by schm0e, May 10, 2014
Mr "Tremendous" -- where Catholics agree with conservatism is on the common ground of Natural Law, not any particular exponent of it.

It bizarrely rare to find a "thinking" and "devout" Catholic who can wrap his head around that. At least so far as one can tell from comments like yours and the abundance of published matter that informs them.
written by ken tremendous, May 10, 2014

"Sponsorship" implies the exchange of money for ads. That's what the term means in media, Brad.

And yes, the fact that Newsmax perceives a large overlap between their white, aging, conservative audience and yours speaks volumes of who reads TCT and why. TCT readers are largely a sub-demographic of Newsmax readers. And if were going to be talking about how "ideology" is problematic in Catholicism, it seems only fair to point this out.

And @ SchmOe...that might be true that there is some overlap between American conservatism and natural law on issues of same-sex "marriage" and abortion and the like.....but on economic and foreign policy issues...not so much.

This is why I think Pope Francis is such a breath of fresh air. He is keenly aware of how modern ideology poisons the presentation of the Catholic faith and is determined to call attention to it.
written by Chris in Maryland, May 10, 2014
Ken T:

You are utterly incoherent:

"And we have grounds to reject the idea that "ideals" rather "ideology" is really the solution."

"modern ideology poisons the presentation of the Catholic faith..."

You are so eager to contradict any TCT author (statement 1) that you can't help contracting yourself moments later (statement 2).

I missed the homily from Pope Francis against aging, white, conservative males. Did he inspire those words from you, or is that just you speaking?
written by Paul, May 10, 2014
Soon a majority of citizens will be dependent on the government and our system will collapse under the weight of this burden. Our system can only work if the vast majority of it's citizens behave responsibly.
written by DougH, May 10, 2014
I'm afraid that the understanding of "ideology" given here is more than a little flawed. Ideology is no more than a worldview, a framework by which people make sense of what they observe happening around them. If it springs from a religious background, it's theology. The problem isn't ideology vs. ideals since ideals themselves spring from one variety of ideology or another, at least those that aren't a jumbled, incoherent heap inherited from childhood and never examined. Rather, the problem is when a dominant ideology is a poor fit for reality (see Communism, or the 60's Sexual Revolution).
written by JRF, May 11, 2014
Chris in Maryland; You gave me a "Gee, I wish I'd have said that" comment. Once is enough! Thanks!
written by kristinajohannes, May 11, 2014
Doug H, would you mind being called an "ideologue"? I suspect you would. Strange that that term has kept its meaning.
written by ron a., May 11, 2014
Paul---There has been a substantial, however subtle, intellectual and moral dumbing down by a controlling elite for many years now. Not content with old fashioned bread and circuses, they have thrown in unfettered sex as a coup de grace. Can anyone really expect "responsibility" to be a meaningful concept in the mindset created by those with this 'will to power' and control?
written by PJC, May 12, 2014
I think that the article is quite good, but would be better if attached to a brief history of the origin of the word, and concept, of "ideology." The word is used promiscuously in contemporary academic and political life, and is a cause of great confusion. The concept of ideology is an invention of the French Revolution, and refers to the need for a common public education to indoctrinate citizens to be good republicans. Ideology is directly connected to a search for truth; but, rather, to a determination to remake society and human nature.
written by DougH, May 12, 2014

Of course I would object to being called an ideologue, because of the definition our mass experience has given that word of someone who refused to allow facts or experience interfere with his worldview. But that doesn't change what ideology is: "the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group."

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