Ideology’s Blind Spots

People seem to be throwing around the term “ideology” these days the way they often throw around the word “fascist” to mean “someone I don’t like because they disagree with me.”  There were actual fascists in Italy in the 1930s. They got their name because they used a bundle of rods with a projecting axe blade, called the fasces in Latin, as a symbol of the Fascist Party.

Mussolini’s motto was: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”  Members of the Fascist Party would identify themselves by wearing black shirts. They had a reputation for breaking windows and smashing up businesses they didn’t like. Hence the irony of a group calling itself “Anti-Fascist” (Antifa) wearing black outfits, breaking windows, and smashing up businesses they don’t like.

One might have thought to be “anti-fascist” you would want to wear white and fix broken windows.  And then you’d think their motto would be something like: “Subsidiarity: Let’s not depend totally on the State.”  But oddly, they don’t.  Something seems to blind them to the obvious.  It might be ideology.

But when it comes to ideology, I prefer to turn to someone who spent a lot of time living with it and opposing it: poet and one-time president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel.  “Ideology,” wrote Havel, “is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”

Thus, the only way to oppose ideology, thought Havel, was “living in the truth”: refusing to participate in the culture of lies.  His famous example is the greengrocer who, if he refuses to put the “Workers of the World Unite” sign in his shop window, gets in trouble with the communist authorities, even though he is one of the workers that the “workers’ party” is supposed to be protecting!

So, the lie is that the sign is about concern for workers when what it really represents is submission to the ruling authority.  Someone might label this demand for submission a bit “fascist.”

But I have become wary of throwing around labels like “fascist” and “ideology.”  I think we’d be better off simply examining the truth or falsity of a view.  If a politician is telling the truth and is right, then he’s trustworthy.  If he lies repeatedly, then no one should support him. He may not be a fascist or an ideologue, but if he’s a chronic liar, that’s bad enough.  I mean, who really wants to be lied to?  (Well, unless you’re an ideologue, I suppose, and the truth is uncomfortable and threatening.)


I got to thinking about this the other day when I read that Pope Francis had accused some American Catholics of having “replaced faith with ideology.”  That sounds bad, but I’m not sure what he means by “ideology.”  Has he read Havel?  Does he mean that people are putting up signs to signal their submission to a ruling ideology they barely understand?  Is he criticizing people who have submitted to a “specious way of relating to the world” and indulge in “the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them”?  I just don’t know.

But whatever it means, my advice would be, if you think something is untrue, then show people why.  Others may disagree, but at least you’d be “dialoguing.”  Starting with insults isn’t the best way to open a dialogue.

But if ideology is a “specious way of relating to the world,” a way of refusing to face the truth, I wonder about church authorities who think it a smart policy to advise that the Church should be “more flexible” about “sins below the waist” (unless there’s some problem with feet and knees that I’m unaware of).  One might have thought that, on the heels of a devastating sex abuse scandal, the last thing a church official would want to say is that we should pay less attention to sexual offenses, especially anyone associated with the serial sex abuser, Marko Rupnik.

Isn’t this a little like John Dillinger’s mother advising people not to worry so much about bank robberies?

Indeed, one would have thought that given how many of the abuse victims (roughly 80 percent) were boys, mostly adolescent boys, another issue the Church might have wanted to shy away from was any hint they might be interested in sanctioning same-sex acts, as if to imply, “Well, was it really all that bad?”

Homosexuality as such doesn’t cause sexual abuse of young men, any more than the “hook up” culture between young men and women is caused by heterosexuality.  It’s just that, whether same-sex or opposite-sex, it’s odd to have someone say we should pay less attention to sexual sins when sexual sins are obviously playing such a major role in the breakdown of society, causing so much unhappiness for so many, especially the poor.

Pope Francis has sometimes spoken of the Church as a “field hospital” for the wounded.  He prefers pastors “with the smell of the sheep.”  As someone who spends a lot of time talking with young adults about their lives, I know that the one thing anyone who spends time with these young people can tell you is that nothing, nothing has been more destructive to their happiness than the sexual culture in which they are forced to live and try to find lasting love.

It’s a bit like the emergency room doctor who sees gunshot wounds coming through her doors every night, and is listening to an administrator insist that the hospital must spend more of her ER resources on diversity training.  A doctor in that situation could only conclude she was dealing with someone who had no idea what was really going on in the streets and who was caught in the clutches of, well, some kind of ideology.


*Image: Portrait of President Václav Havel, with the words, “Havel forever” [National Museum, Wenceslas Square, Prague]

You may also enjoy:

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Ideology

Kristina Johannes’ Against “Ideology”

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.