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Understanding and Debating the Theocratic Views of the U.S. Catholic Bishops

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 18, 2012: The American cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003) is my favorite thinker. However, his thought is tricky. (His family name is English; for centuries, the family name was spelled "Onge"; it is probably related to the English name "Yonge.")

Because Ong was a priest in the religious order known informally as the Jesuit order (known formally as the Society of Jesus) in the Roman Catholic Church, I would like to use his thought as a framework for reflecting on the theocratic thought of the U.S. Catholic bishops. As is well known, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been outspoken in objecting to legalized abortion in the first trimester and in objecting to same-sex marriage and in objecting to the HHS mandate regarding insurance coverage for artificial contraception. Their positions regarding these civic issues are obviously theocratic in spirit, which concerns certain people such as Rob Kall who do not agree with their theocratic positions.

On the one hand, because of the American tradition of religious freedom, I think that the U.S. Catholic bishops should be allowed to advance their theocratic views about certain civic issues, as they themselves see fit to do.

On the other hand, I think that people who disagree with their theocratic positions, as I myself do, should debate their theocratic positions in public forums. But before I undertake to discuss debating the theocratic views of the Catholic bishops, I want to draw on Ong's admittedly tricky thought as a conceptual framework for understanding where the Catholic bishops are coming from, as we say. The Catholic bishops stand in a historically conditioned tradition of Catholic thought. Ong has perceptively analyzed the historical cultural conditioning in Western culture, including the historical visual cultural conditioning of Western philosophic thought and, mutatatis mutandi, Catholic theological thought. However, as far as I know, Catholic theologians have not drawn on Ong's admittedly tricky thought to consider the Catholic tradition of philosophic and theological thought.

But in this connection I should mention that the famous Canadian Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1980) did publish a thought-provoking essay titled "The Transition from a Classicist World-View to Historical-Mindedness" in the collection of Lonergan's essays titled A SECOND COLLECTION (Westminster Press, 1974, pages 1-9). However, as perceptive as Lonergan's essay is, it amounts to little more than an outline of possibilities.

In a similar way, what I say in the present essay amounts to little more than an outline of possibilities. But I am not a Catholic theologian, so I am not going to undertake the ambitious task of discussing the Catholic tradition of thought in detail. That task will have to be undertaken by Catholic theologians, if it is to be undertaken at all. (Disclosure: When I was a seminarian in the Jesuit order, I studied Catholic philosophy and theology, including Catholic moral theology. But I am no longer a practicing Catholic.)

Ong's Thought

From the 1950s onward, drawing on the work of Mircea Eliade, Ong often works with the contrast of cyclic thought versus evolutionary thought. For Ong, evolutionary thought includes linear, as distinct from cyclic, conceptual constructs about time. Linear thought (or as Ong would have it, evolutionary thought) tends to favor historical-mindedness, to use Lonergan's term, as distinct from a more mythic a-temporal and non-historical cyclic conceptual framework. (Lonergan says nothing about cyclic time versus historical mindedness.)

But in the 1970s Ong appropriated systems terminology and worked with the contrast of closed-systems thinking versus open-systems thinking. Cyclic thought is patently closed-systems thinking, because when you've come full circle you've closed the circle. In addition, he works with the contrast of a backward-looking orientation versus a forward-looking orientation. In the most basic sense of the word conservative, conservatives tend toward the backward-looking orientation because they want to conserve what they value in the old ways of thinking and acting. Even though Ong himself never spells out predictions about the future in detail, as certain self-styled futurists do, he was at times described as a futurist because of his positive attitude of hope about the future.

(Arguably, the Christian myth about the supposed Second Coming of the supposed Christ would tend to foster an attitude of hope about the future, provided that you imagined yourself to be on the victorious side. But there are certain Christians who manage not to sound hopeful, especially at times when they are electioneering about political campaigns and issues. At times, the Christian electioneering manage to make it sound like the election results will trigger the supposed Second Coming -- and the Christians electioneering are going to be on the victorious side, but woe betide the other side in the election. Nevertheless, this Christian myth may have been one source of Ong's hope about the future. Another source of his hope about the future was his generally positive and even optimistic attitude toward life.)

Arguably, most famously, Ong works with the contrast of oral-aural versus visual sensory dominance. Later in his life, he expanded this contrast to work with the contrast of world-as-event sense of life versus world-as-view sense of life.

However, Ong also works with a more subtle contrast, except that in this case he has articulated only one of the polar opposites that could be used if he were to work with a contrast of A versus B, which is one of his favorite way of thinking. But he himself has not explicitly articulated the polar opposite of time. Even though he often discusses time and often discusses space and spatialization and even quantification of thought, he does not work explicitly with the contrast of time versus space. But he definitely discusses each of them separately.

However, in his dedication of the collection of his essays titled INTERFACES OF THE WORD: STUDIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND CULTURE (Cornell University Press, 1977), Ong reports that William K. Wimsatt, Jr., in English at Yale University once said to him, "I am a space man, you are a time man." To be sure, in this perceptive twofold characterization Wimsatt shows that he understands Ong's thought. But Ong himself does not explicitly work with the contrast of time versus space.

Nevertheless, this contrast grows out of what he says about visuality and the interiorization of literacy and literate thought, because he understand the interiorization of literacy and literate thought as giving rise to a concomitant sense of space as static. As a result, we can unpack Wimsatt's twofold contrast by aligning each term ("space man" versus "time man") with Ong's contrast of the world-as-view sense of life versus the world-as-event sense of life, mentioned above.

But this alignment of different points in Ong's admittedly tricky thought paradoxically enough brings us back to ancient orality and cyclic thought, as detailed by Eliade. As noted, cyclic thought represents closed-systems thinking, as distinct from open-systems thinking. Ancient orality did not foster historical-mindedness. But ancient orality embodied the world-as-event sense of life, in which the events were often enough interpreted in mythic terms.

By contrast, the world-as-view sense of life as Ong understands it gravitates toward the static, as distinct from gravitating toward the world-as-event sense of life. However, even though Ong implicitly works with the contrast of a static sense of life versus an event sense of life, I would suggest that the more suitable term to use would be flow: static versus flow.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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Why aren't more non-Catholic commentators debating... by Thomas Farrell on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:23:09 AM
Because those on the Left are incapable of debatin... by Matthew Jacobs on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:15:55 PM
If debate about positions of Catholic bishops is i... by Clifford Cobb on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:24:39 PM
As a Kemetian I can not even begin to understand t... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 2:34:38 PM
I might venture a educated guess as to why you can... by Matthew Jacobs on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:00:34 PM
And that guess is what? I can see at least some lo... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 10:21:11 PM
What you post is black or white, no grey, but life... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 10:27:21 AM
Obviously you didn't read what I posted or you wou... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 1:35:24 PM
Trust me you have no Idea of what an attack from m... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 2:19:59 PM
Nuff said. I will not be replying to a total fool ... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012 at 12:16:00 AM
... by Matthew Jacobs on Tuesday, Nov 20, 2012 at 2:49:11 AM
the oc ra cy  |θ-"ˈäkrəs-"| nou... by Matthew Jacobs on Sunday, Nov 18, 2012 at 9:53:41 PM
Debating theocratic views with theocrats is a non ... by R. A. Landbeck on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 6:11:30 AM
"Dustbin or Oblivion"you say ? Only to be replaced... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 10:13:25 AM
Even though I mentioned Rob Kall by name more than... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 7:28:19 AM
Thank You... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 10:16:54 AM
In my article I stated that the Catholic bishops m... by Thomas Farrell on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 7:50:17 AM
...the Catholic Church has been in retrograde moti... by Richard Girard on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 5:05:44 PM
How can US Bishops change Church position on any g... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 6:47:07 PM
An already demonstrably none too bright person com... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 1:44:57 PM
Oh my I think you're talking about me. I never cla... by Matthew Jacobs on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 7:03:39 PM
But that's about all. As I stated there is no "vac... by Sekhmetnakt Frost on Monday, Nov 19, 2012 at 11:59:18 PM