Sex, Memory, and Misleading Headlines

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2013 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I remember one year, at the end of a semester, lamenting the fact that I had no time left to adequately treat some of the more fundamental moral issues; we'd spent only a day or two on a systematic treatment of sexual morality, and we could have used more time on the life issues, not to mention many other important moral questions. That is why I was rather surprised by one student's remark at the end of that year; he said something to the effect that all we ever talked about that semester was premarital sex. I was astounded at the remark and asked him to explain how he arrived at that conclusion, since it was only that morning that I was lamenting the little time we'd spent on that and other related moral issues. More specifically, I asked him how we could have possibly focused solely on sexual morality when we had covered the nature of philosophy and how it differs from the empirical sciences, the first principles of speculative reason, the basics of logic and inferencing, the problem of universals, the nature of happiness and man's ultimate end, the doctrine of the four causes in Aristotle, his ten categories of being, the hylomorphic doctrine and reductionism, the hierarchy of being, the nature of the soul in Plato and Aristotle, the real distinction between essence and existence in Aquinas and his demonstrations of the existence of God, and the first principles of practical reason. He had no answer.

I do recall a student that year asking a question about sex at the very beginning of the semester, but as a rule I do not treat moral questions at the start of a course, because students simply do not have the necessary background to appreciate moral reasoning. They tend to think quickly, on the basis of an intuitive mind constituted by years of inferencing guided by the assumptions of popular culture - that's a polite way of saying they simply don't know what they're talking about. What I would have said to the class in answer to that question at the beginning of the semester was that sexual activity outside of marriage cannot be justified, and I would have provided a few obvious reasons - having to do with STDs - why it is prudent to avoid it and to save oneself for marriage, and nothing more; I would assure them that we will eventually treat these and other issues more thoroughly at the end of the semester. So how is it possible that this one student at the end of the semester thought that we spoke of nothing else? The reason is that he thought of nothing else.

What I said at the beginning of the semester stood out for him; it was a significant few minutes, and by the end of the course, his thoughts had become "reified", that is, made real. All he'd ever thought about after that brief reply soon became, in his mind, all we'd ever talked about. In other words, his memory was no memory at all, but a construct. It is as forensic psychologist Dr. Scott Fraser points out in his discussion on why eye witnesses get it wrong: "The brain abhors a vacuum"; it quickly fills that vacuum with content, or it conflates like an accordion. What actually took place during the course of the semester was clearly not as relevant - and possibly not as disturbing - to him as that brief discussion at the beginning of the semester, which he couldn't seem to get past, for whatever reason.

This past week the headlines in many of the major newspapers read: "Pope Francis says Church too obsessed with Abortion, Gays and Birth Control", or variations on the same theme. But anyone who attends Mass regularly should sense that something is amiss; for we can easily count on one hand the number of times we've heard just the word 'abortion' mentioned from the pulpit within the past 35 or 40 years, and I can only recall one homily on Humanae Vitae - and that was at a Seminary - , and not once have I heard anything to do with homosexuality mentioned from the pulpit. But on many occasions within the past 35 or 40 years, the thought has certainly occurred to me that the media seems obsessed precisely with these three issues. The thought occurred to me in the early 80s with all the discussion surrounding the election of John Paul II, i.e., whether or not we can expect a "liberalization" of the Church's moral teaching; we saw the same preoccupation with these issues in the media coverage of John Paul II's visit to Toronto, during World Youth Day 2002, and we saw this very same preoccupation with issues of sexual morality in the coverage of the election of Benedict XVI in 2005. More recently we saw a veritable "obsession" with these issues in the television coverage of the election of Pope Francis (2013). The media, it seems, can wonder about nothing other than whether or not the incoming Pope will change Church teaching on issues of sexual morality, as if Catholic teaching originates in the minds of the Popes. 'All that these journalists obsess about' eventually became 'all the Church ever talks about'.

The recent headlines refer to a 20 page interview with Jesuit priest Antonio Spadaro, S.J. If and when we take the time to read the interview - which few people will ever think of doing - , we will see that Pope Francis simply did not say that the Church has been too obsessed with "gays and abortion and contraception", as one headline put it. In fact, days before the interview, Pope Francis addressed a gathering of hundreds of obstetricians and gynecologists in Rome saying: "Every unborn child, condemned unjustly to be aborted, has the face of the Lord" and called attention to the paradoxical situation that we find today in the medical profession: "Although by their nature they are at the service of life, health professions are sometimes induced to disregard life itself".

What Pope Francis actually said in that long interview with Father Spadaro was said in the context of a metaphor of the Church as a field hospital in the midst of a war: "I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up. The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all."

At this point, he has said nothing about abortion, contraception, or homosexuality, only "small-minded rules" - and the precept that we must not destroy developing human life in the womb is hardly a small-minded rule, in his mind at least. It is only later, after further thoughts on the pastoral nature of the Church and the role of the confessor that the Pope is asked about specific issues that some still find difficult. He did not say that the Church is obsessed with these issues; rather, he said that the "teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time." And this is obvious to any pastor with common sense, and only a small minority today seem to lack that common sense.

What he said about 'obsession' was that "the church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things." And the necessary thing he's referring to is the message of salvation, which is the good news of the gospel: "It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow."

In other words, first things first; a good pastor does not put the cart before the horse. But because people's lives today are too busy, they simply don't take the time to research, to investigate, to look more deeply into claims, for there is simply no time left over to take - or because they are lazy minded. And so they readily trust the media, or worse, the headlines, and there is no doubt the media takes advantage of this state of affairs in order to sell its product; for it is far more likely that a person will buy that paper with an outrageous headline, as opposed to a more sober one, such as "Pope Francis underscores the importance of mercy and compassion in the confessional."

If I am to avoid the more cynical explanation, I'd say the reason for the misinformation is that the journalists probably read the entire interview and came away with an impression, and it was an impression that was constructed on the basis of a predominant wish, namely, that a Pope liberal on morality would be elected to office. We tend to remember what we want to remember, and forget what is difficult, unpleasant, or irrelevant in the context of our current preoccupations. But what we choose to forget is often a significant part of the original context, and that context is all important in coming to an accurate understanding of what it is we remember.

If memory is so precarious, then so too is our ability to make predictions on the basis of past experience (memory). I recall the one summer when I was the foreman of a small landscaping crew; we aerified, dethatched, and raked lawns in the Kitchener/Waterloo area. The work was hard, and we were often frustrated with the owner of the company, because we believed his assessments and expectations of what we'd be able to accomplish in a day were entirely unrealistic. What worked out nicely and neatly in his mind simply did not work out as nicely in the realm of the real with all its contingencies.

One day I had to take the truck in to have the transmission repaired, so I dropped the crew off at the site, which was a large piece of property; they began to aerify and dethatch the lawn, while I made my way to the garage. As I sat there comfortably during the entire day, engaged in conversation with the mechanic, I would conjecture about just where the crew would be in the course of their labor. By the end of the day when the transmission was finally repaired, I was sure I would return to bunch of guys sitting down on the curb, bored and waiting to be taken to the next job. I was astounded to have discovered that they were still working and were only three quarters finished. When I asked them why they weren't finished yet, they looked at me with the same expression on their faces as I have when the boss would question me about the speed of our work.

What takes place within the realm of ideas rarely if ever corresponds to what will take place in the realm of the contingent, and that is because when the intellect is turned in on itself, its objects are ideas, and ideas are forms without matter. It is matter that makes possible a potentially infinite number of variables that cannot be foreseen. For example, I am sitting in the 2nd floor lunch room and it occurs to me that I should walk up to the 3rd floor office, get the book that I just purchased and return to spend time in silent reading. As I proceed, however, a number of unforeseeable things occur that reveal the ideal nature of my plans: as I am walking up the stairs, I take my keys in hand, but a part of my thumb is itchy, and as I scratch it with my forefinger, my keys slip out of my hand and fall through the opening in between each stair and all the way down to the first floor. I proceed to the first floor when I run into a student, who has a question for me, which takes me to the office; but then I am too tired to climb four flights of stairs to the 3rd floor, and I am feeling a little drowsy, so I lay down in the office sick room for a short power nap, etc.

That is why there is always a tension between those who live in the realm of their ideas (such as intellectuals) and those immersed in the realm of the real. But this too is relative, for even teachers engaged in the hard work of teaching young students forget what it was like to be a student with four or five courses to manage. The chemistry teacher drops one metaphorical brick in the students' backpack, the English teacher later drops a brick in it as well; the history teacher drops two bricks this week, and I drop another. From my perspective, that isn't a huge workload; it is only one brick; and if other teachers are like me in often falling into a common induction bias best described as What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI), they too consider the workload relatively light, for it is little more than a brick. From the perspective of the student, however, the bag is heavy and difficult to carry for an extended period. And even if we were to keep in mind that students have four courses, the information is "in the mind" only, and a four course workload in the mind is much lighter than a real workload, that is, in the realm of the contingent. The fact of the matter is that teachers have forgotten what it is like to be a student, which is why those responsible for curriculum development at the school board level will often add units and requirements, usually as novel solutions to current social problems, all the while forgetting that additions in the real world of real limits are not solutions to contemporary problems at all, but trade-offs.

We speak so much about the need to cultivate critical thinking skills in our students, but critical thinking requires time - because the human intellect is sluggish; and that is why so few are able to think critically - they simply don't have the time. Because the lives of teachers and administrators are too busy, it is a pipe dream to imagine that we can successfully teach them critical thinking skills - at least at the speed that is now typical of modern life; for you can't give what you don't have, and people don't have it, because they don't have the time, or the motivation - which is why they read headlines and settle for impressions.