instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two for one

I wasn't sure which blog post I was going to write next. It was a choice between commenting on Mark Shea's Conservative American Catholic Problem, and lamenting the equivocal nature of the English verb "to believe."

Now that Pat Archibald has replied to Mark, I can write one post on both topics.

My impression, as a steady but not systematic observer, is that communication between Mark and many other politically conservative American Catholics suffers from what you might call an impedance mismatch. For his commentaries on politics (and other fleeting subjects), Mark uses a writing style that might be described as "editorial cartooning with words instead of pictures."

Those readers who are expecting something else -- political commentary, perhaps, rather than commentary on politics -- aren't altogether wrong in seeing something cartoonish in Mark's writing (they might even add "artless," ha!). Many of them, though, seem to be misinterpreting his arguments as far more rigorous and categorical than he intends. Some of the misreadings I've seen -- along the lines of, "Shea says if you vote Republican then you love your country more than you love God," for example -- are as wrongheaded as a claim like, "That guy thinks all bankers smoke cigars and carry overflowing sacks of cash around."

The trick in responding, as always, is to distinguish disagreement from irritation.

Pat Archibald attempts this in his reply. How well he succeeds is a question I'll set aside, in favor of feeding my current favorite pet peeve, which is the fact that it's habitual to say "I believe" about things that do not involve faith.

Now, there's nothing wrong in doing this, either morally or grammatically. But one consequence of repeatedly saying things like, "I believe the Phillies will win in six," or, "I believe these Cabernets are overpriced," is that it makes it hard to verbally distinguish an act of faith from an act of judgment.

For example, the import of Pat's column is in these words:
I am a Catholic. I call myself a conservative. I put my Church first and my party about 108th.
He goes on:
...I believe [small government] protects our God given liberties, including our religious liberties, best. I believe in the Constitution....

I believe in free enterprise....

I believe in a strong defense....
As I said, there's nothing wrong with this grammatically or morally.

Rhetorically, though: Using a credal structure of repeated "I believe"s to present your political opinions in a column intended to show that your political opinions are distinct from and subject to your religious faith is best avoided.

The use of "to believe" as a generic term for asserting non-specific levels of confidence in the truth of some proposition has a number of problems, all related to the socially recognized nobility of the act of faith.
  • It can make an act of guessing, wishing, or feeling sound far more substantial and important than it really is -- e.g., "I believe the Phillies will win in six."
  • It can make a conclusion sound like a premise -- e.g., "I believe corporal punishment is necessary for a well-ordered school."
  • Most significantly, I judge, it can make a religious belief sound like an opinion, and vice versa -- e.g., "I believe women can be priests."
The fallout from this last is not the elevation of opinion to the dignity of faith, but the degradation of faith to the everyone-has-one vulgarity of opinion.

My recommendation (which I don't expect to follow slavishly myself) is to use "I think" for the generic act of asserting a non-specific level of confidence, or even a more specific verb when you think you can get away with it. (Will it ever be safe to "opine" in public?)

So much for "I believe X." What about "I believe in X"?