As a Southern Baptist later turned Presbyterian, I don’t follow Pope Politics. I was suspicious and a bit uncomfortable with his appearance before Congress, but I expect that was the result of remnants of a protestant upbringing where my knowledge of Catholicism was limited to it was why we ate fish sticks on Friday and Catholics weren’t supposed to marry protestants without first converting them.
I am probably not the only person raised protestant who felt discomfort with the Pope speaking before Congress. It was probably this discomfort that caused me to read the transcript of his speech.
I did not expect to find anything of great interest to me in his speech, but while reading his speech one particular section caught my attention. Pope Francis said, “We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind.” A sentence later he added, “But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against; the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” In these words, I find great wisdom.
Pope Francis couched this wisdom in theological brackets, but the concept applies to us as individuals and to our public and private institutions and organizations equally.
Forms of individual delusion and ideological extremism mark our political process. Republican and Democrats have become “fundamentalists,” devout to their positions, unbending and unwilling to consider any alternative solutions to our country’s problems. Pope Francis identified the cause of this delusion and extremism and he encouraged us to behave differently to change our circumstances. Paraphrased, the Pope said we (all of us) must guard against “simplistic reductionism” which sees only “good and evil.”
Simplistic reductionism is not a theological concept. It is found in business practice, our educational system, our politics, as well as our churches. Simplistic reductionism is a state when people base their beliefs, decisions, and resulting actions on dogma, and we have all sinned and come short by accepting ideas based on dogma.
Wikipedia explains dogma “as a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. It serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system, and it cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the very system's paradigm, or the ideology itself.” I like the Macmillan Dictionary’s definition to use as a simple working definition: dogma is “a belief or set of beliefs that people are expected to accept without asking questions”. At its core, dogma is a condition of ignorance, a lack of knowledge.
Simplistic reductionism is pervasive in our political discourse. Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty. A statement on a complex subject disguised as a higher principle while calling people that oppose their position names is simplistic reductionism.
Examine this statement from the Republican platform in 2012 on federal tax policies: “We oppose retroactive taxation; and we condemn attempts by activist judges, at any level of government, to seize the power of the purse by ordering higher taxes. We oppose tax policies that divide Americans or promote class warfare.” Using the terms activists judges, seize the power of the purse, and divide Americans or promote class warfare are meant to incite emotional responses, not solve problems.
The Democrat platform stated, “Our political system is under assault by those who believe that special interests should be able to buy whatever they want in our society, including our government. Our opponents have applauded the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United and welcomed the new flow of special interest money with open arms. In stark contrast, we believe we must take immediate action to curb the influence of lobbyists and special interests on our political institutions.” If you will remember the last election between Tom Cotton and Mark Pryor, I believe the Democrats took advantage of the Citizens United court decision as did the Republicans.
Many elected officials prey on the lack of knowledge of the electorate. Think of all the issues politicians use to differentiate themselves. Who has time to become an expert in all the dogma they throw at voters? However, If people would learn to at least ask questions, to listen to opposing points of view, to realize life and its circumstances cannot be defined well in terms of black and white, our lack of knowledge would begin to fall away.
Simplistic reductionism is the enemy of intelligent solutions to problems, a cause of misunderstanding between people, and breeds ignorance. I am glad Pope Francis spoke before Congress so I can quote him:
“But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against; the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”