Revealed preference and the peril of interest capture

Rocco Palmo reports that Vice President Joe Biden met with the Holy Father today, but observes that the meeting appears to have been kept unusually quiet. When then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Benedict in a publicized meeting, the Vatican paired it with public criticism of Pelosi’s dissent—de facto schism, I would say—from the Church’s teaching on a number of issues, so one could speculate that this is courtesy silence: “If we meet publicly, we must condemn your disobedience, but if you’ll forgo the publicity, we’ll hold fire.”

As Palmo notes, it’s common to see calls for pro-choice politicians to be excommunicated, either formally or practically. And that’s not a surprise, because the Church’s teaching on abortion is crystal clear. 1 Easy as it is to mock Biden as dim, he’s a reasonably intelligent man, so it’s hard to imagine that he’s unaware and uncomprehending of the teaching; how do the politicians square their position with their faith?

To answer that, we must first realize that to our right and left alike, we see a problem that I call interest capture: People who are intellectually compromised by an overriding commitment to a particular interest or result on which they are at odds with the Church. It need not go so far as sede vacantism (typically on the right, but sometimes on the left, too) or conciliarism (on the right before Vatican II and on the left after it) to be a problem, because dissent on a single topic can have far-ranging and corrosive consequences, especially for one of the most fundamental questions: The Magisterium. A necessary antecedent to evaluating the content of the Magisterium is a theory of the Magisterium itself: As J.I. Packer perceptively observed in Fundamentalism and the Word of God, most of the fundamental questions that divide Catholics from Protestants and Orthodox boil down to the central question of the Church’s authority. What evangelicals Norman Geisler and Joshua Betancourt said of the Magisterium’s apex, papal infallibility, is no less true for the Magisterium as a whole: If the Catholic Church is right about it, “then every other branch within Christendom … has become the obstinate stepchild to the Mother Church.” 2 Professed Catholics like Biden must, on paper, believe in the Magisterium (“I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God”), and they cannot be unaware of its teaching on the most heated issues. And yet they place themselves in dissent from those teachings, a stance which—through the miracle of revealed preference—calls into question their actual beliefs about the Church’s authority to promulgate those teachings.

And therein lies the problem. When someone rejects the Church’s teaching on a particular issue, they must must generally do one of two things. They can accept that they have separated themselves from the Church. Or they may convince themselves that there is a legitimate response called “dissent,” and that they are still in the Church, albeit also in this “dissent” on one or two issues. 3  The challenge of the latter route, however, is its requirement that they manage the cognitive dissonance by refining their theory of the teaching and governing offices of the Church and her bishops in order to elide the teaching on which they dissent. This produces—almost inevitably and all-but invariably—a distorted theory of the Magisterium. Instead of determining a theory of authority in vacuo and applying it neutrally, they start with a result and build their theory of authority around it so as to leave the result undisturbed, producing a warped and twisted simulacrum of the magisterium distorted into “geometrical forms for which an Euclid could scarcely find a name.” 4 It’s like trying to draw a straight line of iron filings past a magnet.

It is at this point that the distinction between public and private dissent  becomes important. One who has private reservations about this or that teaching is no harm to anyone (save, perhaps, himself). When a distorted theory of teaching authority is advanced in public dissent, however, the theory escapes the bounds of that person’s particular bête noire and becomes a tool for everyone with every kind of difference with the Church. For example, suppose Smith dissents on the topic of ordaining women. To preserve his position, he manipulates a poll to show that self-identified Catholics (the qualifier is important) agree with him, and to make his opinion and his poll relevant, he advances a neutered theory of episcopal authority which pulls the hierarchy inside out, placing the judgment of the laity on top of the pile. But Jones hears him and says “hey, I disagree with Smith on that, but I disagree with the bishops on birth control, and if the bishops can get Smith’s issue wrong, maybe they got my issue wrong too!” For the next person the issue is the death penalty, for the next, gay marriage, the person after him wants to rethink the hypostatic union, and so on. The effect is (with a hat tip to Robert Bork) slouching into heresy. Put another way, private dissent on any single issue has a corrosive effect on one’s own view of the Magisterium, and public dissent has a corrosive effect on the faith of those within earshot of the dissenter. The result of the latter is to infect the Church with (if you will forgive the negative connotations of the metaphor) viral anglicanism.

That public-private dichotomy becomes even sharper when it is public dissent by a public figure, and sharpest of all when it touches bishops and clergy. As the Lord warns: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Lk 12:48). When a person publicly advances heresy, they threaten to mislead those who hear and trust them. When a public figure such as a politician publicly advances heresy, the difference is not of kind but of scale: Their words reach more people. And when a Bishop publicly advances heresy, that is worse in both kind and scale, for, while politicians are trusted to lie, Bishops are supposed to be our shepherds in truth, and when they lead their flock astray, a robust and rapid response—far more rapid than the languorous handling of Toowoomba bishop William Morris—is demanded.

To end where we began, then, with Vice Pesident Biden, we might ask: Acknowledging that he ought to be admonished, should the further step of excommunicati0n be taken, as many advocate? We are all sinners; not one of us is worthy of what we receive in and through the Eucharist. All of us could be hung from one verse of scripture or another at any given time. But in the case of those who give grave public scandal to the Church, who mislead others and provide cover for those who do likewise, action seems appropriate—not because they should be punished more severely, but because excommunication is a remedial measure and public figures who have in fact separated themselves from the Church are in more drastic need of the medicine, for both their own sake and everyone else’s.


  1. See SF: Auntie gets it wrong n.1 (Nov. 23, 2009).
  2. Is Rome the True Church? 8 (2008), quoted in Simon Dodd, Ad Lucem Dei 51 (Circ. D. 12/1/2010).
  3. Cf. Donum Veritatis, nos. 32 et seq (CFD, 1990).
  4. H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness ch. 5 (1931).