The confounding state of discourse in society, and in the Catholic Church as an extension of that society, is never far from my mind these days. How could it be? What is so frustrating is the lack of any nuance or ambivalence in our arguments. Instead we are afflicted by a Manichean division into Good and Evil, Light and Dark, and the absolute conviction that we are on the right side. These instincts are not new but they seem to be on the increase, and that is a concern for those of us who spend our personal and professional lives debating ideas and ethics and ultimate things.
In discussing all this recently with a colleague, at Fordham, he mentioned a 2019 talk by C. Thi Nguyen, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah. Nguyen writes about “the ways that our social structures and technologies shape how we think and what we value,” and he is an engaging presenter, as evidenced by the virality of the online video of his lecture.
In his presentation, “The Gamification of Public Discourse,” Nguyen explicates his research on echo chambers and online outrage and the damage it is doing to society. “We are simplifying our morality and our values for pleasure,” Nguyen says. The problem, he explains, is that “having more complex and nuanced values is a little more painful to go about in the world, and that having simple ones is a little more safe, secure …”
But that sense of security is a false one, built on a moral system of “false clarity.” This false sense of moral certainty is enhanced by the appeal of echo chambers “where you are taught to distrust the other side.” It’s not just ignorance, a “silo” where you are not exposed to other views. “An echo chamber has the structure of a cult,” he says.
The upshot of Nguyen’s argument is that this development is all about maximizing pleasure and reducing the anxiety of dealing with real life. Hence his other two explanatory categories for our current dysfunction: pornography and games. “Instead of trying to get your moral beliefs to match what is morally true or good, you move them around to maximize the pleasures of moral outrage porn,” he says.
Add in the gamification of morality and the epistemic loop is closed. “The medium of games is rules,” Nguyen explains. You have a scoring system, and that creates clarity and motivation – the gratification of winning. “In games you put value blinders on,” he says. False clarity plus the gamification of morality all locked inside an echo chamber creates what we see today: “All these systems reinforce and encourage a narrowness of moral vision.”
Nguyen doesn’t reference religion in his talk but the dysfunctions of Catholicism could reinforce every element of his thesis.
So much of Catholic discourse is focused on using doctrine to dunk on an opponent. Too many Catholics somehow find a false clarity in the multiform and ever-changing tradition, reducing complexity to simplicity and doing a disservice to the Gospel in the process. They live in a cult-like echo chamber, not a communion of believers.
In the public sphere, abortion has long served as the stalking horse for this reductive version of Catholicism, and the election of Joe Biden as just the second Catholic president has sent the moral simplifiers into overdrive. The push is on to have the U.S. bishops issue a document on “eucharistic coherence,” which is basically a universal law aimed at denying communion to one man, Joe Biden, and thereby scoring points in the never-ending culture war. It is the gamification of the sacraments, with abortion invoked as the one “non-negotiable” issue, or, more recently, the “preeminent priority.”
Within the church we see this kind of gamification playing out in other ways. For liturgists, the old ad orientam Latin Mass is simply the best Mass, and for many church leaders a legalistic Pharisaism substitutes for pastoral engagement. “Confusion” is the great lament of the anti-Francis crowd, those captious critics who say that the pope’s pastoral approach will muddy the waters of doctrine. Every problem must be resolved by a dubia. Every answer must be black and white. Every Catholic must be in or out.
This is all counter to every aspect of the Catholic moral, theological, intellectual, philosophical and spiritual tradition. People are complex and the Catholic tradition embraces that: discerning together, walking together, learning from each other. “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good,” as Pope Francis said back in 2013. “For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself.”
Using religion for himself – exactly. What is most disturbing about this phenomenon is that, following on Nguyen’s argument, this perversion of the Catholic imagination is ultimately pornographic, a self-indulgent desire for immediate gratification. Our ecclesiastical scolds are, in fact, today’s pleasure-seeking sybarites, with moralism as the medium for their fantasy games.
Perhaps there is some hope. In April, Francis named an Italian theologian, Father Armando Matteo, as a top official in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Matteo has written widely on how to engage today’s culture without resorting to oversimplifications that draw only fundamentalists. “Certainly, this approach, the super-clear and super-distinct ideas, has a certain attractiveness,” he said in a 2018 interview. “But I do not think it is the best answer, also because the attitude of stiffening is always a short-term strategy, and the human species does not act like that. The epochal turns are painful, but there is always the ability to adapt.”
Let’s hope that we continue to adapt, and that the church embraces the tension inherent in the ambivalence of being the human beings that God created.
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.