Those gathered are stunned when midnight comes and nothing happens. Some possible explanations are floated, and discarded. At 4 a.m. Martin begins to cry.
Then at 4:45 a.m., Martin receives a message through automatic writing. The God of Earth has taken note of their faith and has decided to spare the world.
Far from giving up, the previously reclusive cult initiates a publicity drive, and engages in fervent proselytization.
This bizarre story is the basis for a 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger, a psychologist who had actually infiltrated the cult. It was Festinger who came up with the concept of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two incompatible beliefs at the same time. The result is an uncomfortable psychological feeling of dissonance. If we find ourselves suffering from cognitive dissonance, we will naturally take measures to reduce the dissonance, and to feel better.
In the case of the flying saucer cultists, they channeled their energy into growing their ranks, reducing their cognitive dissonance by recruiting more believers. History is full of failed doomsday cults that have bounced back with even more vigor than they previously enjoyed. (Someone should do a study on climate change!) Faithfulness and proselytization can often be psychological defense mechanisms.
Pope Francis and Cognitive Dissonance
|St. Corbinian's Bear Poll|
There is nothing scientific about the blog poll to the left, of course. This is a self-selected group visiting a blog that is one of the most critical of this papacy. The Bear only added the psychological questions at the last minute, and did not suspect they would see much interest.
So imagine the Bear's surprise when he learned that nearly as many people thought the Papacy of Francis had harmed them psychologically as spiritually. But why not? Couldn't this sample, and many, many more Catholics beyond the poll's reach, be experiencing real psychological discomfort due to cognitive dissonance?
If you believe that the Church is a divine institution, carrying out God's plan of evangelization and the cure of souls, maintaining a tradition that ensures its integrity, and if you envision popes in the mold of Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and even Pius XII, Pope Francis comes as much of a shock as a spaceman from Dorothy Martin's planet Clarion.
|Sixty years late, but I'm finally here!|
You can't shake the feeing that something is terribly wrong. It's not supposed to be this way. Popes aren't supposed to be as off-kilter as Pope Francis. The Church is not supposed to be talking about changing things as settled as Jesus' condemnation of remarriage after divorce, let alone homosexual unions. Nor should it be refereeing scientific debates, and in general showing interest in everything but the supernatural.
So, on the one hand, you have everything you believe in your core about the Catholic Church. On the other, you have the undeniable fact of Pope Francis. If a Grand Canyon sized split like that is not enough to cause cognitive dissonance, the Bear does not know what is.
Of course, if you don't hold a view of the Church similar to the one described above, then, naturally, you're not likely to experience dissonance. You can be Catholic and enjoy it, free from the slightest cognitive dissonance, no matter what happens! (Also, you have to be seriously invested in a belief before it can generate cognitive dissonance.)
By the way, cognitive dissonance is not a mental illness, but the mind's natural reaction to conflicting beliefs.
Dealing With Cognitive Dissonance
So how do we deal with cognitive dissonance? The Bear is not pretending to provide counseling, but will propose a few ideas. In general, there are four effective defense mechanisms that kick in to reducing dissonance.
The perfect example (perfect as an example, not as a model) is the sedevacantist. Get rid of the Pope and you get rid of the dissonance! They have changed one of the conflicting cognitions ("Francis is Pope"). Similarly, others may leave the Church. They have changed their cognition the opposite way from the sedevacantists by getting rid of the Church.
Another way is to keep the Pope and the Church while turning a blind eye to anything distressing that the Pope may do or say. This is the ultramontanist solution. A variation is to blame everybody in the Church but the Pope. This is the well-known position of Church Militant's Michael Voris. It's the Pope's "bad advisors," or the bishops. Both simply ignore the conflicting cognition. This means simply disregarding all evidence that Francis' Papacy is deeply flawed. The Bear, by the way, is not saying this is a bad approach. In fact, it is probably very effective for some for whom criticizing the pope is off limits as a means of relieving dissonance. (Blaming everything unfortunate on advisors and bishops might also be considered as adding another cognition, discussed two paragraphs down,)
Still others may physically stay in the Church, but just disengage. It's easier to shrug it all off than deal with the pain. "Oh, I don't follow all that." They have justified the conflicting cognition by changing it ("It's not all that important").
One might also find a way to justify a cognition by adding another cognition to it. Perhaps by telling oneself, "Pope Francis may be Pope, but is so bad that normal pope rules just don't apply to him." This is probably where St. Corbinian's Bear falls. If it were just an ordinary difference on a papal opinion or two, the Bear would not dare growl so.
These are all natural psychological defense measures that may kick in according to the individual's needs and beliefs. Some of them have very bad "side effects." What can we do consciously to help us deal with cognitive dissonance caused by Pope Francis?
Self Care for Cognitive Dissonance
If you are reading this, you are probably remaining faithful, but experience real psychological distress to a greater or lesser degree. We do not quite know what to do with a Pope who seems to have departed from the Petrine program, if not the neighborhood of reason. Even worse, we have the added stressors that we are not supposed to criticize the Pope, and that we can rely on his ordinary magisterium. The problem is exacerbated by the relentless train of unfortunate comments and visuals.
So what can we do? These are some ideas. You may find some more appealing than others. Not all of them are for everybody.
- nail your foot to the floor in front of your favorite pew and die there (Holy Stubbornness)
- seek out the pre-1960 comfort zone of the past in different ways, e.g. the traditional Latin Mass, Douay Rheims Bible, etc.
- draw comfort from like-minded people at blogs like St. Corbinian's Bear and others (if others are with you, you will feel safer), and that may include using comment boxes
- on the other hand, avoid, as much as possible, all news and discussion of Pope Francis
- more Jesus, less Francis -- a regular classic prayer life (Divine Office, rosary, etc.), reading scripture (which has many examples of suffering under bad leaders)
- recognize that this will be a relatively short papacy, and things will undoubtedly get better
- therapy -- the biggest thing in your life is being seriously messed with; people who are particularly at risk might benefit
- God permitted this to happen -- you don't need to know everything, but it does test our faith
In the end, perhaps the best we can do is hold on to our beliefs about the Church, while at the same time acknowledging the problems Francis poses. We don't have to have all the answers. But we know what is right, and what is wrong, and we know nothing Pope Francis can do is able to change one to the other.