As Cardinal Burke seems to see it, truth is simple. True or false. No gray. (Until today he was the highest-ranking US prelate in the Vatican.)
The women religious of LCWR live with people whose lives can look gray. Gray with all kinds of needs that often go unmet. Gray with questions that have no simple answers. That's daily life in solidarity with people on the margins (where Pope Francis says we are called to be).
These are very different lenses for viewing the world.
Jesuit Father Ladislas Orsy is an esteemed canon lawyer. He's been a wise, mostly behind-the-scenes influence in the international Church since his days at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). I've had the pleasure and privilege of hearing him speak at my parish at least a dozen times over the past decade. To every single question that assumes a progressive vs. conservative tension in the Church, his response is always the same:
The problem in the Church isn't progressive vs. conservative, Father Orsy says. The tension is between those who are open-minded and those who are closed-minded.
The words open- or closed-minded can be used as sledgehammers. In particular, to call someone closed-minded is usually a judgmental statement that easily cuts off dialogue.
In contrast, Father Orsy, as I've written before, is an expert practitioner of "merry debate" across differences. I believe he uses the term as a cautionary descriptor of some styles of thinking. He is not prone to judge others.
Nonetheless, the two terms are used by researchers and academics who want to understand human behavior. They've been studied a lot. There's plenty of research to back up some significant differences in how we make decisions, depending on where we are on that spectrum.
The distinction isn't primarily about WHAT we think. Open- and closed-mindedness are more about HOW we think.
Here are some key differences (drawing on research originated by Milton Rokeach that began in the 1950s -- and with the caution that this is not intended to give out laurel wreaths or sledgehammer blows). At the far end of each side of the spectrum, people have these tendencies:
In terms of making mental connections:
- Closed-minded people tend to hold some contradictory ideas. They put conflicting ideas in separate mental compartments and don't notice that both can't be true at once.
- Open-minded people tend to recognize when their ideas conflict with each other. They take time to get information and evaluate it, trying to understand the differences and develop a sound perspective.
In terms of exploring beliefs:
- Closed-minded people often stick with what they believe, without feeling a need to grow in their knowledge about it. They tend not to be interested in learning about beliefs that they don't agree with, or alternatives to their own ideas. When a new idea arrives unbidden, they tend to opt quickly for the viewpoint that they're predisposed to accept.
- Open-minded people hold their beliefs with some flexibility, allowing for the possibility of new data. They keep learning about what they do believe in, and also about what they don't believe in, so they have accurate awareness of multiple points of view on reality.
In terms of making decisions in situations of high anxiety:
- Closed-minded people may make snap judgments, avoiding the discomfort of uncertainty. They often are anxious when uncertain.
- Open-minded people can live with a reasonable degree of uncertainty and ambiguity. They're more likely to take time for discernment. They tend to delay judgment until they search out new information, both about the view they're inclined to like and also about the idea that initially seems less credible.
With regard to authority:
- Closed-minded people may either rely very heavily on outside authority, or have undue confidence in their own personal authority. They often tend to make either themselves or others into heroes, larger than real life, and then not question their judgments; or they tend to make themselves or others into minions, smaller than real life, and then give little weight to their judgments. In each case, they may use authority to buttress shaky personal self-esteem.
- Open-minded people balance outside authority and their own authority. They don't aggrandize others and minimize themselves, or vice versa. They don't let their own needs for self-esteem cloud their ability to see reality as it is.
You probably know people on both sides of the progressive-conservative spectrum who are closed-minded, and others on both sides who are open-minded. It's not about what we think, it's about how we think.
I know nothing about Cardinal Burke beyond news reports. But he talks about the recent Synod on the Family as an occasion of "tremendous confusion" because important Church figures disagreed with each other publicly about how to apply important Church teachings. In those proceedings, I heard not "confusion" but the kind of candid dialogue that Father Orsy urges -- although he always calls it "merry debate" and this didn't sound very merry... maybe because anxiety got in the way of easy openness for some bishops, either progressive or conservative, who tend toward closed-mindedness?
And is that a clue to what's been going on for the past two and a half years in the Vatican's harsh rebukes of LCWR? Could the LCWR situation also be an incapacity, at very high levels in the Vatican, for dialogue that is ready to learn about new viewpoints and about people unlike oneself, and that leaves room for God's surprises?
Of course the great risk, the potential tragedy, isn't LCWR's experience with the Vatican. The great risk of closed-mindedness is that as individuals or as Church we will try to put God in a box. It takes openness to give reverence to "the length and the breadth, the height and the depth" of the Great Presence in whom "we live and move and have our being." (Ephesians 3:18; Acts 17:28) In Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy's beautiful interpretation of Rainer Marie Rilke (Love Poems to God, II, 22):
You are the future,
the red sky before sunrise
over the fields of time.
You are the cock's crow when night is done,
you are the dew and the bells of matins,
maiden, stranger, mother, death.
You create yourself in ever-changing shapes
that rise from the stuff of our days --
unsung, unmourned, undescribed,
like a forest we never knew.
You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship.
PS - If this older article on Cardinal Burke weren't by Tom Fox, an editor and reporter of highest professionalism, I wouldn't share it. But it's his, and it's interesting. It helped shape my guesses about what Cardinal Burke may be like.
PS2 - Thanks to my husband Andrew D. Thompson for years of stimulating conversations building on his 1973 dissertation on his empirical research into open- and closed-mindedness. Good stuff. Good guy.