Two unrelated but interesting posts on sentimentality

Theodore Dalrymple’s tough critique of the Pope’s visit to Lampedusa:

By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic vices of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of generous sentiment without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy. This imprecision allowed him to evade the vexed question as to exactly how many of the suffering of Africa, and elsewhere, Europe was supposed to admit and subsidize (and by Europe I mean, of course, the European taxpayer, who might have problems of his own). I was reminded of a discussion in my French family in which one brother-in-law complained to another of the ungenerous attitude of the French state towards immigrants from the Third World. ‘Well,’ said the other, ‘you have room enough. Why don’t you take ten Malians?’ To this there was no reply except that it was a low blow: though to me it seemed a perfectly reasonable response.

The Pope’s use of a term such as ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity’ was strong on connotation but weak on denotation, itself a sign of intellectual evasion. Who, exactly, were ‘those’ people? Wall Street hedge fund managers, the International Monetary Fund, opponents of free trade, African dictators? Was he saying that the whole world economic system was to blame for the migration across the Mediterranean, that the existence of borders was illegitimate, that Denmark (for example) was rich because Swaziland was poor, that if only Losotho were brought up to the level of Liechtenstein (or, of course, if Liechtenstein were brought down to the level of Lesotho) no one would drown in the Mediterranean? There was something for everyone’s conspiracy theory in his words; but whatever else they meant, we were to understand that he was on the side of the little man, not the big, itself a metonym for virtuous sentiment. The only specific group whom the Pope denounced were the traffickers in people, those who arrange passage of the migrants in return for money and who are utterly indifferent to their safety; but this denunciation hardly required moral courage because such people have no defenders.

Warmth of feeling cannot be the sole guide to our responses to the dilemmas that the world constantly puts in our path.

So, what do you think?  The comments section is interesting, too.   Interestingly, someone like Dorothy Day would take in the Malians mentioned above and if that is what Pope Francis is calling all Catholics to do, to individually create hospitality rooms in their homes the way the Catholic Worker movement once called people to do, then there would certainly be more bracing quality to what he is saying and an exhortation to real, costly, sacrificial charity.

And this one on  Catholic identity at Georgetown:

Those who shape the issue on campus are able to co-opt religious language by adopting an approach to religion that I will term the “tyranny of sentimentality.” Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman held sentimentality to be the acid of religion (see his discussion of liberalism in Apologia Pro Vita Sua). It is evident that the students Spencer writes about have reduced religion to the sentimentality of which Newman speaks. The emotional affirmation of the individual, rather than any supernatural realities, truths, or normative claims, becomes the basis of one’s religion. Because this basis is inherently the subjective creation of the individual, the religion of sentimentality is tyrannical, as it becomes a means for the furtherance of one’s will, ruled, not by reason or conformity to the divine or natural law, but by one’s passions and whims. Plato recognized as much about the tyrannical soul.

The tyranny of sentimentality may be summed up in this statement by one student: “You stay Catholic because you have a love of the institution and you want to change it.” That is to say, one is only saved from joining Gary Hall and friends at the National Cathedral by one’s ethnic identity. Absent is any notion that the Catholic faith – or even Christianity more broadly – may be true or that it may be the means by which one is saved or that it may make moral claims on the individual that are based in the order of things rather than in the creations of one’s will. Instead, one is Catholic only for sentimental reasons: Catholicism is part of one’s upbringing or familial and ethnic heritage. A sentimental ground of faith replaces a rational ground. Gone is the humility of conforming oneself to a higher reality that one receives rather than wills for himself.


I am not saying the Pope is guilty of the kind of sentimentality referred to in the second post, though perhaps he is guilty of some sloppy thinking.  I post these two because I happened to come across them today, both mentioning sentimentality when for months and months I won’t come across the word at all.

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2 Responses to Two unrelated but interesting posts on sentimentality

  1. Pingback: Two unrelated but interesting posts on sentimentality | Catholic Canada

  2. Stephen K says:

    Deborah, I think the response that one stays a Catholic “because one loves the institution and one wants to change it” is a little dubious in its unpacked state: why would you want to change what you love? Or does it mean that you love it so much that you want to change it for its own good? (Or should that be for your own good?)

    Nevertheless, I think “Catholic Identity at Georgetown” is guilty of some sloppy thinking him/herself or is deluded. Nothing really separates anyone in the religious stakes, in my view. We all think that what we think (or believe) is so because of the merit of what it is that we think or believe. There’s no escaping that essential subjectivity, however we cloak it or express it in terms of logic, rationality or authority. What persuades us has its own brand of “authority” even if it is only epistemological rather than institutional, and there is a criteriological rationale to every creed. We can certainly attempt to argue that one creed is better than another or that one is true and another false, but ultimately all opponents may do so. No-one, in my view, is entirely free from what the author calls “sentimentality” or from indulging in desire over duty.

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