Credibility and Behaviour: Mass Exodus

I now come to a more theoretical side of Bullivant’s work. I am not in favour of the tendency to invent theories and then purport to explain reality by reference to them. But, sometimes a concept can help us identify recurring features and issues which we might otherwise miss. Bullivant uses the older concept of the “plausibility structure” in this way. Basically, these are not so much “structures” as “assumptions” and they are related to “plausibility” in that being widely shared assumptions we imagine, often implicitly, that they must be plausible because they are so widely held (96). What this means is that: “Worldviews are strongest when they can be taken for granted …” (97).

Bullivant’s historical observation is that the “tight-knit parish structures” of the 1940s and 1950s provided good examples of these plausibility structures: both the community identity and the external hostility to that community supported the community’s religion: in this case, Catholicism (97-98). This was not purely accidental: Catholic schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, hospices, adoption agencies, life insurance providers, media, newspapers, and so on, all were part of and pillars of, the Catholic worldview. This provides a very different perspective on the teaching that Catholics should marry within the Church, and not attend non-Catholic celebrations (98-99). That is, they were not so much expressions of hostility as of awareness that the preservation of a Catholic identity not only required but also depended upon some distance between Catholics and non-Catholics.

A little later, he furnishes a good example: the Amish communities of the USA. They are very traditional, tight-knit, with strong “plausibility structures” supporting community identity (marrying within the community, distinctive dress, etc.), and yet they are not closed off from the world (I met Amish in NYC some years ago). The retention rate is about 85%, and is at its highest, about 95%, among the strictest of the Amish (101). As one commentator put it, the Amish “participate in modern life on their own terms” (102).

This naturally leads to what are known in modern sociology as CREDs (Credibility Enhancing Displays). The idea comes down to the observable fact that we “are significantly more likely to adopt a belief, if those proposing it … are seen to live out ‘costly’ implications of it” (102). He gives as an example how his mother could not take her dentist’s advice to avoid sugar seriously once she saw him with soft drink and a doughnut. But his “ultimate” example is the martyrs (104): how could they in the possibly more fully lived out the ‘costly’ implications of the faith? This inclination to accept the witness of CREDs is ultimately based on the fact that deep down we know we should believe that a person is more sincere in their behaviour than in their words: hence, also, the hatred of hypocrisy.

Two important points are added: the CRED has to be sincere in order to affect people to the fullest, and not just an act. Also, there is no guarantee that people will in fact be swayed to accept the belief they see acted out (104). However, if the CRED is lived over a long period by a person who is already a role-model, such as a parent, then it is more effective (104-105). And I would, add, the aversion caused by hypocrisy becomes even stronger. One deeply moving true story was told by a man who recalls how his father, a labourer, was one of the men signed up to watch with the Blessed Sacrament for one hour of the night during the Forty Hours Adoration. A nine year old boy at the time, he felt grown up, rising at 2:00am with his father, to go to the church where the family was baptised, educated, received communion and married. He knelt by his father for one hour, until two other men came in to replace them. They silently nodded to each other, went home, had a cup of tea, and a nap before rising again, his father to go to the factory, and he to serve Mass (108). As if this was not powerful enough, Bullivant then adds this significant observation:

 … devotions focussing on Jesus, Mary, and the saints might perhaps have had a doubly-reinforcing effect from a CREDs perspective. After all, their objects are themselves exemplars of practising what they preached. Meditating upon the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, or spiritually journeying to Calvary along the Stations of the Cross, is precisely to impress upon one’s mind Christ’s following the costly implications ‘even unto death’ (Matthew 26:38), of his avowed mission. The prominence given to saints, and to martyrs especially, arguably has a similar effect (109).

In addition, the practice of frequent communion with frequent confession, was another powerful CRED. People had to queue, sometimes for quite a while, to have their confession heard so that they could receive communion, after waiting in another queue, without having any fear of receiving the All Holy while in mortal sin. As Bullivant states:

… such laborious practices only really make sense if you – or at the very least, the community of which one is … a member in good standing – genuinely believe in the web of Catholic doctrines which underlie these practices. And if you do believe … then all of this is but a very small price to pay. … Those long, silent queues are a very open expression of mutual witnessing (110-111).

Neither is the intrinsic importance of confession passed over: it requires self-examination of both actions and omissions, in the light of the commandments, as applied to a person in my specific station of life. Such practices are great aids to constant vigilance, (and hence, I would add, more conscious participation in one’s own life, with less life on “automatic pilot”.) Of course, Catholics sinned, but they knew they did, and confession was “truly … a sacrament that fostered full, conscious, and active participation” (111). Surely the collapse of these practices after Vatican II was another unmitigated disaster for the Church, and I cannot see that Vatican II mandated it. But to deny that the changes, especially the liturgical changes, which accompanied the “new Pentecost” have had this effect, would be idle. The emphasis on the new liturgy, less compelling, less mysterious, and the downplaying of devotions and confession, had this effect.

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