Getting Free from the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

By: Msgr. Charles Pope

suspicious21I apologize for using one of those rather haughty theological words: Hermeneutic! I also know that many DO in fact know what the word means. But just in case you don’t let’s define it. Fundamentally a “hermeneutic” is an interpretive key, a way of seeing and understanding the world.

So what do I mean when I speak of a “hermeneutic of suspicion?” Well, consider the times in which we live. Most people are suspicious of just about everything and everyone! It is a common and usual worldview that politicians lie, the Government is lying, big business is lying, advertisers are lying, the Church is lying.

It is presumed, even if there is not outright lying most people and organizations are just acting out of selfish motives and self-serving agendas. Everyone is simply dismissed because they have an ”agenda” and this agenda is somehow less than pure, fair or neutral.

In pondering this all-pervasive “hermeneutic of suspicion” I wonder if there do not have to be some limits to its application and conclusions:

  1. Is “everyone” really lying or just acting out of a less than pure agenda?
  2. Is it always wrong to have an agenda?
  3. Is self interest always a bad thing?
  4. Is it always wrong for groups to seek to influence the national discussion even if that influence serves their interest and worldview?
  5. Clearly lying is wrong and there is such a thing as lying but is everything I call lying really lying?

I do not ask these questions as a moral relativist who is simply asking for everything to be murky and gray. But I do suspect that our culture is really overheated at the moment with suspicion.

There is a pervasive presumption of the worst in terms of motives, sincerity and the like. It is getting harder and harder to have any kind of a conversation at all about issues without the names and the labels sallying forth and the impugning of motives. This is true even among Catholics with each other.

I don’t have a simple formula to come up with the right balance between a healthy skepticism and pathological suspicion but I would like to propose a few benchmarks toward a better balance.

1. Everyone DOES have an agenda and that is OK. It’s not wrong to have a worldview and to seek to influence others to that way of thinking. The very word “agenda” is intended as pejorative but it need not be. The problem seems to come up when everyone is defensive about having and “agenda.”

Since “having an agenda” is somehow supposed to be “wrong,” we start to do unhealthy things. We often try to hide our truest agenda, and paper it over with less than sincere descriptions of what we think, and what we want. We start to talk in code and engage in political correctness, jargon and other circumlocutions that are not always true or frank. We become less transparent and this fuels suspicion.

If we can just accept that we all have agendas and that’s fine, then we become more frank and honest, and suspicion recedes. Being frank does not mean being uncharitable, it simply means that we sincerely discuss our concerns and vision.

In terms of full disclosure let me share my agenda: I am a Roman Catholic Christian and I believe everything that the Church teaches in matters of faith and morals. I believe Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church, that it is the one true Church. It is my desire that everyone on this planet become Roman Catholic and thus embrace the fullness of the faith given by Jesus Christ and revealed through the Apostles. Clear enough? That’s my agenda.

2. Self interest is not always bad– A key principle in motivating people is to help them identify their interests and then act upon them.  Well ordered self-love, and well ordered self interest can be a powerful motivator toward great ends.

Instead of being suspicious and cynical that people have self interest in mind, what if we just accepted that this is the universal human condition and used it to engage people for good ends? It’s not wrong to care about myself. I really ought to get my needs met and that also helps others because I am less of a burden on them.

If ALL we care about is our self that is a problem. But most people instinctively understand that their self interest is linked to the good of others too. My life is more secure and stable if there is a healthy, strong and vibrant neighborhood and culture and if other people are generally able to get their needs met. So I can be engaged around my own interests to work for a just and healthy world.

The fact that I “get something out it” does make my motives somehow impure. But the hermeneutic of suspicion demands “pure” motives and unrealistically defines pure as completely selfless. What if we just stopped all that and accepted that people act on what interests them and that it isn’t always bad. Accepting this makes us less suspicious and cynical.

3. Faith and Trust in the Church are an essential balance to the hermeneutic of suspicion– While it is true that we have to be sober that live in a world where lies are told and where motives are not always pure, it is also true that we have to refuse radical suspicion and cynicism. There IS truth, and there are those who do speak and teach the truth.

We must find and seek those harbors of the truth and lower our anchor there. For Catholics, the harbor of the truth is the Church. Scripture describes the Church as the Pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).

One of the great tragedies of the hermeneutic of suspicion is that many Catholics have adopted this attitude toward the Church. Yes, there is sin, and even corruption in the Church, but despite that, the Church has never failed to hand on the authentic truth of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ does speak through his Church. Jesus dined with sinners among others and was crucified between two thieves. But that is where Jesus is and even surrounded by questionable company he still speaks his truth.

I emphatically trust that fact. I believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches and proclaims to have been revealed by God. I can do no other. This is my faith. I trust God and believe that he speaks through the Catholic Church despite whatever human weakness is evident in the Church. God can write straight with crooked lines and he can teach infallibly even despite human weakness in the Church.

Without a harbor of truth the hermeneutic of suspicion can and will overwhelm us. We will mistrust everyone and everything and have no real way to sort out all the conflicting claims and counterclaims. Without faith and trust both in God and in the Church I am lost, adrift on a sea of suspicion and cynicism, and the hermeneutic of suspicion overwhelms me.

This is sadly true today of so many who are cut off from the truth thinking they can trust no one. In them the hermeneutic of suspicion has its most devastating effect. The lack of trust locks them into a tiny world, dominated by suspicion and doubt. Only the gift of faith and trust can diminish such deep suspicion. With faith we can measure all things by God’s truth and know what is true from what is false. We have a measuring rod to judge what is true and thus we need not flee to suspicion.

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2 Responses to Getting Free from the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

  1. 000rjbennett says:

    A level-headed, reasoned, and splendid essay, full of truth – and wisdom.
    Robert John Bennett, Dusseldorf, Germany


  2. toadspittle says:

    It is clear that “The Hermeneutic of Suspicion,” has landed like a ton of New Testaments on Little Paulo, the Pope’s butler – or Toad’s is a monkey’s close relative.

    We can only pray that The Powers That Be, in the Vatican, are keen readers of Msgr. Pope, and act accordingly.
    Toad, Moratinos, Spain


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