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BY Frank Cronin
“The political parties have been hijacked by their radical elements.” “The moderates and centrists have lost control of the parties.”
These paraphrase many commentators on the recent debate regarding the rights of religious institutions to freely determine health-care services and other such contentious issues like life and marriage.
But are such commentators right? Perhaps. But not on these issues. For the typical political categories lose their meaning and political analysis has no place when it comes to crucial moral questions.
When it comes to religious freedom, life and marriage issues, such political analysis subverts an opportunity to address profound moral questions as just that — profound moral questions. And political analysis inevitably reduces profound struggles of moral rectitude to mere political contests in search of a compromise.
It also prevents our nation’s lawmakers from seeking out and standing firmly on the most solid moral footing. And in the end, it leaves our nation and our culture to see its deep moral issues as mere political power plays rather than the clash of irreconcilable moral visions. It lets law create morality, rather than law reflecting and embodying true morality. And that’s how we get bad laws.
You see in cases such as religious freedom, life and marriage that the “radicals” actually have it right. These debates and decisions are inherently matters of right and wrong. But the more temperate moderates and centrists miss the point, casting the debate as divisive and dysfunctional, as they ignore the reality of crucial moral questions.
Religious freedom, life and marriage issues are not political in nature. They are crucial moral issues, first and foremost.
They are fundamental moral questions that inherently provoke morally right answers or morally wrong answers with no room for compromise. For some things, as every citizen knows and as common sense tells us, are simply that — right or wrong. And this is the point.
Let’s take slavery as an example. Prior to the Civil War, the abolitionists were the radicals, and those who opposed them were seen in much the same light. But, as history tells us, slavery was a core moral issue. And the abolitionists were right.
They were right not because of their political struggles and victories. For they were right even before the war, even when many thought they were wrong. They were right because they had the true and certain moral answer, the absolute moral truth about slavery. The truth about the dignity and worth of every single individual human being. Period.
Or how about Adolf Hitler? What do we make of the slaughter of so many through his aggressive quest for dominance, his deranged hatred for other races, his distorted desire to improve the gene pool by exterminating those he deemed inferior or infected? Surely we can see it is not radical to oppose such ideas.
And remember: It was Neville Chamberlain’s attitude of compromise that failed to thwart Hitler’s early efforts. Winston Churchill and others had it right. They saw what would come if compromise with this man and his ideas was the selected strategy. For Churchill had the truth. He saw Hitler’s policies and philosophy for what they were — morally wrong, reprehensible, evil.
This paradigm of “liberal-conservative” political analysis masks a crucial cultural and practical point. It masks the reality of real morality with the rhetoric of politics and personal preference. And that is a severe and profound problem.
For any debate about morality is then cast as a matter of political preference, not as a matter of moral truth. And the consequences can be severe, as the two examples above illustrate.
This commonly used political-analytic paradigm even infects the Church. Many Catholics talk of each other or of the Church in terms of “liberal” and “conservative.” And, while there is a degree of latitude with some minor parts of the Church’s teaching where such words are appropriate, the core issues of our faith and practice are never a matter of “liberal” or “conservative.”
The appropriate and accurate way to deal with moral and religious issues of significance is to retain the older, more accurate words, the words that defined crucial struggles in the past. Words like “orthodoxy” and “heresy” or “right” and “wrong” were used to describe moral issues, as well as religious ones.
For these words take the beliefs of opposing views seriously and accurately. These words convey the essence and magnitude of such conflicts. And, most importantly, all these words inherently communicate the very existence and implications of right answers, of truth. These words are words of order and certainty, of grave import, of determined dogma.
So we must not yield to the cultural reflex for political analysis of moral issues, as well as religious ones. We must resolutely retain the right to hold fast and firm to the moral high ground in a moral manner, even if others find our position insulting or discriminatory, as issues of religious freedom, life and marriage often elicit.
For we fight a two-front war. Explicitly, we face the enemy head on over the important issues of our day like life, marriage and religious freedom. And, implicitly, we must also fight a second front that is far less overt, but no less crucial. It is a battle that is subtle, infused in all our debates and conflicts. It is the battle beneath the issue at hand.
It is the battle for the very idea of truth, truth of all kinds. It is a battle for “orthodoxy” and against “heresy.” It is a battle for sure and certain “truth” and against “lies” of all manner and types. It is a battle for “right” and against “wrong.”
We must resist diminishing the truth to a mere point in the political spectrum. We must avoid using the rhetoric of relativism and recover the semantics of certainty. We must make these old but accurate words the new vocabulary of our debates. We must think and speak in terms of “right and wrong” and “orthodoxy and heresy.” And we must guard our minds from the subtle incursions of political analysis that undermines the very idea of truth and reduces the glory of God’s truth to politics and personal preference.
Frank Cronin writes from