Presidential Politics and the Abolition of Truth

COMMENTARY: Despite what is being implied, there is nothing wrong with an interpretation of religion that demands ‘systematic thought.’

The public discourse surrounding the presidential election this fall has brought to light many disparaging comments from both of the major candidates — Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Recently, it was expanded to include members of the campaign. This was quite evident in the various remarks concerning the nature of some Catholics and their participation in the election cited in the WikiLeaks posts of private emails made public.

John Podesta, who heads Clinton’s presidential campaign, maintains he is a devout Catholic. Yet he stated in one missive: “There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages [sic] dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic Church.”

The bottom line was perhaps stated by John Halpin, another Clinton adviser and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress: “It’s an amazing bastardization of the faith. They must be attracted to the systematic thought and severely backwards gender relations and must be totally unaware of Christian democracy.”

In light of these remarks, a thoughtful person can ask: Why is attachment to systematic thought a bastardization of the Catholic faith?

The reason may lie in the fact that the modern world rejects all systematic thought because it is too logical and makes truth too clear. This is true in all disciplines of study, but when applied to religion, it is particularly distressing. This would lead to a religion based on emotion and logical contradiction.

This problem points out a general difficulty in the culture with “systematic thought.” In the 1980s, a secular author, Allan Bloom, wrote a book called The Closing of the American Mind. In that book, he maintained that institutions of higher learning in the United States had long ceased being interested in objective truth. Instead, truth is adapted to the culture.

Since we live in a culture that reduces truth to sentiment in religion, this would mean that reason and logic need not be applied to faith at all. Though it is true that God is infinite and cannot be fully captured by our ideas of him, this does not mean there is nothing we can know about him for certain. Rejecting logic and metaphysics (a science that defends absolute truths) ends up with a faith that is simply historically conditioned. Truth depends on what works and what fulfills an individual or societies’ needs.

If 50 years ago babies had a right to life because Catholicism, along with the culture, taught that human beings had souls, today, the societal idea being proposed is that this important truth needs to be changed or denied in public discourse because the culture has “evolved” to teach that babies in the womb do not have souls. The issue is avoided as to whether they objectively do or do not. If they do not, then abortion is not murder.

Clinton has maintained that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed” if they are to relate to the brave new world in which children not only have no constitutional rights, but no natural rights. Faith, then, becomes completely inconsistent, so there are no systems of faith, including creeds. These ideas, too, are culturally conditioned. In fact, failing to hold members of a religion to creeds or objective commandments that can never be denied means there are no longer absolute, natural laws on which the laws of society are based. This means that whoever can manipulate power can change teachings with impunity.

Educational systems and exercises in reason do not have to be logical, as societal ideas now go. Nor need they make sense. Now, colleges do not exist to investigate objective truths, but to keep people in “safe space.” Emotion, not intelligence, reigns, in this view: An ethics without any idea of human nature or God to create the world with natures that can be objectively examined flounders on just what the foundation of rights would be; religion so alters reason that there is no need for logic or for things, even religious truths, to make sense.

In rejecting logic and absolute universal truths in metaphysics, both reason and faith fail to find common ground. Systematic thinking exalts the common ground between the two and says that faith is not absurd and reason is objective. Long ago Christ asked Pilate: “What is truth?” The sad fact is that in the rejection of logical and systematic thought, the answer would be: “Whatever makes you feel safe and good” — as in, there is no real truth.

This denial of objective truth in knowledge was predicted long ago by people like C.S. Lewis. In his classic The Screwtape Letters, which was composed in the 1940s during the Second World War, Lewis has a senior demon in hell say to a junior tempter on earth:

“Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true!” (Lewis, Screwtape, 1)

A good bit of what passes for knowledge and truth in all areas of study in the Western world is jargon. This is the final triumph of the Enlightenment, when faith was reduced to emotional prejudice and the need of the weak. Laws that make sense can never be logically and universally applied, in this view.

In this line of thought, abortion is evil unless the woman sees it as a part of her right to privacy or self-fulfillment; lying is wrong unless it leads to good things; theft is wrong unless economics demands it; religion is all right as long as it is not too extreme and does not lead to guilt or a demand to alter a person’s behavior. Many people who identify themselves as Catholic practice contraception, which is contrary to Church teaching. One figure puts it as high as 90%, though this is probably an exaggeration. In the view of modern law, conscience creates truth: Law might be an important recommendation to take into account, but the modern conscience is often an oracle, in which a person uses “discernment” of the Holy Spirit to deny morally absolute truths.

One prominent bishop has recently maintained that “conscience is inviolable,” and in light of Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, priests are called upon to help Catholics follow their consciences, whatever they proclaim, according to some. Cardinal Walter Kasper has recently stated that divorced-and-remarried Catholics can receive Communion now, even though they are not married in the Church and active sexually. No logical distinctions are made here. It is true a correct conscience is inviolable. An erroneous conscience is not — and if it can be changed, it should be changed.

Cardinal Kasper maintains, based on other statements of his, that his opinion is true, even if the first marriage was valid and sacramental. This is an example of a denial of doctrine for the sake of making people feel good. Can making sense be sacrificed at the altar of feeling good? If so, could a priest be obliged to help a terrorist commit murder because it makes him feel good?

The present state of things seems to be that, when you ask if there is absolute truth, the answer is: There is, but there isn’t. The sad fact is that when “making sense” is no longer applicable to truth, then truth becomes abolished.

Dominican Father Brian Mullady is a mission preacher and

adjunct professor at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.