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Of Reality and Parlor Tricks

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 31, 2006

On rare occasions visitors to CatholicCulture.org have asserted that our Highlights and News & Notes commentaries detract substantially from the quality of the web site. Our materials on the Liturgical Year, they say, are very nice, but whenever our staff writers express opinions we go terribly wrong. I might construe this as fair comment were it not for the reason our critics don’t like what we write. They claim that in our columns Peter and I sound like right-wing apologists for George Bush and the Republican Party.

This Quarrel Is Not About Politics

This concerns me, but not because we are too political. The facts show that we are barely political at all. Of 90 Highlights and News & Notes commentaries, only 15% have touched on politics in any way. Of these, only three mention American political parties or specific politicians, all in the context of wider Catholic concerns. Only four discuss political issues particular to the United States, while two others touch on the ideology behind political posturing in the European Union. Exactly one column concentrates on the question of how to weigh various issues when deciding how to vote; its focus is on the theory of political choice. All of these “political” writings are exclusively concerned with the application of Catholic social teaching and moral principles to public life. And since the remaining 85% of our writings don't touch on politics at all, there would seem to be little justification for characterizing either Peter or myself as an apologist for George Bush.

It is more likely that the discomfort of our critics arises from the fact that a great many of our writings take sides in the contemporary culture war—that immense conflict between two different visions of reality which divides the whole world in our day. Through a very wide variety of topics, we have either argued strongly against (or reflected negatively upon) the prevailing relativism of our age.

Essentially, our line of argument has been the following:

  1. Truth is the mind's grasp of reality.
  2. God helps us grasp reality by revealing key truths through His Old and New Covenants.
  3. Unfortunately, sin blinds our intellects and weakens our wills.
  4. God, through His Son Jesus Christ, saves us from sin and minimizes its effects.
  5. Thus engraced, we find it easier to understand natural law and distinguish good from evil.
  6. Christ's authority on earth is now exercised through the Catholic Church.
  7. The Church’s teachings further clarify both natural and divine law.
  8. This enables us to pursue our proper ends, including the right ordering of our public life.
  9. The proper ordering of our natural and supernatural ends is the key to happiness.
  10. Taken as a whole, this is what it means to be in touch with reality.

The Cancer of Relativism

What concerns me is the dismissal of this line of thought as mere politics. One of the dangers of a pluralist society infected by relativism is that it becomes very difficult for people to understand that truth and reality are inextricably joined. Because we are conditioned to accept multiple conflicting “truths”, we fall into the habit of devaluing reality itself, as if it is a private and variable means of occupying our imaginations without affecting how we live. There is of course a general laziness in all this, but there is also a deadly refusal—a refusal to admit that reality is both unitary and inescapable. The longer we ignore it, the worse off we shall be. But our culture is so terribly out of touch that it is often much easier to look the other way.

Catholics with this mindset have a tendency to appreciate our materials on the liturgical year while disliking many of our documents, including Church documents, and our reviews. Frequently they especially dislike our even more pointed columns and commentaries. My concern is that such Catholics are in danger of living by spiritual feelings instead of by Revelation, and of preferring warm sentiments to the demands of Christ. I wonder if they are possessed of the same evasive spirituality which lies at the core of Modernism. Such a spirituality is capable of reinventing both doctrine and morality to suit the winds of fashion. It can justify anything.

The Political Connection

I do not condemn this attitude because the people who hold it don’t like our columns. Anybody might dislike our columns, and for many very good reasons. But if our quarrel is really about the culture wars, and ultimately about reality itself, what could possibly make a person perceive our writings as so many planks in the platform of the Republican Party?

To answer, we must connect the dots. Whatever else may be good or bad about the Democratic Party, there is no question that it has allied itself with relativism and stands squarely on the wrong side of the culture wars. On the other side, one can argue about the degree to which the Republican Party has allied itself with reality, but it is not difficult to see that its public rhetoric at least frequently takes reality into account. Now, whether knowingly or not, if a reader is allied with relativism, he will have an instinctive personal interest in making the value of principled opposition disappear from view. Dismissing such opposition as “Republican” becomes an effective parlor trick. Hence the unwarranted correlation between CatholicCulture.org and American politics.

How convenient it is to dismiss reality as just another self-interested political pose. How comforting to believe that the resulting moral arguments have no real claim on one's conscience. "You are apologists for Bush!" If so, then George Bush must be the Second Coming. But he is not the Second Coming, and this charge is simply the self-serving retort of those who, in their headlong flight from moral responsibility, do not wish to be confronted with reality. Our writings may not be irrefutable, but at the very least they point to that which is. When they are dismissed as mere politics, it is not Peter and myself who are mocked.

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