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The diplomat and theologian: On the Truth and the limits of inclusivity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 08, 2019

Two headlines in last Friday’s news caught my attention precisely because of the potential for contradiction in the treatment of the principles they represent. The first, “Vatican diplomat: Foster tolerance, inclusivity to counter attacks on religious believers”, favors the promotion of mutual respect as a matter of simple prudence, that is, to keep Catholics and other religious believers from being negatively targeted. This is understandable in the diplomatic context, especially when addressing cultures hostile to Christianity. But the second, “Eternal salvation is the Church’s concern, papal theologian emphasizes”, more clearly identifies the horizon against which the principles governing the first must be understood.

I am not writing about the understanding of either the diplomat or the theologian (I have discussed the problem with neither) but about what is conveyed by the headlines and the brief news stories themselves. Let me explain.

I hope everyone realizes by now that the Christian world has once again reached the lowly pragmatic point at which there is obvious worldly prudence in advocating some aspects of Catholic teaching which are compatible with the reigning liberal worldview, simply in order to minimize the hostility which always threatens those who are “different”—including Christians themselves. The particular aspect here is the profound respect and even reverence for the worth of each and every human person which arises from the Christian understanding of God’s sacrificial love for each one of us. This has actually been a great Christian gift to Western civilization, a gift which now survives, at least partially and for a time, as the secularized values of tolerance and inclusivity named in the first headline.

As an even more practical matter, however, it is not at all clear that an emphasis on tolerance and inclusivity—both of which, properly understood, are genuine goods—will succeed in reducing the persecution of Christians around the world. The reason for this uncertainty is that the secular version of these values does not include a legitimate moral horizon against which they can be properly understood. Tolerance and inclusivity are now often used to justify the acceptance of immorality, such that the only intolerable groups are those which engage in the precise moral reasoning needed to determine what ought to be “included” (and what “excluded”), based on a proper understanding of human nature and the common good.

In a world which does not understand what it means to be a human person, which fails to grasp the importance of free will, and which refuses to distinguish a person’s given nature from his moral behavior, there is no way to distinguish “who we are” from “how we act”, and so there is no rational way to socially affirm some patterns of human behavior while socially denying others—a distinction which is absolutely essential to healthy societies. Without a way to assess such moral questions rationally, societies tend inescapably to affirm or deny based on the prevalent passions and prejudices of their elites.

For this reason, in our contemporary circumstance, it is impossible to be “tolerant” and “inclusive” without tolerating and including catastrophically destructive moral evils. This is why I emphasize the prudential character of the first headline. If it is possible for us to affirm values of tolerance and inclusivity as a means of reducing the persecution of religious believers without undermining the human understanding of the Good, we should by all means pursue that strategy. But we must not lose sight of the risks inherent in it.

Salvation

In healthy societies, there must always be a horizon of ultimate reality, the horizon of truth, and it is precisely this that is highlighted by the second headline, the papal theologian’s statement that eternal salvation is the Church’s first concern.

Now, on what does eternal salvation depend? It depends precisely on our willingness to choose God and the Good insofar as we are able to come to know them. And what is the supreme expression of God and the Good? It is Jesus Christ, for to have seen Him is to have seen the one God and Father of us all (cf., Jn 14:9, Eph 4:6). And how do we come to know Christ most fully and so gain a share of His very life? We do this through the Church He established as his mystical body on earth, possessing all the means of salvation, and indeed in possession of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 16:19), for God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).

In other words:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” [Mt 28:18-20]

This, of course, is the great stumbling block in the modern world, this demand that we must make truth and goodness known in a very specific and Divinely-guaranteed way, and so prepare, in our own small way, for the separation of the saved from the lost, the sheep from the goats (Mt 25:31-36)—precisely by maximizing the opportunity of each person to end up among the saved. It is just this that was emphasized by the current Theologian of the Papal Household, Fr. Wojciech Giertych, when he wrote on Friday that:

[I]n the midst of situations of tragedy and despair, the first concern of the Church is not only to alleviate current physical ills. This can be done by various non-governmental organizations, private and governmental entities, which have their efficient professionalism. The Church is concerned about eternal salvation.

But this task requires distinctions. It is predicated on the conviction, honored in our time mostly in the breach, that some ideas are in accord with reality and others are contrary to it, which is to say that some ideas are true and others false. It is predicated on the conviction that the truth about our nature as human persons—as opposed to shifting fashions of human advocacy—determines what is good or evil, and that such determinations are to guide what we approve or disapprove, and what we make legal or illegal, in both our personal lives and the socio-political order.

Nor is there anything amiss in holding non-Catholics and non-Christians to Catholic moral prescriptions. The moral teaching revealed by God through the Church simply clarifies and corroborates what God has revealed in our natural being through the natural law, which all can know and to which all are accountable, since it is a law which they are enabled and demanded by their very nature to apprehend and obey.

When we preach the Gospel, we reaffirm every aspect and source of our genuine knowledge of the good over against the prejudices and passions of each human culture. We mute the resulting contrasts and conflicts only by putting our own salvation and that of others in jeopardy, which is the one thing neither the Church nor any individual Catholic should ever willingly do. In other words, we are right to inculcate a love and respect for all human persons based on their great worth as genuine subjects of Christ’s sacrificial love. But if, to teach tolerance and inclusivity, we must either fail to preach the whole Gospel or, even worse, participate in the active inclusion of moral behaviors which both offend God and demean the human person, then this becomes as imprudent as it is deadly. The price of this sort of inclusion is simply far too high.

Conclusion

What, then, are we to conclude about our two headlines? Only this: Christians should lead the way in welcoming and even honoring all men and women no matter what the accidents of their birth, their ancestry, their wealth or poverty, their style of speech, their personal abilities, and even their typical likes and dislikes. But when it comes to beliefs and behavior, we are bound by Christ and His Church to distinguish, to accept some things and reject others. It is for this very reason that we can give a wonderful example of authentic tolerance and inclusivity to society as a whole without leading others over the cliff of personal, social and even civilizational disaster.

But if we are authentically Christian, we must also recognize that our insistence on genuine moral distinctions will almost automatically generate passionate opposition—for the obvious reason that those who do evil hate the light (Jn 3:20). Therefore, in the last analysis, when we advocate and demonstrate the Divine understanding of tolerance and inclusion, we will be giving an example from which we cannot hope to benefit in any worldly way, unless we also convert those to whom our example is given. At times we may happily witness precisely this result, but when and if we do, it will not be through our own worldly considerations.

That is the point which too many people, for all their good intentions, fail to grasp when they hear calls for tolerance and inclusivity—even from those who, when pressed, can explain what I have just explained. For this the headline for the story on remarks by the papal theologian provides the antidote. We really are to teach the truth and do what is good, but not for any material advantage. We are to teach and act out of love for God and neighbor. We are to teach and love for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Dennis Olden - Jul. 11, 2019 6:25 PM ET USA

    You assert various characteristics of unnamed societies. Can you give some examples?