False dichotomies dull our Catholicism

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 13, 2015

I would hate to try to trace a pattern through all the affected issues, but I think I’m on to something when I suggest that the world too often sees false dichotomies where the Church sees unities.

To take an example I’ve already discussed, there is the marked tendency of “conservatives” to be concerned with life issues and “liberals” to be focused on social issues (see my 2009 commentary, Splitting Social and Life Issues? Can’t do it.). It was Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate who noted that these are not two things but one thing. When openness to life disappears, social problems rapidly increase, we tend to attempt to insulate ourselves by mortgaging the future, and society implodes.

Here’s another one. I still instinctively cringe when I hear people talk about the importance of moving the Faith from the head to the heart. This is because, way back in the dark ages when I cut my teeth as a Catholic apologist, dissident Catholics constantly stressed the heart over against the head whenever they wished to deny the truth of Catholic teaching. In reality, both the head and the heart are important. The whole point is to receive in our hearts what Catholic doctrine seeks to put in our heads, so that we might have life to the full.

Viewing these things as oppositional is counter-productive.

Something similar is often at work in how we respond to Catholic social teaching. Some people emphasize the harm done by “structures of sin”; others emphasize the need for personal responsibility. But if we are restricted to taking one side of this classic argument, it is no wonder that Catholic social teaching manages to annoy Just About Everybody.

Ultimately, constant decisions in favor of personal moral responsibility form a culture which is characterized by structures and systems that foster broad participation in both the benefits and the duties God has destined for all. By the same token, when those decisions are not in favor of personal moral responsibility—when, that is, they are selfish—then social mechanisms and structures are invariably shaped to favor the rich and powerful—while the poor content themselves with dependency or turn to crime.

The world runs on false dichotomies, and we are all influenced by them. But reverence for life is the first ingredient of sound social life. Love is impossible without interiorizing our intellectual grasp of truth in deep habits of being. And “structures of sin” are not separate from personal moral failure; they are its consequences. What God has joined together, let no one divide.

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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