Countering the Culture of Opinion
By Rev. Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS
The debates have ended, but not the diatribes. President Bush and Senator Kerry have now set out on the campaign trail with renewed vigor, distinguishing their own positions with oratorical barbs that paint the other as an extremist who must be stopped by means of the ballot.
That passion stirs the electorate, too. Recent stories of vandalism directed at persons who support a given candidate suggest that our society is passing from incivility in speech to disregard of fellow citizens.
In this same vein, much continues to be made of the supposed entanglement of the Catholic Church in the presidential campaign. Nationally, the New York Times featured a story last week on the Denver archbishop's opposition to Senator Kerry; the report claimed that "never before have so many bishops so explicitly warned Catholics so close to an election that to vote a certain way was to commit a sin." Locally, readers of The Morning Call have been expressing opposing views on a priest's participation in a political rally.
What is in play here is not a conspiracy, Catholic or otherwise. These political confrontations are not about single issues, like abortion or stem cell research or gay marriage. What is really at stake is the distinction between truth and opinion as it affects a candidate's integrity.
When asked in the last televised debate for his reaction to the bishops' opposition, Senator Kerry responded, "I am a Catholic and I grew up learning how to respect those views, but I disagree with them, as do many." The "views" to which he refers are the Church's teachings that the willful termination of the life of an embryo or a fetus is inherently wrong. What he "disagrees" with is that an embryo or a fetus is a human being, worthy of the protection of law as are other human beings.
The senator's position draws the ire of bishops and others because it is inherently contradictory. What he considers viewpoints with which one is free to "disagree" and still be faithfully Catholic are actually two doctrines consistently upheld in this religious tradition. First, all humans, no matter their biological stage of development, enjoy the dignity of personhood, not subject to manipulation or destruction by other persons who share that same dignity in equal measure. Second, to harm another person intentionally and directly is always and everywhere immoral.
To "disagree" with these teachings is not simply to hold a different, and equally valid, opinion. It is to be wrong, at least in terms of ascribing to what this faith believes.
Hence, the senator's televised claims that "my faith affects everything that I do and choose" and "everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith (and) affected by your faith" are puzzling. This faith - the senator's Catholic faith, not every citizen's faith - holds that abortion and stem-cell research are inherently immoral. To "disagree" with this is to be affected by something other than this faith; to legislate contrary to this is to be guided by some other value.
The beauty of our democratic system is that each citizen is able to vote according to his/her values. Candidates are free to stake their respective positions on various issues, and voters are free to choose the candidate with whom they most agree. To participate in this process is not only our right; it is our moral duty, as citizens who shape a free society for the common good of all, which the Catholic Church also teaches.
Yet, when the "issues" touch upon the essential reality of being human, differences are not simply matters of opinion or belief. One is human or is not. A person can be manipulated for another's advantage or can not. These are moral truths, not just partisan policies or subjective values.
To be sure, voting should entail reflection on many issues. But a candidate's position on who we are as persons is foundational to them all. This is why the "life" issues are necessary, though not sufficient, considerations when it comes to casting our votes.
The questions of what a human is and when one becomes a person demand our national attention. To answer them we must necessarily take into account all our ways of knowing - scientifically, philosophically, and religiously.
If we reduce these questions to opinion or preference, then we make ourselves masters of the universe, deciding, however we want, what reality really is. If we can, without impunity, ignore truth, deny it, or act against it, then we will no longer be truly free ... and none of our votes will ultimately matter.
Thomas F. Dailey, O.S.F.S. is director of the Salesian Center for Faith & Culture at DeSales University in Center Valley.)
Press Release: Countering the Culture of Opinion by Rev. Thomas F. Dailey, OSFS | Posted on: 10/20/2004
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