Non-Negotiables in a Relativistic, Media-Driven Age

Veteran journalist Sheila Liaugminas’ new book tackles the roots and meaning of hot button issues from abortion to social justice

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy Award-winning, veteran journalist who has worked in both print and broadcast media. She reported for Time magazine in its Midwest Bureau for over 20 years, and co-hosted the Chicago television program “YOU”. Based in Chicago, Liaugminas is a regular contributor to, and has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Crain’s Chicago Business, Crisis, National Catholic Register, and National Review Online. She currently hosts the daily radio program “A Closer Look” on Relevant Radio.

Her new book, Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture, was published recently by Ignatius Press. It has been widely praised, with Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., saying, “Combining the passion of personal conscience and the convictions of reason and faith, Sheila Liaugminas analyzes conflicted points in our culture in the light of first principles. It’s a good tool in skilled hands.”

Sheila recently took time from her busy schedule to talk with Catholic World Report about her book, the culture and the Church, relativism, human dignity, social justice, and Catholic social doctrine.

CWR: Let’s start with the very first sentence, in your Preface: “We the people are losing our ability to think clearly or reason well.” You also state that we have lost the “art of argument.” There’s surely a lot of blame to go around, but what are some of the foundational factors? And what is the trajectory you’ve witnessed in your years working in secular and Catholic media? Is it simply getting worse?

Sheila Liaugminas: We can look back at any number of periods in the past century, but at least to the Sixties and the rupture in the culture and the Church that seemed to happen suddenly in the chaos of that decade to see where and how the current confusion was sown. It was a revolutionary time when authority was not only questioned but ridiculed and rendered irrelevant, and we rapidly and all too easily lost our reference points to absolute truth and the Judeo-Christian ethics that formed this nation.

It ushered in Roe v. Wade which led to all that Pope Paul VI predicted in Humanae Vitae, redefining life itself and the terms for living a good life to fit the new secular orthodoxy. From then on, we’ve been plummeting further into the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ Pope Benedict XVI warned of, in which things become what culture shapers decide, changeable with the times. Words have been so distorted through that cultural disruption that ‘Choice’ covers abortion, ‘Compassion’ covers euthanasia, and ‘Equality’ covers the redefinition of marriage in law. It is getting worse with each successive movement claiming as its mantle a word that designates empathy and freedom and human ideals. These are persuasive to a population unable to counter with questions that challenge their premises.

CWR: There are, as your book emphasizes, certain truths “so foundational for our life and flourishing that they are simply not open to debate or mitigation—they are non-negotiable.” And yet those truths are, of course, not only debated, they are even dismissed. Why so? How did we arrive at this spot?

Liaugminas: Through the manipulation of public opinion, as noted journalist and media critic Walter Lippmann famously explained in his book of that title [Public Opinion, 1922]. Public opinion is formed and swayed by carefully crafted messaging, words used in a way to shape how readers and listeners uncritically react to news reporting. What amazes me in modern times is that while the public at large holds a very low opinion of the media, people still easily believe what media say and show and report. Lippmann cautioned against suppressing our critical thinking skills, but modern society increasingly has done precisely that. When we’re unable to make a defense for what we believe, give an explanation for it, or even be sure of what the Church teaches and why as a foundation for what we believe, there is no debate. We can’t even hold a reasoned dialogue about different worldviews or understandings of human dignity.

CWR: How did your own interest, as a young girl, in peace and social justice direct your work and thought as a journalist? What is at the heart of social justice, a term that is often controversial and confusing?

Liaugminas: As I reveal in the book, I was a ‘little social justice advocate’ as a child when, on a trip with my father, I discovered the stunning inhumanity of racism and discrimination in the Deep South. Before I ever heard the term ‘Catholic Social Justice’ I learned it at home. My parents volunteered to serve the disabled and disadvantaged in many ways and places over the years, and I often went along as a helper, learning firsthand how to serve and what a difference it makes in individual lives, when people are treated with dignity. As a journalist, I always had a deep compassion for people who were most vulnerable, and I worked hard to learn and tell ‘the story behind the story’ of what was happening and why, what precipitated events, what its effects were, whether it was in law, politics, social policy, medicine, or cultural trends, eruptions and evolutions.

Today the term ‘social justice’ has been sort of hijacked by politics and political operatives, and now it’s used globally, even applied lately to urban unrest and radical movements that attract disenfranchised young people searching for a cause. Catholic Social Teaching is based on the equally important concepts and causes of solidarity and subsidiarity. We have to see and identify with people in need, and serve them at the local level of support in the community closest to them, through the many charitable organizations and relief centers usually available there. That fulfills the Social Gospel, and honors their human dignity.

CWR: Another controversial and confusing term is “common good.” What is the common good? And how can Catholic go both explaining and defending it out in the public square?

Liaugminas: Politicians use this term a lot, and it can politically be applied randomly to any cause that furthers an agenda, whether it’s actually for the good of citizens or their community or not. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that political “regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, to the public order, and to the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good” of the nation.

In these times of such distortion of language as we know, altering the understanding of reality, it’s important to know what the Church teaches about this commonly used term. The Catechism further elaborates that “the common good” depends on three essential things, starting with “respect for the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person.” That eliminates abortion or euthanasia as a right, because life is an inalienable right that pre-exists the State. This also requires freedom to exercise a person’s vocation and the right to act according to their well-formed conscience, and to safeguard freedom of religion.

Second, the common good requires the social well-being of people in the fundamentals: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.

And the third essential component of the common good requires that authorities should ensure “by morally acceptable means” the security of society and its members. That implies having a standard by which to measure what is morally acceptable.

CWR: Why is it that everyone can apparently understand why slavery is immoral and contrary to man’s inherent dignity, but so many people still insist that the killing of an unborn child is not only moral but can even be deemed necessary and good? How can the slavery/abortion analogy be used to demonstrate the immoral, anti-human nature of abortion?

Liaugminas: It should be clear to right thinking people and not given to complication. It’s not complicated at all. In both cases, entire classes of human beings are denied rights, being deemed the ‘property’ of others who can decide the fate of that class of human beings, even to subject them to brutal treatment that can end their life. In the case of slavery, we have the lessons of history and evolving social consciousness aided by the Civil Rights Movement to see the abomination of one class of citizens having total rights over another class of human beings, to the point of denying them citizenship and constitutional rights.

With the politics of abortion, we have devolved to the point of once again denying the class of human beings who are the very youngest and most vulnerable, even the fundamental right to life, without which no other right applies.

CWR: In a similar vein, everyone insists that family is good and necessary, but more and more people want to change the nature of family and marriage to the point that they essentially mean nothing. Why the cognitive dissonance in that regard? What do you say to those who insist that same-sex marriage will not change the nature of marriage and family, and could, in fact, help both?

Liaugminas: ‘Cognitive dissonance’ is an apt description of what’s happened in the social consciousness about the fundamentals that don’t change like, say, cultural trends do from time to time. When public opinion has been so altered by political, media, social and cultural elites, people have come to drift easily off their moorings grounded in the natural law and moral order, understood throughout civilization and history, Church teaching and tradition, as Truth.

No matter what people’s sympathies are for others who believe two people of the same sex who love each should be able to marry, the ramifications of same-sex marriage are demonstrable in the many social science studies that now prove harm to children, men and women, and society. California’s ‘three parent law’ and other such aberrations of family law meant to protect children and uphold the well being of society show the harmful consequences inherent in redefining marriage. As Cardinal Francis George has said, among others who echo the same view, men and women aren’t interchangeable.

Also, the predicted consequence of marriage redefinition that foresaw other expansions of marriage law and license has already been advancing, with polygamy and polyamory being two of other types of arrangements seeking legal justification and recognition, now that same sex marriage between two men or two women have been legalized in more states. The nature of marriage and family and the good of both, and society, are very much at stake in this debate over ‘rights’.

CWR: What is the “right to conscience”? How does the Church define and explain it? And what is its relationship to religious freedom?

Liaugminas: This is an important question, because in recent years especially, the tortured logic that disguised abortion as ‘Choice’ and euthanasia as ‘Compassion’ has also distorted the concept of conscience into a subjective matter related to personal feelings, desires, liberties to do whatever we please as long as we don’t harm others.

Here’s one illustration of that rendering of ‘conscience,’ referenced in the book. In 2006, over 50 Catholic members of Congress issued a “Statement of Principles” claiming a “commitment to the basic principles at the heart of Catholic social teaching,” but refusing to accept the Church’s opposition to abortion. They claimed “the primacy of conscience” as their excuse. Cardinal Francis George called that ‘intellectually dishonest.’ He reminded that we have to form our consciences according to the social teaching of the Church, which isn’t easy because “principles are clear but practice often is clouded by confusion of fact and the distraction of various forms of self-interest. The first and most essential principle of Catholic social teaching is the dignity of every human person and one’s basic right to life from conception to natural death. Respect for human dignity is the basis for the fundamental right to life.”

I also quote Pope Benedict XVI’s lecture “Conscience in Its Time”, (found in the 2008 book, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics by Ignatius Press): “The destruction of the conscience is the real prerequisite for totalitarian followers and totalitarian rule. Where conscience prevails, there is a limit to the dominion of human common and human choice, something sacred that must remain inviolate and that in its ultimate sovereignty eludes all control, whether someone else’s or one’s own. Only…the recognition that conscience is sacrosanct protects man from man’s inhumanity and from himself; only its rule guarantees freedom.”

What the Church teaches on conscience can be found in many documents, some are referenced and quoted in the book. But a key teaching is one of the principal documents of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, which devoted much attention, particularly in paragraph no. 16, to the subject of conscience. It says:

Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged (cf. Rom. 2:15-16). His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths. By conscience, in a wonderful way, that law is made known which is fulfilled in the love of God and of one’s neighbor (cf. Mt. 22:37-40; Gal. 5:14). Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. Yet it often happens that conscience goes astray through ignorance which it is unable to avoid, without thereby losing its dignity. This cannot be said of the man who takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.”

The sanctity of conscience—referred to as such by James Madison, Cardinal John Henry Newman, too many leaders of the Church and secular world to mention here—is based on the right understanding and recognition of human dignity. At core, religious liberty is the right to believe, express and act on moral truths about the human person, out of a well-formed conscience, in that sacred place of encounter between God and the soul, as the Church teaches in Gaudium et Spes. The government recognized the importance of protecting this pre-eminent right in writing and passing, nearly unanimously, the bi-partisan ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Act,’ preventing even the government from burdening the right of individuals, organizations and churches institutions right act and speak publicly according to religiously, morally informed consciences.

CWR: How can Catholics and other people of good will go about fighting for dignity in society, especially in a society in which people do not think or reason as well as they should?

Liaugminas: We must be well informed, for starters, because we live in an increasingly secular society and one that, as Pope Benedict warned, is growing increasingly hostile to Christianity and its teachings about human dignity and sanctity. Know what the Church teaches, it is comprehensive on all the top issues of the day, and the Pope and Bishops have continually reminded us what the Church teaches and why, so we are ‘prepared to give an explanation for what we believe’, and act on it. In Living the Gospel of Life, and Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the US Bishops address the issues we face, cultural confusion over them, and guidance we need to navigate the culture as faithful, effective citizens. This book amplifies that teaching and makes it accessible, as a resource in hand, hopefully for readers to reference continually, as we face public debates, political elections, and decisions in our own personal lives that call for clarity.

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