What life are we leading today? And what is it for? Lent has been a time to reflect on such things, and Easter and Spring are seasons of rebirth. But sometimes reflection brings little comfort, and the new life Easter brings can seem more a foreshadowing than present reality.
This time around my experience has been a bit like that. Times are bad. But recognition of difficulties is clarification, and Christianity is based on faith in promises and things seen through a glass darkly. God remains always the same.
Suppose we reflect on politics, for example. Catholics differ wildly on the subject, and the differences don’t go away, so it’s not something that becomes clear with a little reflection. Even so, people seem to consider it fundamental to the Faith and it generates endless rancor. How do we make sense of this situation? And what do we do with it?
Today everything is political. If you want to know whether a man is a man or a baby a baby you ask the politicians. Even in the Church, everything is political. There are radical, liberal, moderate, conservative, and reactionary Catholics.
The differences go deep, and the religious and secular distinctions align with each other. Pious people often deny the point, and say religious issues are wholly distinct from secular political ones. That sounds right, but in practice doesn’t altogether pan out. How many conservative Catholics are “woke” on racial issues? And how many liberal ones seriously oppose legal abortion and legal recognition of same-sex marriage?
The Church’s teaching is what it is, and stands apart from all factions. But where people stand politically affects what they think that teaching tells us. Is a permissive approach to immigration a Catholic principle, or a possible application of principles that depends on conditions that may not be present? Answers very often depend on whether someone thinks easy immigration is good or bad policy.
Most of us aren’t total party-liners, and some people deviate quite sharply from their side’s orthodoxy. But the latter are a minority, and rarely adhere to one side in religion and the other in politics. Their views are usually less classifiable.
So what’s going on?
To me both sides seem generally consistent. The reasons for their positions are basic and apply quite naturally to religious as well as secular issues.
If you’re on the right, you think that reality is more or less given. It doesn’t depend on us, and we don’t understand it fully even though we need to understand it to live well. So we rely on revelation, and on informal methods such as tradition and commonsense that piece together experiences and glimmerings from whatever source into patterns that work and seem reliable. And we believe that attachments and loyalties are good, because that’s what makes the system work. That view makes us more likely to accept traditional boundaries and distinctions.
If you’re on the left you think of the world much more as a human construction. What we have now is the result of past efforts that were guided by the knowledge and concerns—and often the ignorance and dubious motives—of the past. But knowledge is progressive, and morality improves with the growth of understanding and mutual sympathy. So we should rely on our own knowledge and moral understandings, arrived at by clear public methods like those of the modern natural sciences, and go with what they tell us. And that means we should accept open-ended intentional change, and reject traditional distinctions as unthinking and arbitrary.
How do you decide who is right? Leftists accuse their opponents of irrationality, for rejecting the guidance of experts. Rightists accuse theirs of being out of touch with reality, for their belief that life can be administered and modern natural science should be the model for all knowledge. Why, they ask, is that the way to deal with things that everyone agrees are hard to grasp? If someone were awarded a PhD in Lifeology would that make him an authority on how to live?
Rightists say they are the true Catholics, because their view has a place for the tradition, revelation, and hierarchical authority on which the Church is based. Their opponents say it is they who are, because the biblical tradition is prophetic, the Christian revelation is a revelation of human freedom, equality, and dignity, and the Catholic tradition and the decisions of hierarchical authority have led Church institutions to adopt an ever more progressive attitude toward such things.
Leftists have the advantage that their views line up with technological methods that have proven themselves immediately effective. Rightists have the advantage of having views that make sense of the world as a whole, because they make more room for realities people live by that we don’t control or fully understand.
The arguments go on forever, tit for tat. It’s worthwhile going through them a few times, since argument clarifies what is at stake. But in the end something beyond argument is needed to convince people.
What is that? One possibility is historical verification. How does each view end up working overall?
A problem with answering that question is deciding what standards apply. Rightists say their view is better because it delivers family values; leftists say theirs is better because it delivers wokeness. Each seems correct on its basic factual claim, even though there are adulterous rightists and racist leftists.
Rightists say the decline in Catholic belief and practice since Vatican II shows that many changes it inspired were ill-advised. Leftists say it was good to get rid of inauthentic piety, and Catholicism hasn’t been declining because it’s been spreading in Africa, so the changes were good and indeed too limited.
So the question becomes whether wokeness or family values is better for people, whether Catholicism has become more authentic since the Council, and whether the spread of Catholicism in Africa is a specifically Catholic success, or simply a sign that Africa is modernizing and its inhabitants giving up ancestral beliefs in favor of world religions—-Catholicism, but also Islam, Protestantism, and others.
Historical details and objective data including surveys on social trends can help somewhat on these issues. What is happening to religious belief and practice? Does talking up family values do family life any good, or just multiply hypocrisy? And does talking up Black Lives Matter benefit black people, or mean that more of them get killed?
In the end, what persuades people of an outlook is its truth to their own experience. If we are at our most attentive and living as best we can, how does the world end up appearing to us? Does it look like the world described by experts and social planners, or the world described by tradition, revelation, and common sense? And which outlook helps us live better?
So understanding basic matters takes time and depends on more than argument. While we are working toward clarity, each in his way, it seems there are a few principles that ought to govern us. We should take our own views seriously, which means avoiding willfulness and factional spirit, and applying our principles first and foremost to ourselves. Leftists should cultivate a disinterested will to understand objectively, rightists humility and awe in the face of mystery. And both should reform their own lives in accordance with their best understanding of how life should be lived. If we all become the best versions of ourselves discussions will become far more productive, and we may actually help each other by learning from what is best in the other.
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