By Elishama |


Continued from my previous article, Objective Truth is the New Hate Speech, autonomy is the fourth of the four "Cardinal Virtues of Secularism" discussed here.

Philosophically speaking freedom is the capacity of the human will to choose to act or not to act. Modern thought extends this understanding of freedom to include the right to act or not to act as we see fit or prefer, without any external compulsion or restraint. In other words we equate freedom with personal autonomy.

Politically and culturally our concept of freedom is increasingly formed by a radically individualistic viewpoint – by the idea that the individual should be allowed to shape his or her own destiny, without interference from external sources such as government, religion, family or community.

“Freedom no longer means the ability to choose (or reject) what is right and proper,” says F. F. Centore, “it now means simply doing whatever you want to do or whatever you feel like doing. Freedom is absolutized; it's no longer a means to the end of justice but an end in itself. Being able to choose (regardless of what is chosen) is the only thing that's ultimately valuable; that's good in itself.” (“Will the Truly Prejudice Person Please Stand Up! An Essay in Social Philosophy,” 1991)

Philosopher Alastair MacIntyre noted the consequences of the modern marriage of individualism and subjectivism in After Virtue: "We have – very largely, if not entirely – lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality." Morality has been replaced by what he calls 'emotivism': "The doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character."

He speaks of what this emotivism entails:
  • There is the imperial self, who stands in judgment of all – and is frequently not amused.
  • There is the autonomous self who will not allow anyone else's “values” to be “imposed” upon oneself.
  • There is the egalitarian self who has a voracious appetite for “rights,” that knows virtually no limits, and is offended by all disparities, real or perceived.
Consequently, as Allan Bloom concluded in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, "in modern political regimes where rights precede duties, freedom definitely has primacy over community, family and even nature."

True liberty, as G.K. Chesterton so profoundly observed, "is the power of a thing to be itself." True human freedom should help us realize the fullness of our humanity (perfect our rationality, our ability to love, our moral and spiritual character). False freedom undermines our true humanity. It makes us rationalizers (trying to falsify reality in order to validate our choices) and self-centred.

We are free to choose what we are to do and in this way determine ourselves to be the person we are. But we are not free to make what we choose to do to be morally good or morally bad. It is what it is. We know this from experience, for we know that at times we have freely chosen to do things that we knew, at the very moment we chose to do them, were morally bad. We can, in short, choose badly or well. This means our choices need to be guided by truth, and it likewise means that we can come to know the truth prior to choice. For God, the author of human existence, has not made the moral law out of arbitrarily decrees legalistically imposed upon us in order to restrict our freedom, but written them into our very being as the means by which to perfect our nature and achieve the end for which we were created.

And here is exposed the weight of our choices. Human actions (i.e. free, intelligible actions) are not simply physical events in the material world that come and go, like the falling of rain or the turning of the pages. Human actions are not things that merely “happen” to a person. They are, rather, the outward expression of a person’s inner choice, the disclosure or revelation of that person’s moral identity. When we knowingly and freely choose to do something good or bad it determines us as the type of person who does this particular type of action. In other words, it is in and through the actions we freely choose to do that we give to ourselves our identity as moral beings. This identity abides in us until we make other, contradictory kinds of choices.

People intrinsically know that their actions bespeak their inner selves and we all want to be comfortable with our actions and see ourselves in a sympathetic light. So when we choose evil we also begin an intellectual process of rationalization. For we are averse to seeing ourselves as evildoers. We deny the evil actions implications upon our character by refusing to see it as evil (portraying the action as either a good thing in itself or made good by circumstances), by denying our free choice (becoming “victims” of greater forces), by refusing to examine fully the injury done, or by declaring the injured party deserving of it. We also assail any person or institution that tweaks our conscience as regards the nature of our action.

“Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the states of affairs outside of man, but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits.” Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 71.

“Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart… It is what comes out of a person that defiles.” -- Jesus Christ, Gospel of Mark.

True Freedom: Liberty

True freedom is to take moral responsibility for our own life. Insofar as it is compatible with objective morality and the common good people should be allowed liberty to choose how they want to live. For example, it is good for a person to choose their job rather than be forced into one. It benefits him and the community.

But freedom and license must not be confused. Freedom embraces responsibility and is guided by objective norms, right reason and virtue; license is choice without restraint.

"Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong." -- John Diefenbaker

False Freedom: License

License is what many confuse with freedom in their conversations and moral deliberations as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. License it the throwing off of responsibility. It is carte blanche to do as we feel or wish. It flows from the denial of objective moral principles by which one must guide one’s actions.

It is the misidentification of freedom with the absence of legal restriction or moral restraint. Hence legal restriction, community censorship, and obedience to institutional authority (i.e. parents, Church, state) are all shrieked down as destructive to individual “rights” and liberties. There is a confusion of freedom within the law from freedom from the law.

“Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions... Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.” -- Friedrich von Hayek

“None can love freedom heartily but good men; the rest love not freedom but license.” -- John Milton

External Freedom

External freedom is the absence of external restraint and force. External freedom is lost through a police state or a totalitarian regime or institutional slavery (e.g. in Communist China, Nazi Germany, fundamentalist Iran and the Sudan). It is a "freedom from" external compulsion.

Internal Freedom

Internal freedom is the absence of subjective restraints or compulsions that might inhibit one from acting according to what one knows to be good. Internal freedom is necessary for the perfection of character. It is a "freedom to" do what one knows is right.

Internal freedom is diminished by the inability or unwillingness to control one's passions, impulses, or emotions. We then act like passive riders on a coach pulled by the wild horses of lust, anger, sorrow, fear, greed, gluttony, etc. These can have undo influence in dictating the direction we go. 'Addiction' is a polite word for the loss of internal freedom.

“Men are qualified for their civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters." -- Edmund Burke

Conclusion

Having examined the so-called virtues emphasized in our society let us now return to our list of controversial Catholic beliefs and find which modern presupposition causes people to reflexively and negatively react to each. Of course a particular Catholic doctrine may strike up against several of these secular virtues but we shall limit ourselves to one each.
  1. There is only one true God, the God the Church teaches and worships (pluralism).
  2. Jesus Christ is the one and only saviour of mankind (pluralism).
  3. The Catholic faith is the only completely true religion (equality).
  4. All of us are subject to Original Sin and its consequences and so in need of God’s forgiveness and grace (tolerance).
  5. All salvation comes from Christ and, directly or indirectly, through His Church (pluralism).
  6. There is an everlasting Hell to which unrepentant sinners will be consigned (tolerance).
  7. The hierarchy of the Church has a religious and moral authority given to it by Christ Himself to which all believers must submit (autonomy).
  8. The Church teaches objective moral norms that are true and certain for all people (pluralism).
  9. The pope under special circumstances can speak on matters of faith and morals with infallibility (pluralism).
  10. Ordination to the sacramental priesthood is possible only for males (equality).
  11. Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is typically forbidden to non-Catholics (tolerance).
  12. All mortal sins must ordinarily be confessed to a priest in order to receive God’s forgiveness (autonomy).
  13. A true sacramental marriage is a permanent bond that divorce cannot end thus making remarriage while one’s spouse is still alive immoral (autonomy).
  14. The use of artificial contraception is immoral (autonomy).
  15. Homosexual acts are immoral (tolerance).
  16. Premarital sex and cohabitation are immoral (autonomy).
  17. In vitro fertilization is immoral (autonomy).
  18. Abortion is immoral (autonomy).
  19. Fetal stem cell research is immoral (autonomy).
  20. Euthanasia is immoral (autonomy).
It must be emphasized that, beyond all the intellectual indolence and confusion that makes the soft virtues of secularism so attractive and hard to dethrone today, there is a major moral reason for their popularity. These “virtues” give permission for the individual to live his life on his own terms, according to his own whims and desires. It is a warping of social standards in order to please oneself. Its origins are in the will more than in the intellect. No credence is given to an objective moral order (such as that recognized by the Church) by which one's actions can be judged and regulated. Claiming other peoples’ “values” are just as personal and subjective as one's own you look tolerantly on their behaviour and expect them to reciprocate. It's a "live and let live" – or more accurately a sin and let sin – attitude. It is no coincidence that it came into vogue with the economic boon and sexual revolution of the sixties. It is all very convenient and self-serving.

Such an attitude is about feeling good without necessarily being good. It is about avoiding condemnation by refusing to condemn in return. If others do fault-find they are severely scrutinized and denounced as "judgmental hypocrites." Since Catholic beliefs themselves establish criteria of evaluation the Church and any Catholic believer comes under this severe scrutiny and denunciation. As columnist David Warren notes of his own profession: “Our media have – whether usefully or not – a special standard of perfection for any professing Catholic or other believing Christian, set well beyond the human, and make it their business to trash, whether justly or unjustly, anyone who might fall short.” (“The backstop,” Sunday Spectator, May 20, 2007). As it is with the media, so it also is with many ordinary Canadian citizens.

It is about alleviating the guilt of one's conscience without repentance or the conversion of one's character. It is the easy road to self-righteousness. It elevates one's self-esteem by marginalizing or dismissing the virtues one lacks while exaggerating the significance of virtues, or more accurately pseudo-virtues, one possesses. This is facilitated by a selective understanding and application of moral principles according to one’s self-interests. Privileged amongst these are the Four Cardinal Virtues of Secularism.

In a recent book, Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation (Henry Holt, 2002), caustic essayist Joe Queenan seems to have come to a partial realization of the underlying self-conceit in contemporary attitudes. He describes how venal and self-centred is much of modern (i.e. “baby-boomer”) culture. Being “a prototypical product of the Me Decade, I only knew how to respond to the world insofar as the world responded to Moi.” While he believes his generation began with some promise they quickly decided to replace their social conscience with a general, and ill-founded, feeling of superiority. Queenan seems quite surprised and appalled to discover just how self-absorbed he and his peers have been and the effect it has had on our culture. I might add the effect it has had on our children.

“To most of us nothing is so invisible as an unpleasant truth. Though it is held before our eyes, pushed under our noses, rammed down our throats- we know it not.” -- Eric Hoffer

Queenan’s limited insight touches on a point that T. S. Eliot more profoundly observed and eloquently enunciated decades ago in his play, The Cocktail Party:
Half the harm that is done in this world
is due to people who want to feel important.
They don't mean to do harm – but the harm does
      not interest them,
or they do not see it, or they justify it
because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
to think well of themselves
. (Italics added)
The ideas we have investigated did not originate with the self-absorbed baby-boomers. But the baby-boomer generation was converted to them and became their ardent advocates. Measuring all things by themselves has allowed them to treat conflicting ideas and beliefs as equal, only in the sense of equally irrelevant to them. But when an idea or belief touches upon their own self-interest it is quickly and adamantly affirmed or denied accordingly. They complimented this contradiction, one might dare say hypocrisy, with the appellation ‘open-mindedness’ (ala pluralism).

As Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History And the Last Man has noted: “Postmodern elites have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation to what they regard as a superior place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and tolerance, they find it difficult to agree on the substance of the good life to which they aspire in common.” The concrete result of this “postmodern valuelessness…is that, apart from drinking beer and playing soccer (football), Europeans find it hard to define the virtues with which they identify” (“The Challenge of Positive Freedom,” NPQ, Spring 2007).

To a great extent this state of affairs is an unforeseen consequence of the West’s recent and incredible success in largely overcoming the historical constants of poverty, disease and war. There seems to be no great battles left to fight, no real dangers needing to be overcome. Without such clearly defined threats and profound struggles the regard for heroic self-sacrifice and the virtues that encouraged it have dissipated. The hard virtues of hard times have been replaced by softer ones. Unfortunately in an affluent and leisure oriented society these softer virtues appear compatible with, maybe even conducive to, very selfish and indulgent mores.

Our culture has absolutized the self and freedom at the cost of relativizing truth and goodness. The Cardinal Virtues of Secularism have stymied deep reflection while disordered and dissipated living has hardened hearts. The result is that true repentance and reform at the cultural level are now very unlikely and so the direction plotted out by unrestrained technology and egoism will probably run its course.

“Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the God within .... That Jones shall worship the God within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.” -- G. K. Chesterton

C.S. Lewis, in his work The Abolition of Man, wrote:

“For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality (God) and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline and virtue. For the modern mind the cardinal problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men and the solution is a technique. The pursuit of happiness in the modern sense is therefore self indulgent. Man’s conquest of nature must always become man’s conquest of other men using nature as the means. But these powerful people no longer think of God and God’s laws as objective reality so they are controlled not by God’s supernatural ideals but by the natural forces of their own heredity and environment. Thus man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man.”

Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, contrasted the vision of the future found in Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984:

"... Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think... What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to egoism and passivity. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture... In 1984 ... people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure."

Aristotle said of living things that an immaterial principle (i.e. the soul) informs the matter to give it life and make it the type of living organism that it is. The soul orders the constituent elements into a unified whole we call the body. While united by the soul each element operates for the common good of the whole. The body cannot hold itself together however without the soul. So once the body looses that unifying principle and vivifying force, it breaks down into its constituent elements. Having no unifying principle these elements now seek their own good rather than the good of the whole. This we call death and decomposition. In a nutshell, that is the current state of the West. The soul of the West was Christianity. Viral elements within the body (secular intelligentsia, hedonistic individualists, rabid atheists, etc.) attacked its Christian soul, weakening it then finally eradicating it. We are simply watching the death and decomposition of Western Civilization as its present constituent populations, including special interest groups (capitalists, homosexuals, libertarians, Natives, "visible minorities," etc), are preoccupied with pursuing their own individual ends with little real interest in the common good. We describe this state of affairs in glowing terms as “diversity” and “pluralism” in a new "multicultural" society.

But unlike human bodies human civilizations are generally reinvigorated by a new force; a new soul so to speak. For rarely do advanced societies completely die, and never is there a complete cultural vacuum. In Europe the fight over the corpse of the West is between secularists (the most powerful being of the statist variety) and Islamicists. In Canada it is not yet clear who is on the ascendancy – too many tribes and no clearly dominant one: although here too, as in Europe, a secularist statism is currently quite powerful. In the United States it appears a dominantly Hispanic America is in the forming.

Demonizing the past, even if the past made possible all that we take for granted today (like the concept of human equality, a concern for the poor and vulnerable, an expectation of equality before the law, the technological and scientific revolution, general prosperity, etc), is a necessary part of justifying the destruction of the West and the establishment of a new order. It also gives those who live morally decadent lives grounds to feel superior to the old order and those that still embrace it. And amongst the many special interest groups who benefit from state largess it hides any sense of inferiority or envy while condoning their special privileges – by creating a sense of entitlement due one's victim status.

The question as to whether our civilization will survive and whether human dignity and the rights that flow from it will be preserved may very much depend on the answer we give to the role of religion, more specifically to the Christian religion, in it. Historians Will & Ariel Durant, who themselves wavered between atheism and agnosticism, once asked: "Does history warrant the conclusion that religion is necessary to morality – that a natural ethic is too weak to withstand the savagery that lurks under civilization and emerges in our dreams, crimes and wars? ... There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion."


By Elishama |



Continued from my previous article, Objective Truth is the New Hate Speech, equality is the third of four "Cardinal Virtues of Secularism" discussed here.

Belief in the equality of all human beings is one of the foundational principles of modern Western democracy. This is manifested in equality before the law and in the rights to which one can lay claim. Translation of this equality into a sense of civic duty and general applicability took time. Thus the suffragette movement of the early 1900s and the black civil rights movement of the 1950-60s.

Frank Sheed, in Society and Sanity, points out what is obvious but largely forgotten by the average na├»ve Westerner: “…the human race had no habit of seeing men as valuable simply by being men…. At first view, men do not look so very valuable – there are so many of us, and we are such a mess.”

Sheed goes on to note that “even as great a philosopher as Aristotle could think it proper for some men to be slaves and relegate them to a position not so very different from that of animals. Plato criticized the owner who was cruel to his slaves – on the grounds that the correct attitude was contempt. Politically and militarily dominant peoples did not think twice about disposing of other peoples as they wished, including enslavement, and even treated some of their own in similar manner.” (p. 40)

A change of attitude began to gradually take place in the West because, according to Sheed, “Christianity kept steadily hammering at the truth that no matter what a man looked like, he was the image of God, he had an immortal spirit, Christ died for him: every man was not only an object of value, but of eternal value….
          “This is, I say, the only view of man that makes man an object of respect. Indeed, it makes him an object of reverence. And man must be that or the social order will be inhuman; for men have shown only too clearly that what they do not reverence, they will profane. If they do not reverence man, they will profane man. They will profane other men, they will profane themselves. This is the profanity to which men are almost incurably addicted. You will not cure it by urging them to cease, but by giving them a reason for reverence.” (p. 40)

The problem, he observes, is that “clearly, men are not equal – not all men, not any two men – in any single human attribute. Men are not equally good or equally clever or equally handsome or equally industrious. What then does the phrase mean? Is it a pure legal fiction? Does it mean only that the law will not weight the scales against any man in favour of another man? If it is only a fiction, it will not survive. If we solemnly pretend that men are equal when we know they are not, a moment will come when the pretence will wear too thin.
          “The phrase has, of course, a meaning. The trouble is that too often the meaning has no meaning. It means that although men are unequal in all individual attributes, they are all equally men. I say that this meaning too often has no meaning: for it depends upon what we mean by being a man, which most people do not know or even ask. Is the fact of being a man, in which all men are equal, as important as the attributes in which men are unequal?…Does the fact of being a man, in which all are alike, outweigh the difference between genius and stupidity, energy and indolence?” Sheed answers, “Only if man matters. In the Christian view, being a man is itself so vast a thing, that the natural inequalities from one to the next are a trifle by comparison. In the Christian view, but in no other.” (p. 41)

Rightly understood the concept of equality means that all men are created equal in substance and as such they have certain inalienable rights given them by their Creator. But they are not equal, more properly one might say they are different, according to their accidental traits of talent, strength, intelligence, etc. True justice therefore requires that the equal dignity of all human beings, as human beings, be recognized but that individuals also be treated in accordance with their accidental differences.

Today the governments and courts of the West are prejudicing “rights” in favour of certain groups, or calling special privileges “rights” and bestowing them as they see fit – revealing that they are no longer cognizant or respectful of the nature of rights (because no longer cognizant of the nature of man). Dispensing “rights” in such a manner is to treat them as legal fictions. This is what the state is doing in redefining marriage (i.e. “common law” and “same-sex”) and in redefining human life (e.g. with abortion, euthanasia, and fetal experimentation). It will have profound consequences when genetic engineering makes the development and manipulation of human life possible and profitable.

Opposing human actions are not equal in their moral significance:
  • Telling the truth and telling a lie are not morally equivalent.
  • Honesty and thievery are not equivalent.
  • Industriousness and indolence are not equivalent.
  • Fidelity and infidelity are not equivalent.
It is wrong not to treat morally significant differences as morally significant. It is to be indiscriminate.
Elishama |



Continued from my previous article, Objective Truth is the New Hate Speech, tolerance is the second of four "Cardinal Virtues of Secularism" discussed here.

Generically tolerance is the disposition to permit the existence of beliefs, practices or habits differing from one’s own. It is a requirement for people of radically differing views to peacefully coexist. Why should we tolerate those whom we consider mistaken? Arguments presented for toleration include the fallibility of our ideas and beliefs, the impossibility of coercing genuine religious or moral assent, respect for autonomy, the danger of civil strife, and the value of diversity.

Tolerance, in relation to matters of truth and morality, is a very much misunderstood and misapplied concept today. Fulton Sheen once explained the role tolerance plays in these areas:
“Tolerance is an attitude of reasoned patience towards evil, and a forbearance that restrains us from showing anger or inflicting punishment. But what is more important than the definition is the field of its application. The important point here is this: Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to truth. Intolerance applies only to truth, but never to persons. Tolerance applies to the erring; intolerance to the error.” -- Fulton Sheen
In other words one may tolerate an evil but must promote what is good; one may tolerate an error but must promote what is true. Further, one tolerates evil only in such circumstances as it is the morally just thing to do, in order to prevent a worse evil, not on account of the matter tolerated. Perhaps if we took a cue from Bishop Sheen and used the English word “forbearance” rather than the Latin “tolerance” we could keep distinctions a little clearer.

Let us examine some further distinctions.

Open-Mindedness

Open-mindedness is not the refusal to judge ideas but the refusal to pre-judge them. It is to give an idea a fair hearing. It refuses to reject ideas without good reason.

But it implies a fixed, objective standard of truth and morality. Otherwise one would have no measure with which to objectively judge an idea. Without a fixed standard one would simply be judging by subjective preference, prejudice or whim.

True open-mindedness implies a choice to engage in the lives & ideas of others. It involves effort and thoughtful consideration. It prevents my making arbitrary judgments about others that rule out the possibility of learning from them.

“Merely having an open mind is nothing” observed G.K. Chesterton, “the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” In the case of the mouth, nutritious food for the health of the body; in the case of the mind, truth for the health of the intellect. Arguing for open-mindedness for open-mindedness sake is like arguing for open-mouthedness for open-mouthedness sake.

Philosopher Floyd F. Centore spoke of the contemporary desire to identify “tolerance” with an “open-mindedness” that does not make any judgments or refuses to take a firm stand.
“Toleration no longer means strongly holding a firm position, but not using force to impose it on others; it now means a universal indifference to all objective standards. In fact, contrary to the unofficial state religion [i.e. secularism], only dogmatic people can be tolerant. People who can't or won't strongly hold firm positions lose the option of being tolerant. The most they can be is indifferent. Yet this indifference is now taken as the standard of proper behavior, and as the modern, orthodox definition of toleration.” --(“Will the Truly Prejudice Person Please Stand Up! An Essay in Social Philosophy", 1991).
Great minds have noted this before: G. K. Chesterton said of this type of “tolerance” that it "is the virtue of the man without convictions." And even novelist and homosexual W. Somerset Maugham could concur: "Tolerance is another name for indifference."

In fact many people who think themselves tolerant are actually very close-minded, even bigoted. They are not relativists about the absolute rightness of their own views and are intolerant of opposing ones. This is aptly brought out in William Watkins’ book, The New Absolutes (pp. 36-7):
"From all appearances, relativism has won the battle over absolutism. All that seems left to do is to carry out some mop-up operations to purge any stubborn absolutists from positions of power while marginalizing and converting the few remaining believers in absolute truth.

If this is true, if it is an accurate depiction of contemporary America, then we should see clear, undeniable signs of its presence nationwide. The problem is, we do not. What we see is the opposite of what we would rightly expect to find. The behavior of Americans betrays their real commitments, and relativism is not one of them. We can see this in a variety of areas.

The foundational virtue of relativism is what I call the new tolerance....The new tolerance is a natural corollary of the relativistic perspective. Since all truth and morals are up for grabs, the relativist must be a person committed to living out the new tolerance. This means she must be broad-minded, open to other beliefs, claims to truth, moral convictions, and different lifestyles. The tolerant person must make room for others to do as they wish, even if their behavior contradicts or even mocks her own. The authentic relativist would not become upset when facing opposition to her views, and she would never try to push her personal convictions on other people. Declaring anything right or wrong, true or false for anyone but herself would be unacceptable – dare I say, a moral evil? Everyone must be left to live as they see fit. Live and let live – that is the summary maxim of the new virtue of tolerance.

Is this live-and-let-live attitude characteristic of contemporary America? Not at all. In fact, the very groups that claim to be advocates of the new tolerance are not. The political correctness movement seeks to squelch what various groups view as offensive language, behavior, and perspectives. Multiculturalists seem bent on upholding the beliefs and practices of every other culture except those commended by Western civilization. Secularists are determined to keep religious expression out of the public arena. Pro-abortion and same-sex rights activists march on city halls, run for political office, and lobby to change or enact laws in order to gain legal and social sanction for their personal views." -- William Watkins

“‘Anti-discrimination’ has become the excuse for active discrimination against Catholics and others whose moral convictions ill-fit the relativist-secularist opinion mainstream.” -- George Weigel

Who Are You To Judge Others?

When then U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle said that T.V. character Murphy Brown giving birth to an illegitimate child was not a good role model for youth he was severely ridiculed as being judgmental and arrogant. How dare he tell others how to live!

Many critics of Christian moral positions quote against believers in Christ's own words:
“Do not judge or you too will be judged” (Mt 7:1).
They interpret these words to mean Christians who morally evaluate other people's behaviour are being disobedient to Christ! Yet, their interpretation easily falls apart on examination. For Jesus Himself directs His disciples to make judgments:
"Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment" (Jn 7:24). 
Theologians have long interpreted Christ's criticism of judgmentalness as applying to those who make rash judgments of others or claim to know the state of the other’s soul before God (which only God Himself can truly know). Wrong judgment, then, would be to morally evaluate someone according to subjective standards or claiming to know his spiritual state. Right judgment is to morally evaluate a person's actions or expressed attitudes according to an objective standard.

Those who criticize Christian "judgmentalism" act just as arrogantly and judgmentally as those they accuse. If a Christian is denounced for being judgmental he can respond that his accuser is judging him!

There is always an obligation to pass judgment on the moral nature of one’s own actions, before performing them and afterwards. If we are going to act with conscience and knowledge all of our actions have to be preceded by a judgment even if it takes only a second. Only then can we determine whether a particular action is permissible to do. What we need in order to properly evaluate our actions is an external, objective moral standard. Otherwise we become a law unto ourselves. If that standard is simply what is acceptable in our society, it tells us nothing as to whether the society itself is condoning evil (e.g. human sacrifice, slavery, torture, abortion, racism, etc.). We need an objective moral standard based on something higher than mere social convention. What is higher than individuals or society? Our shared human nature and God. Reflecting rationally on our shared human nature – what it is, what type of actions perfect it, and what type of actions distort or disorder it – gives us a natural moral law by which we can objectively judge our own actions as well as those of others. God can also reveal the moral order that He has written into the heart of man. Since our human nature has its source in God His revelation would not contradict the natural moral law, only give us greater clarity and certainty in determining it.

Since we are not judging behaviour based on our own personal preferences or whims but by an objective standard it can be said that the standard itself is the judge, not us. We are simply its applicants. And since it is an objective moral standard it judges not only other people’s actions but our own as well. It is a universal standard based on our shared human nature. Failing to live up to that moral standard even though one propounds it does not, therefore, destroy or disprove it nor is it necessarily hypocritical. Rather it would be hypocritical to mold standards simply to suit oneself or deny standards solely because they condemn one’s own actions. With natural law we are not inventing moral standards but discovering them and recognizing their binding force even when we fail to live up to them.
“Four things belong to a judge: To hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially.” -- Socrates

“In England the judges wear wigs in court, to show that it is the law which is passing judgment, and not their own personal views. This is done in recognition of the truth all men suspect – that there is something impudent in allowing even the wisest among us to engage in pigeonholing our friends or cataloging our enemies.” -- Fulton Sheen
By Elishama |


Continued from my previous article, Objective Truth is the New Hate Speech, pluralism is the first of four "Cardinal Virtues of Secularism" discussed here.

Pluralism is the doctrine that holds reality to be either unknowable or to have multiple forms (i.e. pluriform). If unknowable then all claims as to its nature and meaning are equally valid insofar as they are all unverifiable opinion. If pluriform then reality cannot be reduced to either one or two ultimate forms but is made up of many mutually irreducible ways of being. This outlook leads in ethics to the claim that there are many independent sources of “value.” In religion it assumes that all beliefs are equally valid. Culturally it emphasizes heterogeneity over hegemony. “Diversity” is a popular buzzword used to describe this mentality. It is treated as a self-evident good and something to be strived for. Politically this has established itself in the West as ideological “multiculturalism”.

Pluralism as an observable fact is obviously true. There are many different belief systems and ethical opinions out there. No one would deny that. Pluralism as a philosophical conclusion from this fact is not as obviously true. Just because there are differences of belief or opinion does not mean that all beliefs or opinions are equally true. In fact they cannot be. Opinions and beliefs that diametrically oppose each other (e.g. God exists vs. God does not exist; moral norms are absolute vs. moral norms are relative; the world is round vs. the world is flat) cannot both be true if they are speaking categorically of the same thing.

Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist of Indian Hindu background, observed:
“One of the most fallacious ideas ever spawned in Western attitudes toward truth is the oft-repeated pronouncement that exclusionary claims to truth are a Western way of thinking. The East, it is implied, accepts all religions as equally true. This is patently false. Every religion, without exception, has some foundational beliefs that are categorically nonnegotiable and exclude everything to the contrary. You see, truth by definition is exclusive. If truth were all-inclusive, nothing would be false. And if nothing were false, what would be the meaning of true? Furthermore, if nothing were false, would it be true to say that everything is false? It quickly becomes evident that nonsense would follow. “Even Buddhism, which is often held up as being the example of ‘religious tolerance,’ is not exempt from dogmatism. Buddhists forget or downplay the fact that Buddha was born a Hindu and rejected some of the fundamental precepts of Hinduism. Buddha’s own statement was that truth mattered more than conformity. What, therefore, takes place in popular thought is a reflection of the way culture has been engineered to deal with truth issues.” (“Living an Apologetic Life,” Just Thinking, October 2003)
“Pluralism,” in its popular contemporary usage is simply a euphemism for relativism and subjectivism.

Relativism and subjectivism are not new: Protagoras, the Greek sophist (c. 500 B.C), maintained that the individual was the standard of truth. Plato cited him as saying, "man is the measure of all things." Consequently, any given thing "is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you" (Cratylus, 386a). Shakespeare quoted 16th century French essayist Montaigne to similar effect: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).

Relativism says truth is not fixed by any outside (objective) reality but determined by one’s own (subjective) perception of it. Thus it holds that truth is not discovered but invented. Truth is not unchanging but ever changing.

This, of course, is self-contradicting. The contradiction lies in the fact that the subjectivist claims that truth really, objectively, is subjective; the one unchanging truth is that all truth is ever changing. The one discovered universal truth is that truth is not discovered or universal but manufactured by the individual or culture.

Let us critique relativism using some of the common cliches or slogans associated with it.


That's True For You But Not For Me

On the surface relativism sounds relaxed and easygoing – accepting of all viewpoints. But relativism has one absolute: This I know to be true, all truth is relative (a universal claim that there are no universal claims, and so self-falsifying.) On this point it is dogmatic and rejects out-of-hand any contrary claim.

One can ask someone who recites “true for you but not for me” that if my absolutist view is only true for me why isn't his relativist view only true for him? Does he want me to adopt his view? (Self-excepting fallacy: He is applying the statement to everyone but himself). If his position is true then why argue it? The most he can do is present it. And if others shrug their shoulders and ignore it they are only giving it the acknowledgment his claim implies it deserves. It’s true for him but not for them.

This view is based on a failure to distinguish between the subjectivity of our judgments and the objectivity of truth. The subjective aspect of truth lies in the claim a person makes about the veracity of his judgment. The objective aspect lies in the agreement between his judgment and the reality he is judging. The objective aspect is the primary one. The truth of a statement resides in its correlation to reality not in its relation to the individual judging it.

In an essay on “Truth” philosopher Mortimer Adler writes:
“But the ancient controversy in which Socrates engages with the sophists of his day, who were willing to regard as true whatever anyone wished to think, seems to differ not at all from Freud's quarrel with those whom he calls intellectual nihilists. They are the persons who say there is no such thing as truth or that it is only the product of our own needs and desires. They make it 'absolutely immaterial,' Freud writes, 'what views we accept. All of them are equally true and false. And no one has a right to accuse anyone else of error.' ... If all opinions are equally true or false, then why, Aristotle asks, does not the denier of truth walk 'into a well or over a precipice' instead of avoiding such things. 'If it were really a matter of indifference what we believed,' Freud similarly argues, 'then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take tear-gas as a narcotic instead of ether. But,' he adds, 'the intellectual anarchists themselves would strongly repudiate such practical applications of their claim.”

But So Many Disagree, Relativism Must Be True


This is confusing the difficulty of discovering truth with the impossibility of finding it. It confuses the absoluteness of truth with the tentative knowledge we often have of it. No one is denying that truth can be elusive. No one said truth is easily known without effort, conflict, and possible error. The challenge is to struggle to discover it.

Likewise, the fact that individuals and cultures have differed as to whether particular actions are right or wrong does not make right and wrong subjective. The Aztecs believed human sacrifices right, Jews thought it wrong. This divergence does not mean it was okay for the Aztecs to sacrifice innocent people any more than it makes it right for the Southern slave owner to treat vulnerable human beings as property. What is culturally relative is opinions about what is right and wrong, not right and wrong itself.

Yet even opinions as to right and wrong are not wholly relative. No culture has ever existed which taught a totally different set of values. For example, honesty, justice, courage, wisdom, self-control were never all thought to be evil, and lying, theft, murder, cowardice, and selfishness were never all thought to be good. Disagreement is not over the existence of right or wrong, nor over the goodness of courage and badness of cowardice, but over what constitute right and wrong and what entails courage and cowardice. Moral principles are generally agreed upon (i.e. are transcultural), it is the particular content and application of these principles that causes disagreement and confusion.


Your Values Are Right For You But Not For Me

When someone told the great British essayist Dr. Samuel Johnson that one of his dinner guests believed that morality was a sham, Dr. Johnson responded, "Why, sir, if he really believes there is no distinction between virtue and vice, let us count our spoons before he leaves!"

Moral subjectivism has been conditioned into us by use of terms like “personal values” instead of terms like “moral laws” or “ethical principles.” The very word “law” suggests something more definite and objective. We do not speak of “subjective laws.”

Many people who claim to be relativists are not consistently so. We simply cannot function without a common moral standard of existence.

Paul Copan tells a story he claims true:
Throughout a course a student challenged one of his professors by claiming all morality is relative and so one cannot judge others by one's own standard. What is right for you is not necessarily wrong for me & vice versa. At end of the course the student handed in the final exam for which he had studied well. When his mark came in, instead of the “A” he expected there was an “F”. Shocked & infuriated he stormed into the professor’s office demanding an explanation. "This is unfair!" he exclaimed. "Did you say unfair?" responded the professor, "By who's moral standard, yours or mine?"
It has been said that a person tends to stop being liberal when it is his toes being stepped on. The same holds true of the relativist. Willis Player’s comment on “liberals” can be equally applied to relativists: “A liberal is a person whose interests aren't at stake at the moment.”


Do Whatever You Want So Long As You Don't Hurt Anyone

This is a common approach to the dilemma of pluralistic moral views. It has an air of legitimacy about it because it sounds similar to the most basic and commonsensical principle of morality, what is in fact the first precept of 'natural law' philosophy: “Do good and avoid evil.” However, as it stands the first proposition is erroneous and the second too ambiguous.

The first proposition, to “do whatever you want,” is a very subjective and selfish guideline. It is not the same thing as saying “Do good” or “Do what is right.” Doing “what you want” takes as its primary reference point one’s internal subjective disposition and desires. Doing what is “good” or “right” takes as its primary reference point an external objective criteria by which you judge the moral propriety of actions arising from internal dispositions and desires. What I “want” may sometimes coincide with what is “good” or “right” but not necessarily.

The second proposition, so long as you “don’t hurt anyone” is too ambiguous. What makes "hurting someone" an absolute value if all values are relative? It seems like an arbitrary sneaking in of an absolute moral principle where before all was said to be relative. Can one demonstrate its absolute character? And if one can then moral relativism is proven false.

Does the "not hurting anyone" norm have any exceptions (such as in cases of self-defense or law enforcement)? If it does what principle determines the exceptions? Is this like a personal game where one makes up his own rules and then makes exceptions to his rules? Why must I play the game by another person’s rules?

Also, elaborate on what exactly is meant by "hurt"? Is it being used narrowly here to mean only bodily injury? Or does it include emotional or psychological injury as well? Does it include injury to one's own or another person's moral character or reputation? Does it include harm done to one's own or another's spiritual life or soul? These types of injuries can often have profounder consequences than many physical injuries. If it includes all these then I can more willingly accept it since it encompasses a more complete understanding of human nature and its well-being. Unfortunately, used as a cliche such an understanding is rarely considered and I suspect not intended.


photo credit: Templestream Gump Meme - And then, for no particular reason, bad was good & good was bad via photopin (license)
By Elishama |


The first thing to be established is whether Catholic beliefs actually do upset many people? If they do not then this piece is misguided from the beginning. We know the misdeeds of professed Catholics – high and low, past and present – have upset many, including ourselves. But is it just the sins of the messenger that disturb or is it also the message itself? Do the doctrines and moral teachings of the Church, independent of the worthiness or unworthiness of their advocates, cause controversy, even hostility, with a large portion of the general population (including many Catholics)? I think they do and it is easy to demonstrate. One need only state directly, succinctly and without qualification certain Catholic teachings in order to elicit a negative visceral reaction from many individuals:
  • There is only one true God, the God the Church teaches and worships. 
  • Jesus Christ is the one and only Saviour of mankind. 
  • The Catholic faith is the only completely true religion. 
  • All of us are subject to Original Sin and its consequences and so in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. 
  • All salvation comes from Christ and, directly or indirectly, through His Church. 
  • There is an everlasting Hell to which unrepentant sinners will be consigned. 
  • The hierarchy of the Church has a religious and moral authority given to it by Christ Himself to which all believers must submit. 
  • The Church teaches objective moral norms that are true and certain for all people. 
  • The pope under special circumstances can speak on matters of faith and morals with infallibility. 
  • Ordination to the sacramental priesthood is possible only for males. 
  • Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is typically forbidden to non-Catholics. 
  • All mortal sins must ordinarily be confessed to a priest in order to receive God’s forgiveness. 
  • A true sacramental marriage is a permanent bond that divorce cannot end thus making remarriage while one’s spouse is still alive immoral. 
  • The use of artificial contraception is immoral. 
  • Homosexual acts are immoral.
  • Premarital sex and cohabitation are immoral.
  • In vitro fertilization is immoral.
  • Abortion is immoral.
  • Fetal stem cell research is immoral. 
  • Euthanasia is immoral.
Why do these teachings provoke in many an almost spontaneous negative reaction? Why do they elicit intellectual skepticism and emotional anger? Why can they put believing Catholics at the receiving end of harsh criticism and possible rejection from incredulous friends, colleagues, and family members?

Cognitive Filters

While there are a number of venues for exploring this situation, I will look at a very important one that is largely ignored. It is ignored because it involves an implicit set of philosophical beliefs widely held in our society but rarely questioned. These philosophical assumptions determine the way we approach truth claims, moral positions, and ideas. They form a kind of cognitive filter through which ideas are sifted to determine their acceptability or unacceptability. These intellectual presuppositions may be reinforced by one’s personality, moral character and family background but they largely arise from the cultural milieu. Constant exposure and habitual use of them makes their influence nearly imperceptible. Yet they have a profound effect on the way we understand and judge.

When ideas or issues come to the fore that are perceived as having a bearing on one or more of these underlying presuppositions only those views conforming to them are evaluated positively. All others are either spontaneously rejected or held in suspicion and doubt. This includes Catholic beliefs. The presuppositions are never questioned. What is questioned is anything that is perceived as challenging or contravening them.
"Everybody has his filter which he takes about with him, through which from the indefinite mass of facts, he gathers in those suited to confirm his prejudices. ...Rare, very rare are those who check their filter." -- Henri de Lubac
In our modern “multicultural” society there are several interrelated moral presuppositions that have become so dominant that they are increasingly accepted as the norms by which other values and ideas are to be judged. Much of the media and political discussion that goes on today is filtered through them: whether that discussion be about legalizing marijuana, affirmative action, crime and punishment, social welfare, immigration policy, religious beliefs, homosexuality, abortion, public education, universal health care, or embryonic stem cell research. These presuppositions are brought to such debates and unquestioningly assumed by many to be the measure by which one discovers the right path for society to take. They are treated as if self-evidently true and good. In this sense they are analogous to the classic four Cardinal Virtues.

Plato's Four Classic Cardinal Virtues

A virtue is a moral habit ordered to what is good and exercised with a certain consistency and ease. As a habit it is like second nature to us, so much so that not to act accordingly becomes more difficult than to act on it. For example, a person possessing the virtue of honesty is disposed to telling the truth and does so with a consistency that makes him trustworthy in word and action. If such a person unpreparedly tells a lie often you can tell right away because he is so awkward and obvious at doing it. It is out of character. A dishonest person can spontaneously tell a lie without even flinching. He has developed it to a vice (i.e. a moral habit ordered to what is evil).

Plato first elucidated the four classic Cardinal Virtues. They are Courage, Temperance, Justice, and Prudence. As “cardinal” virtues they are the good actions or attitudes upon which other virtues are “hinged” or depend. For example, courage is the ability and willingness to deny oneself, even suffer, in order to realize a greater good. Courage is necessary if one is going to make much progress in the spiritual and moral life. We must be willing to stand up for what we know is right even if it causes others to oppose us; even if it costs us financially, in friendships or in family relations. We have to be willing to stand up to ourselves as well if we are to avoid being driven by our emotions, passions, and desires to the detriment of our character. If we do not gain the virtue of courage then we will not truly possess the virtues of chastity, honesty, industry, fidelity, love, etc. In fact neither will we truly possess the other cardinal virtues since they are interdependent.

Cardinal 'Virtues' of Secularism

I call the new moral presuppositions the “Cardinal Virtues of Secularism.” This is only by analogy to the classic cardinal virtues. What I am suggesting here is that moral standards have dramatically changed in recent decades and with that has come a new criterion of moral evaluation. Our moral judgments (which, despite protests to the contrary, all of us make) are now determined in relationship to other hinge "virtues.” These new “cardinal virtues,” like the earlier ones, are interrelated. Each is determined by and reinforces the others. They are considered fundamental attitudes necessary for all Canadians to possess in a "multicultural" secular society. Not to properly possess these qualities is judged reprehensible. They are thus civic virtues. These new "Cardinal Virtues" are:
  • Pluralism: A relativistic attitude toward truth, religion and morals.
  • Tolerance: A non-judgmental approach to contrary opinions and moral choices/lifestyles.
  • Equality: Giving equal value to personal and cultural differences.
  • Autonomy: Emphasis on individual freedom in moral decision- making.
Much of the reason why Catholic beliefs upset so many people is that these four presuppositions colour the way people look at them. They evaluate Catholic beliefs not by their truthfulness but by whether they meet the cultural norms of being non-absolute, tolerant of differing opinions and actions, in fact treating them as equally valid, and affirm the individual’s right to act as he sees fit. Virtually everyone in our secular society has been indoctrinated to some degree in these modern “virtues” – they are taught throughout our education system, propagated by the entertainment industry and news media, mandated by the government and courts, and praised by peers.

Truth is Relative?

In the Introduction of his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the late philosopher Allan Bloom well described this situation as he met it in the classroom:

"There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students' reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don't think about. The students' backgrounds are as various as America can provide. Some are religious, some atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged – a combination of disbelief and indignation: ‘Are you an absolutist?,’ the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as ‘Are you a monarchist?,’ or ‘Do you really believe in witches?’ The latter leads into the indignation, for someone who believes in witches might well be a witchhunter or a Salem judge. The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness – and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings – is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

“The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, ‘If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?,’ they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. It is not that they know very much about other nations, or about their own. The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue – openness." (pp. 25-6) -- Allan Bloom

"Men go by their sympathies, not by argument." -- John Henry Newman

"Most men, when they think they are thinking, are merely rearranging their prejudices." -- Knute Rockne
The prevalence of these new cardinal 'virtues' explains why, in our contemporary secular culture, defending Catholic belief, or simply upholding that there are objective moral norms and universal truths, has become controversial. It can bring down upon you hostility and rejection. The Catholic faith assumes that truth is objective: That reality is one and the same for all (though not equally recognized as such by all); that life’s experiences are only properly understood within the context of human life’s deeper meaning and purpose, and that decisions need to be made in light of this. The problem with this approach is that modern Western people do not just doubt the articles of Catholic faith, they doubt in principle that there is an objective truth or real and knowable purpose to life on which a faith or decisions can be based. They are skeptical of claims to a knowable objective truth, especially in the realm of morality.

It is not that objective morality and absolute truth have been demonstrated not to exist or to be unknowable. This is not a logical conclusion people have come to based on sufficient evidence. Rather it is a moral expedient and political stance made necessary by a social vision. Objective truths go contrary to the type of “inclusive pluralistic” society being promoted. In this new society one must be willing to assume, in principle, the equality of differing morals and ideas. This is a prerequisite attitude. Thus the denial of objective truth is more an act of the will than of the intellect; more a choice not to entertain any exclusivistic truth claims than a conclusion based on rational proof.

Rationalizing Verus Reasoning

“He who will not reason, is a bigot; he who cannot is a fool; and he who dares not, is a slave.” -- William Drummond
The tendency to reach conclusions by rationalizing instead of reasoning has always existed. It is a universal human weakness. Professor Alice von Hildebrand noted its consequence in her philosophy classes:
“Thirty-seven years of teaching have taught me that convincing arguments will only carry the assent of those willing to accept the conclusion drawn. Numerous are those who will never be convinced because their will stands in the way: the conclusion is not to their taste. It is sadly true that false arguments will ‘convince’ those who welcome their conclusion.” -- Alice von Hildebrand
Often the implicit conclusion that the student is welcoming – and measuring all moral arguments by – is whether or not it supports, or at least accommodates, his/her desire to sleep with his/her girlfriend/boyfriend. Today such self-serving subjectivism has been promoted into a dominant and respected cultural ideology.

The virtues needed in our society that permit such a state of affairs are the four we shall discuss. They are the civic 'virtues' of our pluralistic secular culture. The average Canadian never thinks to question these secular virtues. Even if it came into his consciousness to do so I think he would be very hesitant. For to question them is to risk having to acknowledge certain ideas as true and other ideas as false; that some actions are good and other actions are bad; that some people can be in the right and others in the wrong. It will demand that he take a stand, and an unpopular one at that! This will threaten his peace and comfort. Moreover, it will label him (in the minds of others if not his own) as intolerant, bigoted, and arrogant. It may cost him friendships, family ties, and the esteem of his colleagues. So while intellectual confusion definitely exerts a strong influence in this matter, it is not alone. Conformism and cowardice are other factors.
“We will never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of appearing not sufficiently progressive.” -- Charles Peguy
As alluded to above, the unwillingness to admit there are absolute truths and objective moral norms can have a very personal basis. To admit the reality of such norms may force one to admit that he is living by falsehoods, has perpetrated evil, and that the one in the wrong may be oneself. Better to deny the existence of any objective truth or morality or, at least, that it is knowable. Easier to retreat into familiar and comfortable cliches that validate subjective choices rather than judge objectively. Better to deny reality than to violate the Cardinal Virtues of Secularism. For these soft and comfortable virtues can give one today the facade of being a good person and a good Canadian.
“Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.” -- Demosthenes

"It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen." -- Aristotle

“The people who are the most bigoted are the people who have no convictions at all.” -- G. K. Chesterton
In my next post I'll examine the Cardinal Virtues of Secularism in order to see what merit there is in them and how they are often misunderstood and misused.

By Fr. Tim McCauley |


The billboard may have caught my eye, but something deeper drew me to the current exhibit at the National Gallery, a retrospective on the life's work of the Canadian Indigenous artist Alex Janvier. The art itself is intriguing, and Janvier's own experience of residential schools encourages reflection on the interplay between Christianity and native culture.

His earliest works, at age 15, were religious commissions by the school; "Our Lady of the Tepee" (1950) is an ideal example of the inculturation of the Gospel, as Janvier portrays Mary with native features and includes Indigenous iconography such as a tepee. As Janvier developed his skill, he leaned toward abstract art, but many of his pieces are much more engaging and accessible in comparison with other artists encased in an unrelenting monotony of style. (Even those unfamiliar with art can instantly recognize a painting by Jackson Pollock, with his non-technique of pouring and flinging his paint on the canvas, or a work by Piet Mondrian with his weary discipline of geometric shapes and straight lines). Janvier's work can be delightful in its diversity.

The beginning of the exhibit presents us with a series of mandala-circle works with a sparing use of calligraphy-style wisps of paint. But then his style evolves continually. One of Janvier's early abstract works, "Eternal Struggle," (1966) conveys the sense of a profusion of life in a dense jungle, with orange, blues, greens and whites in semi-floral patterns, twisting and converging in a vortex. All human beings struggle to express our souls in the external world, through art, work, and relationships. Someone once described the soul as a diamond. But it can also be a furnace of passionate and conflicting emotions, an explosion of colours of inchoate beauty that cries out for meaning and form. However, abstract artists tend to be suspicious of any external imposition of meaning. They prefer to explore colours without obvious form and "pure" emotion without intrusion from the intellect.

"Fly, fly, fly" (1981, oil on linen) is a prime example of the potential of such art to elicit feeling. The indistinct image reminds one of a praying mantis or other stick insect, twisted and splattered on the surface of the linen. The word "chthonic" comes to mind, as if we were seeing an alien creature raised from the underworld, a fascinating but disturbing image. Of course artists can help us explore our unconscious. But to which image are they drawing our gaze -- to a monster lurking in a cave, or the image of God reflected in a diamond?

My second time at the exhibit I met a German art student who compared Janvier favourably to German expressionists, while also remarking on Janvier's unique style. He combines cheerful colours with dark themes. The expressionists normally shun soft colours such as light blue and pink, which Janvier freely employs. In 1989, Janvier explored memories of his residential school experience in 33 paintings, some of which are included in the exhibit. There are faceless children in stiff uniforms, suggesting an imposed conformity, yet all is rendered in bright colours! It evokes a sense of the irrepressible energy of the human soul.

In the context of the current cultural narrative of all residential schools being an unquestionable evil of relentless oppression, it is interesting to note, as the writers of the exhibit inform us, that the first school that Janvier attended encouraged him to explore his talent. The place of his "oppression" taught him to express himself. One wonders if, without those teachers at the residential school who recognized and encouraged his artistic gift, would there be an exhibit today? This might indicate the need for a more honest appraisal of the legacy of residential schools, recognizing the mix of good and evil in all human institutions and in every human being.

Near the end of the exhibit, almost as an afterthought, is a casual drawing of a priest entitled "Old Rev." The commentary of the creators of the exhibit is most instructive. We are informed that "Old Rev" was "instrumental in suppressing Dene culture through his teaching of Christianity which was presented as superior to their beliefs." First, let us make a clear distinction between people and truth. The European Christians who came to Canada were in no way superior, as human beings, to the native people. We are all sons and daughters of the one God. Furthermore, as John Paul II remarked, on his visit to the Martyrs' Shrine in 1984, "Jesus Christ, in the members of His Body, is Himself native." At the same time, the truth of God that Christ came to reveal -- that the Divinity is not an arbitrary power or a jealous demiurge, but a loving Father who created everything out of nothing, and desires only our good and our happiness -- this teaching is eminently superior to the half-truths of many pagan myths, whether they be Greek, Roman or Norse, Huron, Ojibwe, or Dene.

It is right for us to be outraged by religious hypocrisy. For anyone -- whether priest or nun, parent or teacher -- to tell children stories of Jesus but treat them with a sense of superiority, indifference, anger or cruelty -- such people bear the weight of serious scandal. From my own experience growing up in the Anglican Church, I can testify to the scars that such treatment leaves in the souls of children, and our collective need for healing. But it is wrong for us to blame God for the suffering in our lives, and a tragic conclusion for our own souls and our own happiness if we allow the weakness or malice of human beings to prevent us from coming to know Christ and the truth He reveals.

The current secular spin on the missionary efforts of Christians toward Indigenous Canadians would like to airbrush out of history personalities like Joseph Chihwatenhwa, a Huron native of the 17th century. When he met the Jesuit missionaries, he found that the truth of God they proclaimed corresponded with his own personal spiritual quest. By a supernatural instinct, he had already been withdrawing his spirit from some of the pagan practices into which he had been born. For instance, he and his wife had been married only once, and refused to indulge in the not uncommon practice among the Hurons of spouse sharing. They avoided feasts imbued with pagan ritual, and to the genuine astonishment of the Jesuits, neither he nor his wife smoked tobacco! When the missionaries told him about Christ, the truth resonated with something deep in his spirit, and he was drawn to belief as a fulfillment of his own deepest desires. (It is worth noting that after Joseph was murdered in secret by Iroquois raiders, many of the Jesuit priests regarded him as a saint in heaven, and there is a movement today for his canonization).

There is still so much potential in a fruitful dialogue between European Christian culture and native Canadian traditions, to enrich all Canadians. A true Christian ethos will always have a deep respect for nature as a gift and revelation of the Father-Creator. But secular European/Canadian culture can manifest a brutal, instrumental, capitalist and exploitative view of nature. Indigenous Canadians, for one, can help us all offset this danger. They have dwelt in this land for centuries, almost as if their flesh was formed from the clay of this particular Canadian earth. One of Janvier's painting, Nehobetthe (Land Before They Arrived, 1992), captures the magnificent natural diversity of Canada, with images of deer, bison, moose, rabbits, beavers, and eagles. Indigenous people can help us root ourselves more deeply in the land in which we dwell, living in our bodies grounded in the earth, rather in the virtual reality of our minds, detached from the smells and sounds of the world around us, cut off from other people and our own selves.

My hope and prayer for Janvier and others like him is that they will continue to explore the "colours" of their soul, their own inner emotions, in our common "eternal struggle" both to express ourselves and discover God. Form does not oppress colour, but fulfills it. The Christian message does not oppress the human person, but liberates him. God is for us, not against us. He is on the side of human beings of whatever ethnic background, for we are all His beloved children. Christ Himself gives us the tools to express ourselves in the art of life, and by His death and Resurrection, frees us from all forms of slavery and oppression, restoring our dignity and joy as beloved sons and daughters of our common Father.


Photo Attribution: Morning Star (Detail), Alex Janvier, 1993, file AlexJanvier MorningStar.jpg, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License