Objective truth is the new hate speech

April 17, 2017
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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.

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