Brian Keaney

Category: Millennial

A Truly Catholic Political Dialogue

Originally posted at Millennial.

ImageThe presidential election has shown us just how deeply our house is divided.  I dare you to find a card-carrying Republican who has anything good to say about President Obama, or a registered Democrat who is willing to utter a nicety about Governor Romney.  This great political schism has been growing for years and, unfortunately, I don’t see an end in sight.

Consider the Cardinal Newman Society, which does some excellent work around the issue of Catholic identity on college campuses.  They have been near-fixated on the issue of the Health and Human Services contraception mandate largely.  This is not, I suspect, because it has a direct impact on the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, but rather stems from a general conservative bias against the president.

When On All Of Our Shoulders was released earlier this month, the Society attacked it on the grounds that the lengthy list of Catholic thinkers who signed it were “distorting Church teaching in favor of left-leaning politics to take political shots at vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.”

Put aside, for a moment, that the statement begins by explicitly saying that they “do not write to oppose Ryan’s candidacy or to argue there are not legitimate reasons for Catholics to vote for him.”  Let’s also ignore the fact that this is only tangentially related to issues of Catholic higher education in that several of the signatories teach at Catholic colleges.  Instead, let’s take a look at all the places where the Cardinal Newman Society has shown that the statement distorted Church teaching.

Sorry, I can’t find any.

They do not, in fact, cite a single instance where the statement strays from Catholic teaching.  Instead, the Society makes an ad hominem attack on one of the signatories who, in all fairness, appears to have his own issues with dissent from some fundamental teachings of the Church.  Lacking any substantive complaints about the document itself, they attack the credibility of one of the dozens of people who signed it, and in so doing hope to discredit the entire statement.

Like so much of our political commentary today, the Society’s response appears to simply be a Pavlovian reaction by a conservative Catholic organization to a statement critical of a fellow conservative Catholic.  They are attacking our guy, so clearly they are wrong.

I would have much preferred to have read a thoughtful response, something that moved the ball forward instead of just circling the wagons.  Lest you think such a discussion is impossible in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, I will instead point you towards a conversation taking place on what Anna Williams at First Things has called A Truly Catholic Economy.

George Weigel began with a thoughtful essay on how a “robust economy makes possible the empowerment of the underprivileged—the true “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social doctrine, according to John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—even as it helps conserve public resources by making the resort to welfare less necessary.”

It is a good start but, as David Cloutier explains, it is missing several important considerations.

Mr. Weigel presents a romanticized view of the work world as it presently exists. We need to take seriously our dependence on exploited, low-wage labor, which we manage to do without too much social chaos only because of a number of subsidies. I’m not saying here that people need to have “cushy” jobs. I’m saying that people who work erratic hours at the local supercenter still need health care and rent, and it’s pretty hard to imagine them raising a child and doing all that without the subsidies. Let’s get real about just wages, and then we can talk about the dignity of work and the need to reduce welfare spending.

Cloutier then engages even further on an informed comment left by a reader.  This is the type of exchange of ideas that we as a nation can benefit from, and I hope other bloggers pick up on the thoughts presented by Weigel and Cloutier and run with them.

There are no simple answers to the problems that we will have to confront in the next four years, and I don’t propose to have any of them.  What I do know, however, is that we are much less likely to find them when what passes for dialogue consists mainly of pointing fingers and calling names.  What we need is a reasoned, rational debate that is all too rare today.

As Americans, we should rise above the current dismal state of political discourse.  As Catholics, this is precisely what we are called to do.

Sharing in our Master’s subatomic particles

First posted at Millennial.

I was especially excited for the 4th of July this year.  It has always been a special holiday for me, seeing as I love both history and the beach, and I get heavy doses of both each Independence Day.  This year, however, neither of those got me half as excited as what was taking place half a world away, in a city where no one cared that it was the 236th anniversary of our liberty.

The Higgs boson, commonly known as the God Particle, is what gives everything in the universe mass and has long been predicted but never seen.  Until now.  Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva announced this summer that they have likely detected it, and in the world of particle physics this is a Really Big Deal.

While the practical applications of this discovery far exceed my limited intellect, I am sure it is only a matter of time before someone comes up with one (and then commercializes it).  As Pope John Paul the Great has noted, “so far has science come, especially in this century, that its achievements never cease to amaze us.”  Similarly, the other His Holiness, the Dalai Llama, has written that “the amount of scientific knowledge and the range of technological possibilities are so enormous that the only limitations on what we may do may be the results of insufficient imagination.”

In his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Llama beautifully shows within the context of Tibetan Buddhism that Pope John Paul was correct in saying that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  He goes on to propose ways that modern science and his ancient Buddhist faith can complement each other and further each other’s goals, but also finds a few places to critique science and its limitations from a Buddhist perspective as well.

Every chapter explores a different science, everything from quantum mechanics to neurobiology, but for my money the last is his best.  In Ethics and the New Genetics the Dalai Llama becomes noticeably more impassioned, and he gives voice to worries about everything from cloning to Frankenfood.  It is also here that he offers ardent cautions on not letting our scientific ability get too far ahead of our ethical assessments.

The human capacity for moral reasoning has kept pace with developments in human knowledge and its capacities.  But with the new era in biogenetic science, the gap between moral reasoning and our technological capacities has reached a critical point.  The rapid increase of human knowledge and the technological possibilities emerging in the new genetic science are such that it is now almost impossible for ethical thinking to keep pace with these changes.

While I disagree that our technological ability has outpaced our ability to think about the ethical ramifications, I do worry that if someone gets too wrapped up in their work—whatever the field—that the question of whether or not I can often times becomes more important than whether or not Ishould.  Especially when we are talking about the fundamentals of life, it behooves us to take a step back from time to time and look at the bigger picture.

Here once again the late Pontiff for whom our generation is named cautioned us in Fides et Ratio: “And since it [the belief that science is the only form of valid knowledge] leaves no space for the critique offered by ethal judgement, the scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to think that if something is technically possible it is therefore morally admissible.”

Of course it is not only science that is susceptible to this fallacy.  We have seen the effects of financial markets and consumer-driven excess where it was never considered whether or not pecuniary decisions were wise or just, but simply whether or not they were profitable.  Bankers, like scientists, and all the rest of us for that matter, “lacking any ethical point of reference, are in danger of putting at the centre of their concerns something other than the human person and the entirety of the person’s life.”

While I was never much of a student of it, I do love science.  I genuinely was excited when the Higgs boson was discovered, but I want to make sure that we never lose sight of the fact that these great scientific advances should be a means to improving the lot of humanity and not simply ends in themselves.

To those whom our late Holy Father has called “these brave pioneers of scientific research, to whom humanity owes so much of its current development,” the Dalai Llama has said that “the issue is no longer whether we should or should not acquire knowledge and explore its technological potentials.  Rather, the issue is how to use this new knowledge and power in the most expedient and ethically responsible manner.”

If they, and we in our own lives, do that, I hope we will all someday hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.”