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Issue Date:  June 17, 2005

Diversity is us


We talk a lot about diversity in America. Sometimes, we actually practice it. Not the sentimental diversity of World War II films: a WASP, Italian-American, Jewish American, and Afro-American in a French foxhole -- who returned to very different neighborhoods after the war. Or the current equivalent: Our bishops’ recent campaign for “unity in diversity,” with cloudy claims about the “undocumented,” usually Hispanic Catholics, but sometimes risky arrivals from the Middle East and elsewhere. Any unity that we achieve will take a lot more work and far greater respect for the rule of law and terrorist threats to civilization.

Diversity comes to mind as I begin this column because NCR has invited me to share some thoughts with you and see how we get on together. I admire the courage but wonder if it’s prudent, two good pagan as well as Christian virtues. Sometimes the proverbial porcupine social etiquette is the best we can do: close, but not too close. I do not walk the progressive line, and my presence here is intended to bring some diversity to these pages. In Washington where I work, there is little diversity in debates (most groups prefer to talk to themselves), still less real dialogue even when different perspectives show up at the same table. Unfortunately, it doesn’t much seem to matter whether the table is secular or Catholic.

In secular discussions, we may lose the benefits that real debate among ourselves might bring to the United States, not least the civic amity that the old philosophers believed transcended red or blue states. In Catholic discussions, however, the stakes are higher because division seems to go against the breathtaking prayer “that they may be one, as we are one.”

I intend no pious sentimentality here. We know from the Gospel that dispute arose with the Lord’s very body: The 10 apostles believing while Thomas doubted, less out of skepticism, I’ve always thought, than faithfulness to the truth, which at least once turned out not so bitter. The right kind of disagreement may be a path to truth, but how often do Catholics disagree fruitfully today?

As our late pope reminded the world in Fides et Ratio, “Rather than make use of the human capacity to know the truth, modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned.” This call to truth is uplifting without trying to settle everything. When the current pope spoke of the “dictatorship of relativism” just before being elected, he was warning about the same cool despair that damps our natural fire for truth because it has dogmatically ruled truth out.

In America, I find that this mild skepticism is aided and abetted by what Santayana called our “native goodwill, complacency, thoughtlessness and optimism.” But there are less mild forms of skepticism abroad in the land, and American Catholics generally seem to have no clue that those forms present a pointed threat. Meeting that threat means that Catholics themselves have to get the house very much in order. When I make this argument, I often find myself accused of wanting to go back to some alleged time when Catholic did not think, blindly obeyed, and rejected everything modern.

But my point is rather that our main struggles are not the ones that most easily make the front pages. Contraception, women priests, homosexual marriage and pedophile priests are not unimportant questions, but they are “issues” that do not go to the heart of our faith. We are facing a growing complex of intellectual and social actors who would like to deny the very possibility of speaking publicly in religious terms and have no qualms about using the educational system to discredit all forms of faith.

If you do not like the religious rhetoric of Bush and the Republicans, fine. I sometimes don’t like it either. But where else has there been a strong public effort to push back against a militant secularism? Our bishops can do only so much. We need vigorous lay men and women in the public square, but not in the weak-as-water ways of the old Christian Democrats or many of our newer American Democrats. As much as I respect personally many who tried to develop those parties, they have not worked (except partly in Germany -- the Germans can make anything work) because in its embarrassment and reluctance to speak in religious language, liberal Christian social witness simply gets steamrolled by the culture.

It was George Washington, not George W., who said: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience alike forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” In the 18th century, TV had not been invented and people still paid careful attention to words. So when Washington speaks of “reason and experience” and “religious principle,” he means something with a hard edge that has proven utility for human freedom and flourishing.

Every day, I drive into Washington and try to inject at least a little more faith and reason into the capital of the modern world. Quixotic, yes, I know, but both are growth industries in my neighborhood. I hope that we can work on that same project here in a spirit that acknowledges its importance but also the importance of Christian charity in the midst of differences.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington and the author of several books, including The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century.

National Catholic Reporter, June 17, 2005

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