Alexander Pope’s poetic phrase, which appeared in ‘An essay on Criticism Part II’ published in 1711, still resonates today: ‘to err is human; to forgive divine’. In Pope’s view, our aspiration to do as God does leads us naturally and wisely towards charity and forgiveness.
In Ireland, recent decades have seen significant societal changes that must inevitably prompt Christians to question the role of religious faith in public life. Contraception, divorce, same-sex marriage, abortion, school patronage and the focus of sex education feature significantly in public discourse. Similarly, the clerical abuse crises, the scandals of the Magdalene laundries, the close association of the hierarchy with political life and the cover-up of abuse within the Church must surely cause us to reflect more fully upon our faith. This requires us to think more clearly about our own private views as well as our ideas about the common good.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the etiquette of never talking about religion or politics in general company has distinct appeal for those of us wishing for a peaceful life. However, our need for such informal social rules also tells us something important about ourselves. Because, it assumes that we cannot trust ourselves or others to engage civilly or harmoniously in public discourse. It also suggests that our religious and political affiliations are somewhat private matters best articulated in safer spaces. Curiously, the Internet is seen by some as a ‘safe space’ to share views that may well be unwelcome in general company.
There is no such thing as a ‘safe space’ for people who want to live the fullest life possible beneath a wide-open sky. To live fully, we must engage with the world and find ways of living with the diversity that we find around us. This requires us to have a healthy respect for those who disagree with us. It also requires us to accept the possibility that our own views might change throughout our lives. Of course, we might also reasonably hope that others might change their views too. The phrase ‘agree to disagree’ comes to mind as a useful catchphrase for navigating modern discourse.
The biological ‘fight or flight’ instinct is still dominant in our lives despite the advances of modern civilisation. This biological necessity that has influenced our species throughout our evolutionary history is deeply embedded. The fear associated with the ‘fight or flight’ instinct has not gone away even though many of us (at least in settled societies) no longer need to regularly fight or flee for our lives. It is important to note that the anticipation of fear can also bring about the same response as being under an immediate threat.
There is no limit to the fears that can impact our lives. Terrorism, war, poverty, disease, flying, darkness, intimacy, failure, crime, public speaking and death can all feature as fears in modern life. An important aspect of faith is that it helps us to overcome our fears. Several biblical passages, modern testimonies and scientific evidence attest to this truth.
Faith can also play a role in helping us to overcome our fear of getting caught up in complicated arguments. Indeed, a Catholic perspective on religious freedom offers us a subtle approach for thinking about what might be considered as controversial topics.
Traditional Catholic thought defends the faithful’s right to participate fully in public life. This view is often in opposition to modern perspectives found within secularism, which seek to limit the religious mindset to the private lives of believers. In this approach to modern life, traditional Christian values are deemed to be controversial and best banished from the public domain to protect the safety of vulnerable groups. Given the context of our history, it is unsurprising that this view is deemed by some as justifiable.
Often, such actions are defended by appealing to vague notions of diversity, inequality and justice while focusing on isolated phrases from Church teaching that do not come anywhere close to capturing the fullness of truth taught by the Church. Whatever we think of specific aspects of Catholic teaching, the Church offers us a comprehensive, coherent and consistent approach for contemplating reality, a reality that cannot be fully appreciated by highlighting isolated phrases.
The problem of adhering rigidly to isolated phrases or to selected teaching is not limited to those who oppose the Church. Within the Church itself, there are those who defensively cling to clericalism or to traditional forms of orthodoxy as a way of protecting themselves from the realities of the modern age. Regardless of where one stands on complex societal issues, it seems that fear can lead to a narrow mindset.
In heated debates, complex issues are often either missed or misrepresented as opinions become more polarised. Some of this might be explained by the politicization of religious issues and a growing sense of unease or fear in the modern world. Often, hot topics overshadow other moral issues of public importance, such as poverty, human rights and freedom. This polarisation of debate erodes our ability to engage in civil public discourse. This can limit our pursuit of common goals in the public sphere.
A few secularists tend to use words, such as indoctrination, control and theocracy when describing the influence of the Catholic church in the public domain. Within the Church, there are those who argue against reform, against all forms of secularisation and against anything that acknowledges the potential of human progress to shape the Church of the future. Equally, there are those who argue for a progressive Church in complete harmony with modern sensibilities.
In my opinion, extreme positions are motivated by fear more than reality. Yet, the biological impulse towards fight or flight is inadequate to countering such fear. We do not conquer fear in ourselves by responding fearfully to counterarguments or by mercilessly provoking fear in others. We must accept that fear may be justified just as we should always acknowledge when trust has been broken.
There is strong evidence in Catholic tradition that the Church promotes civil legislation based upon moral values but not to the extent that all possible moral behaviours are externally regulated. The Church’s approach to the problems of human behaviour has long been to foster an appreciation for personal virtue within the private lives of individuals and amongst wider society.
There are some that might argue that such faith in the potential of humans to acquire virtue is misguided. Equally, there are those who see that the true potential of human virtue can only be achieved in a free society.
Nevertheless, in societies that foster personal responsibility and virtuous ways of living, there is less need for the State to regulate everything. And so, the Catholic view of civil legislation is intimately associated with concepts of personal freedom. Despite this enlightened teaching, it is clear that Church organisations and individuals have not always lived up to the standards of virtue, freedom and personal responsibility that they espoused.
The role of civil law is to promote sufficient moral behaviour to achieve the common good of society. It is not to promote the level of individual moral behaviour articulated by the Church as a personal goal for the faithful. The moral role of the State is not limitless, nor can it be in any practical way.
Given the limitations of the State, it is in the interests of legislators to acknowledge and foster religious freedom so that individuals who seek a virtuous way of living as an intrinsic component of their faith are empowered to enrich and enhance the common good of society. The pursuit of the common good by religious bodies or by state authorities should never be taken for granted. Checks and balances must play a vital role in ensuring the public good.
Catholic voices should not be heard and valued as some sort of lofty directive. Such servility masks reality itself and leads to a stunted form of virtue. History teaches us that this approach can only lead to problems that blights the common good and tarnishes the soul of the nation. An unthinking loyalty is no loyalty at all.
But, Catholic voices can be a source of wisdom that contributes to public life and the pursuit of the common good. There is also the practicality of who bears the responsibility for ensuring that the common good is being achieved. Clear lines of responsibility need to be communicated and implemented in the complex landscape between Church and State.
Similarly, when articulating viewpoints that have been inspired by the Catholic faith, it is important to acknowledge that other viewpoints exist and that the common good of society is foremost. Though the word pluralism has many meanings, it is a worthwhile exercise for individuals to explore the potential of a pluralist society.
Disagreement exists and must be navigated rather than avoided. The only way to foster a vibrant society capable of making progress is to enable civil public discourse. In this way, diverse opinions and values can be heard and a shared understanding of the common good can emerge and re-emerge through the passage of time.
For every one of us in today’s world, our good sense must unite with our better nature. We cannot face the rough and tumble of life with fear in our hearts. We cannot strive for human progress or the common good when we are choked by silence or the fear of speaking up. We cannot love our neighbour when a self-righteous judgement burns within our hearts. The alienation of the other is not a path to peace.
Forgiveness helps us to overcome fear and resentment. It is through forgiveness and love that we rise above our more basic instincts. When we consciously choose to overcome the binary option of fight or flight, we can discover a deeper humanity and a common good in shared public life.