Over the past five decades, the world has gone through radical changes in every area of life. Mass populations have gained great access to information and lost the sense of its meaning. Nations have lost their borders and become what Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George calls “communities on continents in conversation”.
But people can’t have a conversation when they don’t speak the same language or understand the words as a minimally basic reference point. Even if they’re all speaking English. Even if they’re all living in the United States of America.
Words can define, or distort and divide, and they’re currently at the heart of this divided country. We don’t know how to talk with each other, apply critical thinking skills, carry ideas through to their logical conclusions. We don’t know how to presume good intentions, defend a position with reason, or disagree with civility.
The lines are drawn. Rights and wrongs are more strongly asserted and fought over than they have been in a long while. But who drew those lines and who declares what’s right and wrong, based on what authority? There are as many questions as answers. But the good news is that there are answers. The moral compass of a nation may be broken, but at least there is one in the world, and for purposes of this discussion, in a nation founded on Judeo-Christian ethics written into its founding documents, ingrained in its people and woven into the fabric of their common life.
This discussion is my new book Non-Negotiable: Essential Principles of a Just Society and Humane Culture. It has been forming since a little girl encountered segregation in the Deep South and became a little activist for social justice without knowing that such a term existed.
It grew in my intellect and experiences as a student in the age of revolution and as a journalist for a major secular newsmagazine, television network, and assortment of magazines in an era of liberal dominance of each, and of academia. It even conquered the Catholic Church, wrung through a false interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. The world was turning upside down and inside out.
But some things, I knew, were still immutable truths. I just kept my head down and went forward, confused and yet searching for the truth. Always searching for The Truth. Because I knew it was there and could be found.
Which gets back to the moral compass in the world and this nation. Chesterton said “There are an infinite number of ways to fall, but there is only one way to stand.” With the truth he found in the Catholic Church. Which is no doubt why so many rail against it.
So the inspiration to finally write the thing forming over a lifetime came when, having a number of other book ideas on my mind, a young scholar with an abundant library of his own, asked if I had a book (or could refer one) on ‘what the Church teaches on the essential life issues and why.’ Yes, of course, I said. But neither of us could locate one, or just that one, anyway.
So I wrote it.
But if it were to be “what the Catholic Church teaches on abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, marriage, religious liberty” or something like that, it would attract…whom? Hopefully, the crowd of Catholics who don’t avail themselves of that teaching in broader form written time and again by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or other episcopal bodies in other regions. Preaching to the choir is not my intention.
But then again, (a) even the choir has to know its music, be on the same page, learn it, practice it, bring it into harmony and give it full voice and in its full beauty, and (b) voicing truth with clarity and charity can touch those beyond the choir who hear it.
You can’t unring a bell
So voices beyond the Catholic Church and beyond our time collectively had to tell the human story that transcends time and relative cultural values. It had to be all about human dignity at the center of everything.
It begins with Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, goes through the United Nations crafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the great Civil Rights Movement and the most soaring messages of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the personalism of John Paul II, the new humanism of Benedict XVI, the culture of encounter of Pope Francis, human rights social activist turned great scholar Fr Richard John Neuhaus, Evangelical leaders Dr. Timothy George and Chuck Colson. And others. While also giving voice, as important additions, to the liberal feminist Naomi Wolf, and a former “leftist lesbian professor” who “despised Christians” and then “somehow became one.”
They speak about humanity and human dignity and rights, and I speak only as an author drawing together the collected wisdom on immutable truths that transcend the ages and hold societies together. Dr King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
Because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century BC left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of this interrelatedness of all communities and states … Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
He wrote that to fellow clergymen who should have known better than to condemn him and his movement for their human rights activism. But it resonated far beyond its intended addressees, and still does to this day.
And yet, here we are, living in a “culture of death” as John Paul called it, a “dictatorship of relativism” as Pope Benedict called it. Last year, Pope Francis gave an address at a Wednesday audience, citing his predecessor. “We are living in an age when people are rather skeptical of truth,” he said.
“Benedict XVI has frequently spoken of relativism, that is, of the tendency to consider nothing definitive and to think that truth comes from consensus or from something we like … The truth is not grasped as a thing; the truth is encountered.”
Pope Benedict said often that we live in an increasingly secular culture with no reference to God, which is key to the message of the book.
In this environment, he warned, tolerance has degenerated into indifference toward permanent values … If truth does not exist, Benedict said many times, then mankind cannot distinguish between good and evil.
The introduction posits that over the ages, religious leaders have warned of history repeating itself if we don’t learn its lessons, and also of the dangers of an elite class redefining humanity, freedom, rights and even religion. We are there, with abortion as “choice”, euthanasia as “compassion”, redefinition of marriage as “equality”, and religious restriction and conscience violation as “church/state separation”.
The ending of the book is really a beginning:
Because we’re in a pivotal point in history in which we have to make bold choices about what our principles compel us to do to protect and advance what we believe … Being a bleeding heart doesn’t mean holding a particular political persuasion, but it does mean making tough decisions about time and talent and resources well spent, at the service of others, according to a moral code and a well-informed conscience.
It means using words honestly, speaking clearly, charitably and unapologetically, engaging the culture in the public arena of ideas, with a reference to first principles that shape a free, just and moral society. It evades political labels. It is the cause of preeminent human dignity. With so many slogans and unexamined premises slung at ideological opponents intended as conversation stoppers, the book is intended to be a conversation starter. And hopefully, an opening to a culture of encounter.
Sheila Liaugminas blogs at MercatorNet at Sheila Reports. She is an Emmy Award-winning journalist based in Chicago.