Monday, November 14, 2005

Religious Convictions and Public Discourse (Discussion w. Chris Burgwald)

NOTE: This is continuation of my earlier post "On Liberalism: Discussion w. Chris Burgwald", addressing his post on the proposition 'Liberalism is the Death of God'. The use of religious language in public debates and the problem of pluralism was the focus of an exchange btw/ Chris Burgwald and Santiago in the comments to his post on liberalism. What follows are some extended reflections in response to these issues, put down over the course of the past week -- CB

Regarding Chris' mention of the Enlightenment desire to construct 'a public morality' without any reference whatsoever to religion, and acceptable to anyone with the basic ability to think" -- one of the questions that I was prompted to ask: wither the concept of natural law as a medium for communication between Christians and non-Christians?

On one hand, natural law is rooted in religion (there can be no 'law' without a lawgiver). But at the same time, isn't it posited that by human reason we have the ability to know the requirements of natural law without the explicit assistance of divine revelation? While there is no question that many Christians are deficient in bearing witness to the Good News and the call to evangelize, does it necessarily follow that engagement in public discourse is not worthy of our time unless one's position on this or that issue is given explicit grounding on religious convictions? -- Fr. Neuhaus is resistant to this notion, and for good reason:

Schindler says the NWN gang, following Murray, claim that they are engaged in public discourse and therefore must make their arguments accessible to all reasonable persons, irrespective of their theological convictions or lack thereof. That, according to Schindler, is just the problem. A full-bore, undiluted presentation of Catholic truth is unapologetically aimed at converting people to that truth. He asks, "Would not an ethic that held less demand for conversion have a greater chance for widespread success?" He does not deny that, but simply responds by quoting Balthasar that "success is not a Gospel category."

So much for the task of trying to construct a comprehensive public discourse based upon reason and moral law. Attempting that is a liberal delusion, according to Schindler. It is worse than futile; it inevitably results in a betrayal of the fullness of the truth. Schindler's position is in key respects a Catholic version of the position of R. J. Rushdoony and the theonomists among Calvinists and of Stanley Hauerwas in his more intemperate moments. In their view, a genuinely public discourse is an oxymoron. Although they may use the same words, between Christian and non-Christian (maybe, for Schindler, between Catholic and non-Catholic) there is no commensurable discourse. The Catholic intellectual should simply bear witness to the fullness of truth in the hope of converting others to it. Although he denies it, Schindler is, like the theonomists, disposed toward a monism that cannot abide the pluralism that is history before the End Time.

NOTE: On this issue, I recommend the following for further consideration:
  • God’s Reasons: Do appeals to religious authority have a role in public policy debates?, by Robert P. George. McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and author of Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2001). Dr. George strikes me as a good example if any of a Catholic who wields the natural law tradition effectively in engaging non-Catholics/non-Christians in policy debates in the public square.


  • Christian Conviction & Democratic Etiquette, by George Weigel. First Things 41 (March 1994): 28-35. Weigel asks: "How do we talk the talk? How, that is, do we talk so that moral judgments born from Christian religious conviction can be heard and thoughtfully considered by all Americans-or at least by those Americans willing to concede that moral judgment plays a crucial role in the public policy process?"


  • An example of this issue comes into play was the 2004 Presidential elections. As you might recall, John Kerry never tired of defending his "pro-choice" stance on grounds that while he was a Catholic, with respect to the question of abortion (and human cloning and embryonic stem-cell research), he would as a matter of principle refrain from "imposing" religious convictions on the general public. In April 2004, George Weigel weighed in on this matter as follows:
    "What belongs to everyone, since this is a national candidacy, is the responsibility to make clear that when Kerry says the Church's pro-life teaching is a sectarian position which cannot be imposed on a pluralistic society, he is willfully misrepresenting the nature of the Church's position -- by suggesting that this is something analogous to the Catholic Church trying to force everyone in the United States to abstain from eating hot dogs on Fridays during Lent."

    "This is simply false. The Church's pro-life teaching is something that can be engaged seriously by anyone. You don't have to believe that there are seven sacraments to deal with this, you don't have to believe in the primacy of the bishop of Rome to engage this position. You don't even have to believe in God to engage this [pro-Life] position because it's a position rooted in basic embryology and in basic logic, and anybody can engage that."

    Q: Is this a suitable and legitimate mode of reasoning for a Catholic in public debate? What would David Jones or Chris Burgwald say? What would Schindler say?


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