Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
None of us likes being told that certain things we would like to do we cannot do — typically because they are illegal, immoral or just bad nutrition. Civilization depends on certain common standards of what is or is not acceptable behavior. In order to determine what such behavior should be, however, it is essential that a forum is present in which ideas can be generated, articulated and discussed so that some consensus can be reached in a peaceful or, at least, tolerable way. In other words, so that the appropriate behaviors can be settled on without force or violence. This is one reason that we have the First Amendment.

The marketplace of ideas is the forum in which all citizens can freely take part in presenting their thought-wares, so to speak, without prior screening, license or censorship. Free speech is a right to which all are entitled. It is not a privilege for only a few. The right to speak freely, however, is not a guarantee against being challenged, contradicted or even shamed. It takes courage to think, articulate and make one’s case, as it were, on the strength of the reasoning process offered. Ideas are not good or bad, sound or unsound, because of who presents them. That would be authoritarianism. They rest on their own merits.

Ideas rise or fall on the strength of their logic and accessibility to others who can understand them, if presented clearly, whether they like them, agree with them or feel comfortable with them. The truth of ideas is based not on who generates them — who thinks them — but on their own sense and sensibleness. What we call, colloquially, “common sense” is a practical example of the power of ideas. Jesus often appealed to this in his parables, such as the one about the wise and foolish virgins (Mt. 25:1-13), or the wise steward (Lk. 16:1-13). The aphorism “look before you leap” expresses the wisdom of strategic thinking: planning ahead before any venture. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is generally good advice on many levels. Its truth is not invalidated by the occasional enthusiast who cannot resist “gilding the lily” or in other ways “reinventing” the order and beauty of God’s creation.

Sure, there is nothing wrong with imagining a human face with three eyes or two mouths, especially if one crafts a cartoon for political satire or scripts a horror film. Telling an artist “You can’t think that way” would probably have deprived the world of the works of Picasso, Stravinsky and Stephen King — whether or not an opus of any of these artists is your cup of tea. 

Totalitarian regimes, such as those we have seen in the former Soviet Union, typically monitored free thinkers for any hints of disloyalty to whatever their managers perceived as a threat to their orthodoxy. The composer Dmitri Shostakovich was once called on the carpet for the way his music was evolving and, in order to continue, had to comply with what he accepted as “just criticism,” and to tone down the originality of his works. The recent assassination attempt on Salmon Rushdie brings to mind how a political system tied too closely to a particular religious system and its hierarchies who enforce it can lead to fear and violence that even destabilize civilization. In all candor, Christians have not always avoided succumbing to such temptations.

Our founders were not unfamiliar with the history of oppression by religionists, not always zealots or fanatics, who sought to impose their beliefs on everyone without making the case for the reasonability of their beliefs — if indeed they could be demonstrated to be so — in such a way that they might be deemed at least acceptable, even sensible, by the people of their time. At present, we are seeing such tensions played out every day in the cultural skirmishes, often ideologically driven, that brand one another, variously, in terms such as fascist, racist, MAGA or woke, to name but a few. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find any two people who agree on the definition of many of these terms, whatever may be their reality. Amidst the declamations and denunciations, where is the forum for listening and discussion?

“Come now, and let us reason together” is an invitation that came not from Socrates but God, when Israel had lost its way and fallen into the chaos of sin (cf. Is. 1:18). It may be surprising to some that an appeal to reason is something that would be found in any religious tradition. Perhaps it is part of the prejudice of modernity that assumes religions are irrational, passé, or somehow opposed to the scientific method — any method — that relies on thinking or rationality. 

Speaking from my knowledge of the Catholic Christian tradition, I can attest without hesitation, that our moral teaching, while rooted in and consistent with our biblical foundations, is primarily built on scientifically and philosophically grounded propositions that do not require religious belief to understand or, at least, approach them. No, science and faith are not opposed in our Catholic tradition, but seen as complementary, different ways of discovering the same truths. 

We hold all human life sacred, for example, from conception to natural death. This is clear in the first pages of Genesis, that God created us in the divine image (“God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” Gen. 1:27), like no other creature. Science has discovered (not ordained or commanded) that at conception the human subject acquires its unique genetic identity (DNA) that contains the coding of an entity that will never be anything but human till (at least) death. The chromosomal makeup is therein established and is not naturally alterable. It’s X and Y is a finite number of combinations, but never less than human and the biologically male or female, as the scientifically employed codes conventionally designate.

This is biblical and scientific history. These are the facts. Most of our teachings on social, political and sexual morality — including the meaning of the conjugal union itself (matrimony) are corollaries that derive from these principles, which are not at odds with but consistent with each other. As a moral theologian, I learned early in my academic studies, that our teachings are primarily reasoned organically from these foundational principles, not built on scriptural quotes, slapped randomly together. Saint Thomas, relying heavily on the philosophical writings of the (pagan, secular) philosopher Aristotle, based most of his moral reasoning on “natural law.” Not physical natural law, but what he terms “right reason” (recta ratio). 

The implication of these realities is enormous. It means Catholics — potentially other people of faith or no faith at all — can engage in the exchange of ideas without exhorting to condemnations and fatwas, in coming to understanding, maybe even consensus, in a respectful and peaceful way on moral fundamentals. All it takes is the courage to think.