From the Bishops Reason and faith: the guarantee of true freedom

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When the city officials of Charlottesville, Virginia, the hometown of Thomas Jefferson, decided to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park, they ignited a nationwide argument about the propriety of honoring heroes of the South's confederate past. As a result of this controversy, a statue of Lee no longer towers over the city of New Orleans. And the limestone, almost life-size image of Lee no longer graces the entrance to the Chapel of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Many adamantly protest any image that reminds them of a time when our national heroes did not respect the dignity of every human person, regardless of race or color. Will their protests eventually bring down the statues of Jefferson who spoke against slavery while owning hundreds of slaves himself? Will Christopher Columbus and Ulysses S. Grant be exiled from New York? If so, then what are we to do with the stone statue of Margaret Sanger in the Smithsonian? Can we legitimately immortalize the founder of Planned Parenthood who was active with the Ku Klux Klan and promoted doing away with races she deemed inferior? 

The recent mob protests against monuments to our nation's past should cause us to ask some very serious questions. Do we simply erase our history? Do we choose to forget our past? Are we to replace what was with a revisionist's view of the facts? Stalin tried that. And, it does not work. The best solution to the social ills that still mar our national character can never be the destruction of our past, but the honest, reasoned understanding of it that inspires the effort to move forward.

At the basis of a well-ordered society is a rational approach to living together and fostering the common good. Today's protests and counter protests, accusations of hatred and bigotry have made it difficult to listen to the voice of reason. Irrational, angry iconoclasm not simply against statues but also against our leaders is making it more and more difficult for those of differing opinions to listen to each other. 

We are witnessing a great divide in the soul of America. It manifests itself in the angry mobs clamoring to sanitize our past. It stands unmasked in the way the media at times offers us a less than objective reporting of events. The divide is between facts and opinions, between truth and personally held beliefs. It is the divide between rational thought and biased emotion. 

Tearing down statues and violent riots do not advance rational discourse. And, therein is the challenge we are facing: the need to stand apart from the loud shouts of bigotry, intolerance and hatred on any side of an issue and to think rationally. Is this not the very method used in our science labs? Calm, rational investigation, discussion, argumentation, and judgment is the gateway to truth. It cannot be replaced with emotion, vitriol or, worse yet, the opinion of the crowd. 

According to Aristotle, one of the world's greatest philosophers, only humans are capable of thinking and acting according to well thought-out principles. Only humans are capable of taking responsibility for their choices. Each of us is responsible for the truth we embrace or reject.

The need to belong, to be accepted, is a basic human need. Made to live in relationship with others, all of us have the intrinsic desire to be part of a community greater than ourselves. As a result, there can be the temptation to simply embrace the commonly held opinions and thus be accepted. Furthermore, it is all too easy to listen to news commentators and accept their opinion or judgment without subjecting it to robust intellectual scrutiny. We owe it to ourselves as thinking individuals to resist that temptation.

Through his reading of the history of ancient Athens, James Madison, one of our Founding Fathers, warned about the inherent weakness of a direct democracy. He foresaw that the majority could force its interest over the rest, even at the expense of the common good. That majority may be the more powerful political party at a particular time in our history or the prevalent ideology of our age. We should never simply acquiesce and allow the majority to control our thoughts and behavior. 

Each of us, whatever our education or age, cannot surrender the duty to think critically, to analyze facts and to make sound judgments. Francis Bacon, the English Renaissance statesman and philosopher, best known for his promotion of the scientific method, once said, "Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture." 

In our post-Christian age, we witness a growing rejection of a Christian anthropology. The human person is no longer seen as a creature of God, but someone of his or her own making. The present zeitgeist divorces the human person from the wise design of the Creator. An individual's preferences and choices have become the determining factor of happiness. Our courts and politicians are actively promoting this secular view of the human person. Yielding to this secular propaganda is a form of conformism that closes the mind.

In reality, the iconoclasm of our day that seeks to impose one way of thinking on us is an unhealthy distraction from intellectual honesty. We need to be patient with others, especially with those who disagree with us or label us unenlightened or intolerant because of our faith and firmly held principles. As Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, once said, "God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him. The world is redeemed by the patience of God. It is destroyed by the impatience of man."

God has gifted us with reason. The rational search for truth, done in charity, will always lead to the Truth who alone can bring lasting happiness. As Catholics, we are part of a culture that spans the centuries and has been able to live under so many forms of government and persecutions. We are heirs to a vast intellectual search for truth in every science. Galileo, the father of modern science; Copernicus, first to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology; Descartes, father of modern philosophy; the monk Mendel, the father of genetics; Pasteur, founder of bacteriology; and, the priest, Lemaître, the father of the Big Bang Theory – just to name a few. Our faith does not destroy reason. It guides and directs it, like a light shining through a fog.

Our faith broadens our understanding and allows us to question and come to the full truth about ourselves and the cosmos. Our secularized culture is like a swiftly moving stream, ready to carry us away. "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it." Reason and faith enrich our lives with truth and freedom. As G.K. Chesterton astutely remarked, "[The Catholic Church] is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age."

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