In an age where virtually all our nation’s public institutions have fallen into distrust, perhaps it is time to look beyond our borders. Perhaps a focus on some basic facts that are beyond dispute can provide a basis for public debate.
We live in distempered times. The general public, surveying the current events landscape, reacts with a wide range of troubled emotions: anger, embarrassment, fear, frustration, ridicule, disdain, even disbelief and shock at what is no longer shocking. No matter our zip code, economic class, or political stripe, almost no one is happy with the current state of public affairs.
The climate for civil discourse is the worst I can remember--and I am a child of the 1960s, when U.S. cities burned and the nation’s capital was repeatedly besieged by impassioned demonstrators and three national leaders were assassinated.
I shared my Boomer generation’s desire for change, a desire to create a better world. I saw many of our institutions--the government, the military, the police, the church, even the family--in crisis. I found our country drifting into a spiritual malaise that sapped the moral energy we needed to revitalize our national values. I saw the need for strong guiding values in the face of war, racism, and poverty, but by 1969 I had lost confidence in our established political parties. I felt that, rather than providing visionary and moral leadership, the GOP and Democrats simply reflected the materialist and war-like values of their political bases. Our leaders were following conventional wisdom of public opinion, rather than leading in a better direction. I had lost faith in the system.
So I chose to abandon my own ambitions for a political career and to promote better values by working “outside the system.” For me, activism for a better world took the form of local action focused on faith-based communities. This was my response to that era’s crisis of values.
But 40+ years later we seem to face, not merely the crisis over values, but even a crisis over facts. We are not merely divided by what we value, by what matters, we are even divided over what is real, what is true.
We see the signs everywhere as people dispute reality on a issue after issue. We argue whether climate change is real or a hoax. Whether elections are rigged or fair. Whether the current investigations are legitimate or witch hunts. Whether immigrants are a threat or a benefit. Whether a travel ban means better security or unjust discrimination.
This begs a question: what relevance can faith have here? When people struggle to achieve common values, as happened in the 1960s, it made sense to look to faith-based institutions for moral guidelines—churches were prominent in the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King was an ordained minister, not a public official.
But when people are reduced to fighting over facts--what use are faith-based institutions?
I am convinced our religious institutions can help us achieve common ground about basic facts that can renew our civil climate and revive the possibility of a productive public debate. If we can agree on what’s true, we can then argue civilly and constructively about what should be done. But how to agree on what’s true?
First, we step with a primary fact behind all others facts: Facts are mostly a matter of good sources.
None of us can verify every fact for ourselves. We rely on GPS to know where we are going¸ and the speedometer to tell us how fast we are getting there. We rely on meteorologists tell us a storm is on the radar, on clocks to tell us the time, on green lights to tell us it’s safe to go, on the Internet for nearly everything. Every hour of our lives we depend on facts, but we get those facts, not from our own direct observation, but from sources we trust. We know the facts only because we believe those sources. A wise philosopher once said that 95% of the most brilliant person’s knowledge is based on such belief.
It stands to reason, then, that our current crisis over facts is actually rooted in a crisis over sources. In a word, what we believe depends on whom we believe-- and right now, our country cannot agree on whom to believe.
This is especially true when we speak of facts about public affairs. Where people once prized freedom of the press, many now dismiss the mainstream media. Where people once relied on “the fourth estate” of reporters and commentators, many (even our leaders) now turn instead to social media. While the previous generation counted on investigative journalist to dig up the truth, we now turn to cable news panels to hear what we want to hear.
It makes sense, then, that to restore common facts we need to search for sources we can count on.
And forgive my career-shaped bias, but I find the Catholic Church a helpful source in the search for common facts. I know this institution has been scandal- plagued for nearly a generation now (see CrossCurrents #442 https://swaincrosscurrents.blogspot.com/2015/11/442-spotlight-gets-story-right.html to see how persistently that scandal has crossed my own career path). And last week’s allegations against Australia’s (and the Vatican’s) Cardinal George Pell once again has stained the church’s credibility.
Nonetheless, there is a case to be made for paying attention to the Catholic Church on public affairs--and if one does pay attention, the results are significant.
Let me cite two sets of well-established facts that could become the basis for a much wider discussion.
Fact Set One: Why pay attention to the Catholic Church?
Fact #1: the Catholic Church is the world’s largest organization of any kind, with more than a billion members and worldwide coverage.
Fact #2: Its membership includes roughly 20% of all Americans, and these American Catholics have become an important swing vote in recent elections.
Fact #3: Despite the toll of the sex abuse scandal on the Church’s public reputation, the election of Pope Francis in 2013 brought a huge public relations boost to the Catholic Church. Francis is among the planet’s most visible and respected—even beloved--public figures. When he talks, people listen, and when he talks, he speaks for a consistent tradition of the Catholic Church’s vision for a better modern world dating back to 1891.
Fact #4: That vision presents a comprehensive analysis of world affairs, as well as set of principles for addressing our major challenges.
In my opinion, that vision, typically called Catholic Social Teaching (CST), represents the best single perspective on the crises facing our world and how they might be solved. In particular, I believe that Francis is speaking to our time with a focus, a breadth, and a wisdom unmatched by any of our nation’s public figures. That’s why I pay attention. And this leads me to a second set of facts.
Fact Set Two: Facts about what Catholic Social Teaching (CST) actually says.
Fact #5: CST says promoting the common good is more important than pursuing personal benefit.
Fact #6: CST says people have a right to private property--but all our property must serve the benefit of others.
Fact #7: CST says that the market system must serve people, rather people serving the market.
Fact #9: call CST says that immigration is a human right; while governments may protect their borders, they must respect the right of people to migrate.
Fact #10: CST says that climate change is a reality, that it is a threat to God’s creation, and that the entire human family—but especially wealthy nations—face the moral imperative to address it.
Fact #11: CST says that economic inequality is the unacceptable sources of many evils, and must be fixed.
Fact #12: CST says that, while war may be justified under some conditions, the conditions of modern warfare make such justification rare or impossible.
Fact #13: CST says that religion is not to blame for terrorism. Rather, terror emerges from poverty, injustice, and fanaticism.
Fact #14: CST says that Islam, like Judaism, worships the same God as Christians.
Fact #15: CST says that taxation must serve the common good--even if that means redistributing wealth
Fact #16: CST says the world’s population comprises one human family and that this planet is our common home, so our goodness must be judged by our embrace of that family and our efforts to care for that home.
We’re all entitled to our opinions, but not to our own facts. So anyone can disagree with the statements above--but no one can say that these are not in fact the teachings of the Catholic Church.
And those facts matter. For those of us who are Catholic, or those of us who admire Pope Francis, or those of us who simply seek a vision of a better future, these facts can be--as they are for me—a starting point for any discussion of public affairs. Even if we disagree with the positions they express, we cannot deny they represent the worldview of the world’s largest organization. And on that basis alone, they deserve our attention. They certainly deserve more attention than the fake facts flying all around us. We can do better than that.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017