,There was this time in a galaxy not far away and not long ago when I had been, more or less, brainwashed into thinking that conservatism good, liberalism bad. Remember Tarzan, Tonto and Frankenstein on the old SNL of the 80s. “Fire BAD!!”. I have to hear that Phil Hartman voice in my head when I think that, “Conservatism, GOOD, Liberalism, BAD!!! ARHG!!!” I mean that was where I was in my faith formation. Not sure really why I fell into that trap. Maybe because I had felt a little out of control at a point in my life and because I didn’t want to tip off that side of the edge again I went for the other. Whatever the reason, I was there. Steeped. Hook, line and sinker. The whole nine yards. Insert favorite trope.
During my time as a goponly-Catholic, that’s GOP, only, I talked a lot about moral relativism, as if it was a problem of the left. Because, come on, my perspective as a conservative was so balanced and perfect. How could it not be? I wasn’t one of those liberals. It’s like the scene in scripture with the Pharisee and the Samaritan, right? I was pretty much praying daily, “Lord, thank you for not making me be a like these despicable Liberals”. I mean, wow. That was where I was for a lot of years. And during that time if you asked me about the biggest issue ever I would have echoed Pope Benedict and I would have said the “Dictatorship of Moral Relativism” is the biggest issue we face in our modern culture. Which is still true, Benedict wasn’t off base, it’s just how do you see the relativism that becomes the question.
I grew up in the country in a small rural community of central Kentucky. Tobacco was the cash crop of the local economy and while my parents didn’t farm, one of my older sisters married a tobacco farmer when I was 7. She was 17. That’s another rural Kentucky thing but not germane to my story, so we’ll save that for another blog. So, tobacco, that was the backbone of many a tiny community in a number of states and a cash crop from everyone from the smallest guy who could sell a crop for a fair price to the larger operators who could make hundreds of thousands, tobacco was good for a lot of people. Or was it? Then we saw tighter restrictions on the industry and more evidence of the harmful effects of tobacco products and now where you would drive through the country and see acres an acres of tobacco it’s all but gone.
Now you may say that my story has nothing to do with relativism. Facts have proven that tobacco is dangerous and cancerous and it needs to be stopped. Regardless of the livelihoods of the farmers who once relied on the cash from the crop, tobacco BAD!!!. But what if we looked a popular sacred cow for both sides of the religious spectrum, contraception. There’s evidence saying that "the Pill" is a Class One Carcinogen. Yet there are those who say it’s vital to women’s health and must be covered in insurance plans. Then there are those who are trying to be faithful Catholics and they can’t seem to catch a break because they are trying not to use contraceptives but they are going nuts with no time between pregnancies and 5 kids in diapers. So is there a moral truth here? Is there a solid footing to stand on and with one side of the argument or the other?
I saw a Facebook post from a friend recently that essentially said, “The Church tells me I can only trust my conscience if it’s formed by Church teaching, that’s not conscience that’s brainwashing”. Interesting, isn’t it? So, could there be truth for you and not truth for me? Are there true absolutes that we can never dispel? Is there a starting point and an ending point? I used to use an exercise where I’d try to find a lowest common denominator of “absolute truth”. We might be talking about what’s relative and then I might say, “so you think sex is good for anyone when it’s consensual? What if it’s forced? What if it involves children? Then we can agree it’s wrong, right?” And with this I thought I could strip moral relativism down to a nugget that we could agree upon but at the same time I was holding my biases as a goponly-Catholic.
I started digging into this a few years back and stumbled onto Aristotle. What I found in exploring his perspectives was that balance and tension seem to be really important with any virtue. See, before this understanding, I thought virtue was just the extreme opposite of vice. I had a very puritanical understanding of extremism that really pushed me way out of balance for a long time. Without tension and balance we have truly vicious cycles. Our desire to be virtuous only becomes a greater vice because of how vicious we become in our opposition of the vice we’re opposing. It sounds really crazy when we step back from it. But how often are we told this is the way to roll? Flee, fight, run, jump in the thorn bush naked, whatever it takes just don’t sin. Sin, BAD!!!
So there has to be an absolute right? And there has to be something that can make all of this craziness sensible. Please. Tell me there’s something to believe in. That’s the old Poison song. Not as big of a hit as Every Rose Has its Thorn, but it was up there. Years upon years ago, 12 or 15 years ago, I went to confession with a priest who was a Dominican Provincial. Not that that matters to the story, except that if you are running a province of half the country and you’re a Dominican you’re probably pretty smart. In the confession, he shared with me this. And it began a blossoming of a seed in me to the point that I have the perspectives I have now, but he said this. “Leo, there are Nazi’s and Communist in the Church today. The Nazis want to return to time that never was, and the Communists want to arrive at a time that never will be. The only place to be as a Catholic is to stand solidly in balance at the center where you can say, and mean it, this is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad.”
Pretty profound when you think about it. Are we standing in balance or imbalance? Are we vicious in our pursuits of virtue, or are we truly virtuous? I think we need to ask ourselves a lot more questions. We don’t ask enough. We’re the worst about this. I’ve really tried to stop and ask people I’m talking to what they mean, or what their reference was, or the big word they used. I’ll try to ask the right questions. I try to say, is there balance in what I’m doing and thinking or am I about to slip off the edge? St. Paul’s crazy, “Everything is lawful but not everything is expedient” quote comes to mind. We can do what we want, sure. We have free will. But is what I’m doing getting me closer to balance or further out? Are my politics running the show? Or, am I really looking out for my neighbor, even if my neighbor takes a knee during the National Anthem, or flies a Confederate flag?
Relativism is dictated on both sides of politics. And, I think most often dictated in politics. Jesus said the law and the prophets and the greatest commandment all boiled down to two things, "Love God and love others." I take that to mean only one thing. I show my love of God by how I love you. Do I truly uphold the dignity of all? Do I try to stick up for injustices when and where I see them? Or do I just tow a party line because that’s the way I roll? Maybe a little more awareness that we can be as guilty of the things we accuse others of being would go a long way.
We have a wonderful theological understanding of mystery. We ponder the mysteries of the Rosary, for example. It’s not there to solve, but to reflect enough to allow the mystery to affect us the way it’s supposed to affect us. This is what we need more of because nothing is more mysterious than two faithful individuals disagreeing on an important issue. If that’s what’s happening, and it happens all the time, maybe it’s time to explore that mystery in our own hearts. We don’t have to label the other person a relativist, or, God forbid, a Liberal, or Conservative. Liberal, BAD!!! No. Stop and ponder. Stop and ask. Stop and try to see the other side enough that you might even see yourself in that other individual enough to love them for their flaws, because if they’re like you they’re flawed. I know this, I know this because I know me. And I assure you I'm liberally flawed.