I'm thinking these days that it rarely makes sense for Catholics, even dialogue-minded ones, to engage -- on the specific details of any controversial issue -- with the average person who holds the mainstream accepted view.
I say "average person" for a reason, to exclude a special case where it does make sense.
If the two interlocutors, are good friends, if they respect each other, if there is a spirit of mutual curiosity, if each is willing to say things like "Gosh, I don't know the answer to that one" and "You know, that is a really good point," and "You might be right about that," if they can spend an entertaining evening buying one another drinks and having what used to be known as a good argument -- well, a lot of things are possible. And even if nobody's mind is changed the world becomes an incrementally better place at the end of such an evening, because two people met, grappled with truth, understood each other a bit more.
The reason that works, and why it can make for such a satisfying way to spend one's leisure time, is that it involves treating one's opponent as a fellow human being -- not as a symbol of Everything That's Wrong With The World Today. As a person, not as a thing.
Not to be destroyed; not to be manipulated; not to be owned (or pwned); not to be used; not to be discarded; because, not a thing, but a person.
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People are people, and not things. This is a good thing to remember when we do engage with the mainstream; and it ought to be easy to remember, because this is exactly the firm ground that we need to retreat to and stand on. People are people, and not things.
This is the unshakeable platform on which all of the complicated details are built, every way in which the Catholic vision of What People Can and Cannot Do To And With Each Other differs from the mainstream one. The structure atop this platform can appear awkward and gangly and intricate, like a child's jungle gym. The structure is built upon the platform, not the other way around. It's possible to start in one place, follow it back to its origins where it is rooted in the base, and from there work your way back up to any other spot; or to zoom out and take in the whole as a coherent structure. It is all connected.
But that's asking a lot of somebody who encounters you on Twitter, or for a couple of hours at a family picnic. To put it bluntly, most people just are not going to go there. Following you all the way down that structure is something that real friends and fellow-thinkers might be reasonably expected to do. The reality is that we cannot expect it from most people. Scoring points in an argument with a bigot is fun and memorable; reading lengthy quotes from Thomas Aquinas is not attractive. You can't dissuade somebody from going cow-tipping by inviting them to a lecture on bovine physiognomy instead.
Some people who think more about thinking than I do have offered detailed philosophical reasons for the mutual incoherence. It may be simpler to observe that the Catholic worldview and the jumble of popular public worldview start from different assumptions, postulates if you will. A less optimistic view is that the popular public worldview does not hold to any one set of assumptions, leaping to whatever is the most useful at the time. Of course, that view is consistent with the notion that there is no "popular public worldview" to engage with; there are only individual human persons, none of whom are symbolically representative of anything, and who must be engaged with one at a time.
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And so, because we want to engage with people as people and not as symbols, we have to accept that often we won't be able to usefully engage on the specifics. A lot of public discourse is completely dominated by utilitarianism or sentimentality (sometimes both at the same time), neither of which are compatible with the Catholic vision of the human person.
It would actually be refreshing to meet someone, discuss the politics of the day, and hear her say "Well, actually, I subscribe to the philosophy that the most moral action is always the one that maximizes the total amount of happiness and decreases the amount of suffering in the world." Or perhaps, "I hold that the best moral guide is one's feelings: the moral action in any unpleasant situation is the one that relieves the actor's feelings of discomfort and dissonance and produces soothing feelings of satisfaction and catharsis." One might disagree with such people, ideally at great length and over a few drinks, exploring each one's structure all over from the ground up, and trying to understand how they all fit together, testing the parts for soundness.
This doesn't seem to happen very often on Twitter.
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I propose a retreat to the fundamentals -- this fundamental vision of the human person, articulated by Karol Wojtyla in Love and Responsibility, a notion upon which that same man as Pope John Paul II would build most of his Christian anthropology known as the Theology of the Body:
A human person is "a good toward which the only adequate response is love."
This notion is itself rooted in the Christian understanding of God and nature, so it isn't absolutely fundamental itself. It is, I believe, as far back down the structure as we can go without being forced to debate the nature of God or pit holy books against one another. But it is fundamental to us in the sense that it is really not up for debate.
It is also a useful foundation because, I believe, it commands a certain amount of respect in the abstract. So even someone who rejects it in specific instances (How can you say that we have to respond in love to that monstrous child-murderer? He doesn't deserve love from us!) can be persuaded that it is a reasonable philosophy to start from, or perhaps an ideal to strive for even if it is terribly impractical. A die-hard positivist may reject it, but most people we may speak with are not die-hard anything.
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That statement of the human person sounds good to a lot of people, and a very large number of them might say they agree with it, when asked. But the meaning to which they are agreeing depends very much on their definition of the two key terms in that statement:
- human person
And this is a place where we have a chance to make some commentary that might shed light. Because very often, our differences have to do not with people rejecting the statement that a human person is a good to which the only adequate response is love, but with people
- excluding some humans from personhood (either because they do not meet some criterion for inclusion, or because they have committed some act which has revoked their status)
- using a different definition of "love"
We can anticipate #1 by changing "human person" to "human being;" we regard the one as identical to the other, even if others do not, and do not believe that a human's personhood can be revoked. We can anticipate #2 (which is entirely understandable given the vagaries of the English language) by being more specific up front, combining John Paul II with Thomas Aquinas:
A human being is a good toward which the only adequate response is agape-love, that is, "willing the good of the other."
That is grammatically clunky, so
The only adequate response to any human being is to will his or her good.
From there we can derive almost everything there is to say about how human beings should behave towards one another and with one another. It does remain to point out that by "good" we must emphasize "ultimate (eternal) good," but this never excludes willing temporal good as well.
It doesn't mean that there will never be moral dilemmas; it does mean that we can't resolve them by retreating to utilitarianism or to sentimentality, but instead have to work to resolve problems where the good of one "other" appears to conflict with the good of another "other." Sometimes a larger perspective is needed.
Anyway, the statement above is not what you would call an argument-winner. It invites discussion from the interested, maybe. It does not solve policy problems all by itself, but then, neither does anyone else. It is mainly about how people treat each other, not how social policy is constructed; social policy could be judged in its light, by considering whether it encourages or discourages people from willing each other's good, but it won't provide answers on its own.
It has the advantage of being true, and easy to remember. It will not steer you wrong, either as an argument --- or as a style of argument, which might even be more important as we navigate the world of ideas, which is only an oblique way of saying the world of human persons.