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The Church As the Last Defender of the Power of Human Reason

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Father David Mary Engo of the Franciscan Brothers Minor of Fort Wayne, Ind., addresses a rally of supporters of a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the bill later in the day. The Republican-sponsored proposal would prohibit any state laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs and extends the definition of a "person" to include religious institutions, businesses and associations. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

David Mills - published on 03/31/15 - updated on 06/07/17

More practically, this contrast appears in the debate over same-sex marriage. Catholic thinkers like Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and their peers work out in detail the nature of marriage, its relation to the physical sexes and to the begetting and raising of children, and the state’s role in recognizing and regulating it. They have a doctrinal commitment to marriage as the permanent union of a man and a woman, of course, but they still work out the question philosophically and present an argument the secular person can engage.

Those on the other side, with a few exceptions, present a simple dogmatic claim that acts as a solvent upon any developed philosophical argument. They declare marriage simply a matter of love or commitment, deny that physical sex matters at all, and insist that allowing people to marry someone of the same sex is an imperative of equality and justice. Generally absent is any consideration of the fundamental matters George and his peers explore.

We see the result. What had once, just a couple years ago, been a debate over extending the established pattern of marriage (two people legally bound together) to homosexual couples has now become a debate over extending it to “throuples” and other polyamorous groupings, and even to incestuous relations. These all play out logically the same-sex marriage advocates’ claims — whose solvent qualities dissolved even the good they claimed to be promoting.

A few marriage liberals have squawked in protest — revealingly few — but the only grounds they could have for objecting to the extension of their own principles is the serious reflection on marriage they’ve declined to do. They have to answer the difficult question of why only two people to a marriage? That will take careful thought. I can guess why they might avoid it, because trying to answer that question risks having to answer others, like whether the two must be of different sexes. Safer to avoid the whole thing.

This saves them from the charge of fundamentalism. Catholicism can’t escape the charge, because it can’t escape the burden of thought. And that, as I said, is a point in the Church’s favor. Chesterton laid out the need for careful thinking in his early book Heretics. In the book he writes about his contemporaries, men like Well, Shaw, Whistler, and Kipling, as “heretics”: people “whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.”

Given this clash of orthodoxies (as each person will describe his own philosophy), Chesterton says, “I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.” He then describes an argument in the street about a lamp-post that many people want to pull down. A monk, speaking in the manner of the Middle Ages, says “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—“ and is knocked down.

All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something.

And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

For her efforts, the last institutional defender of the grand humanist belief in the power of human reason finds herself, and her Protestant allies, dismissed as incapable of thought. Catholic moral teaching, though deeply worked out, is “fundamentalist.” What the world opposes it will not name fairly. That’s one of the lessons of the Passion.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. This article was first published in Touchstone and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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