Sunday, June 9, 2013

Note: The following op-ed appeared in the Providence Journal on Sunday, June 9, 2013 and was written in response to a piece by Justin Katz, that can be viewed on his blog, here. The ProJo piece is an edited version of a piece that appears in full on RI Future, here. I should point out that I do not choose the titles of the pieces when they appear on RI Future or the Providence Journal.

The Age of Enlightenment formed our government

Cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling one gets when the realization strikes that two or more deeply held beliefs or values are in conflict, will often lead to wild fits of rationalization and self-deception. Those who will not give up on contradictory beliefs resort to long and torturous rationalizations, double speak and outright falsehoods in the hopes of banishing cognitive dissonance in a puff of syntactical gobbledy-gook.
How else to explain the June 5 Commentary piece by Justin Katz, “Catholics grapple with political change”? Katz seems intent on tying the diminishing political power and moral influence of the Catholic Church to what he sees as the growing ease New Englanders have with “tolerance for the authority of others over them.”
Apparently, by turning away from the Catholic Church, a non-democratic hierarchical institution that claims absolute moral authority over all aspects of life and afterlife, and embracing government, a democratic hierarchical institution that merely exercises secular authority, we have abandoned the one true religion in favor of a new religion, government.
Katz implies that religion is impossible to escape, since any rejection of the rules of the Catholic Church automatically makes one a member of the High Church of Government. Katz makes his view quite clear, saying, “In the case of marriage, with narrow exceptions, the state government has essentially issued a command: ‘Thou shalt treat same-sex relationships as equivalent to opposite-sex relationships.’”
Note that Katz conflates the laws of Rhode Island with biblical edicts. In contrasting secular law with religious commandments Katz is forcing a choice: either the church sets the parameters of the state, or the state has de facto become the church. Under Katz’s formulation, there can be no separation of church and state, no renderings to Caesar that which is his or unto the government its due. There is only one supreme authority, and a choice must be made.
Katz then introduces this curious claim: “In Catholicism, the individual’s conscience is sacrosanct, and to be shaped by the church’s teachings. In government, the individual’s conscience receives only that space that government officials have deigned to carve out for it.”
The history of the Catholic church is not one of an institution that respects the individual’s conscience. In fact, one need only look at the treatment of heretics, the witch trials, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Protestant Reformation to see that. I’m sure the individual conscience of Galileo was assuaged by Pope John Paul II’s apology, 367 years too late. One struggles to understand, in the face of so much war and violence against individual conscience by the Catholic Church, what Katz takes the word “sacrosanct” to mean.
Similar claims can be made against the U.S. government, but the United States can change. In fact, it’s based on a Constitution built to change and adapt, not upon a perfect and revered holy book or tablets carved by God. The government can be changed from within, by the electorate, via direct action on the part of its citizens. This is because the United States is a product of the Age of Reason, a.k.a. the Enlightenment, a movement dedicated to the improvement of society through reason and the scientific method, and to challenging old ideas based on faith and tradition.
Enlightenment concepts were revolutionary because all previous authority, whether we thought of it as governmental or religious, was ultimately religious in nature. Kings were chosen by gods, and the people merely persevered. Personal conscience was irrelevant. Remember that one of the major institutions leading the charge against the Enlightenment was the Catholic Church. It was only the pressure of Enlightenment ideals that forced the church to forgive Galileo, accept the reality of Darwinian evolution and concede the moral right of Jews to exist unmolested.
Katz would have us believe that the Catholic Church is a better guarantor of conscience than the government. He decries governmental intrusion into the marriage equality debate and into reproductive health via Obamacare. However, when it comes to government-sponsored prayers on the walls of public schools, or Christmas versus holiday trees, suddenly government intrusion is fine.
Since Katz can seemingly handle any amount of cognitive dissonance his varied views demand, he has no problem marrying his Catholic faith to his libertarian (or even Objectivist) views. A small, non-intrusive government that bans same-sex marriage and monitors women for birth control violations? No problem. A church that treats the individual’s conscience as sacrosanct but mandates prayers and Christmas trees in public spaces? Why not?
Katz seems to say, “Reason be damned. Believe what you want.”
I think we can do better.
Steve Ahlquist is a writer and artist living in Providence. He is the president of the Humanists of Rhode Island.

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