Wednesday, September 20, 2017
I am not on social media much, but from what I gather the vitriol that seems often to characterize the medium has heated up on religious matters. Whether it's with regard to the unconstitutional treatment of judicial nominee Amy Barrett, Fr. Martin's new book, Building a Bridge, or Pope Francis (always Pope Francis), online religious warfare is apparently at its zenith. This should concern all who care about faith - but even more broadly, all who care about reason. After all, it is the capacity to offer coherent reasons for one's perspective, as well as the capacity to listen and civilly engage those who differ, that makes constitutional democracy possible--and well, we live in one.
The founders of our republic took a great risk in presuming human beings could engage in public-spirited dialogue about matters of the common good. But to them, the historical alternative was not all that appealing. And we might be reminded of that from time to time. Religious warfare - even of the increasingly digital variety - leads neither to changed hearts nor minds, and it certainly does not lead to peace among people. It degrades the human person - who by his capacity to reason most distinguishes him from the animals - and it degrades the common life we live together.
So I was happy to see Bishop Barron's address to employees at Facebook earlier this week. Bishop Barron, like Pope Benedict and others before, does even more good in his defense of reason than even in his defense of the faith. His talk, "How to Have a Religious Argument," brings together many of his recurring themes, but most especially that faith is opposed to neither reason nor science. The talk is outstanding as a matter of apologetics. There is simply no one better.
But perhaps the talk is most instructive in its final minutes when he walks the audience through the medieval method of disputation as best exemplified by the great St. Thomas Aquinas. Thomas formulates arguments for atheism far better than the modern atheists, Barron tells his audience; perhaps you might go and read them. No argument is off the table; best to know your interlocutor's argument better than even they do, noting points of agreement when you see them; treat each person with whom you disagree with the respect he or she deserves.
None of us is Thomas Aquinas, and few of us can treat an opposing argument with the charity and dexterity Bishop Barron does, but we can all seek to improve along these lines. As Catholic lawyers, we have an obligation to do so. For if not us, who else will?
Bishop Barron offers a way forward, but not just for religious argument. The medieval approach to dialogue, disagreement, and debate that Barron recommends would do our republic a whole world of good. If we cannot restore the capacity for reason-giving, if all disagreement becomes a battle of the will to power, we have seized to be a republic. I, for one, am not ready to give up on that project yet.