Tuesday, September 22, 2015

True dialogue on moral issues for developing public policy in a democracy like Canada

There are many issues and considerations driving election campaigns. May I put a suggestion for more open and respectful dialogue among citizens and politicians, among political parties and in government, and also for a more effective development of policies for the common good?

Over the years on several occasions I would have liked to vote for one party or another but at times I didn't because on certain ethical issues I could not find in that party's platform sufficient distinction between policy and ideology. Whenever I tried to communicate with party representatives it turned out that significant dialogue was not to be had. Perhaps everyone was too busy. I am referring to various elements of life in society that touch on moral issues. Please allow me to be specific.

I grant that in a democracy each citizen, each person has the right to their own view on moral issues and both social and personal matters, but for the sake of democracy and effective dialogue in view of striving together for the common good, we need to be able to get beyond ideology to a level of policy, where dialogue and even compromise are more possible than with ideology alone. Ideology has value because without clarity about what we think and believe true dialogue becomes impossible. However, when we are driven by ideology alone it is difficult when not impossible to remain open to different points of view. At worst, we end up with dictatorships, fascism, marxism, communism, and other forms of totalitarianism where only the authorized view is permitted.

I and most Roman Catholics today readily admit that even our own Church went through periods when ideology so dominated public order that there resulted a form of totalitarianism wherein lives were snuffed out in the interest of defending the truth, without realizing at the time that the greatest damage was being done to freedom of conscience. As difficult as it is for us moderns to understand such a divergent point of view, the expressed motivation of the Church at the height of repression known today as the Spanish Inquisition, the institutional motivation was the salvation of souls. Yes, that's right. There was such a fear of eternal damnation that when someone was discovered to hold a belief or manifest a behavior that was perceived to be evil or a perversion of all that is good and held to be true, all means were deemed acceptable to try to persuade that person to reform their beliefs and behavior and embrace the truth as it was to be found in Sacred Scripture and Church commandments.

Tragically, what was lacking to officials of the Church at that time, as in other times and in other public institutions, was a deeper understanding of God and the "ways of the Lord". In God is to be found perfect justice, that is true, but also perfect mercy. Christians believe that in God we find both divine justice and divine mercy and a perfect balance in their application. Another biblical principle is that judgement belongs to God alone and that Jesus is given God's authority to judge.

God is the judge: "There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you--who are you to judge your neighbor?" James 4:12. Jesus shows He has God's authority to judge: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me." Matthew 5:28-30. See other references in Deuteronomy 32:39; Psalm 75:7; and Hebrews 10:30. 

Jesus commanded us not to judge, for we are incompetent to judge. Unlike God, we are necessarily biased and lack the full knowledge and wisdom which God alone possesses. Jesus gave a teaching about how we are to avoid judging one another in Matthew 7:1-6. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 Paul advised the Corinthians "not to associate with immoral people" which requires a form of judgement or at least observation of behavior. He declares that "outsiders" come under God's judgement but that the faith community must "put outside" the evil doer from within their midst. In other words, those who believe in Jesus and try to be his disciples must love and support one another and, regarding those who insist on doing what is declared evil by God, those who are unrepentant are to be put out of the assembly of believers and not to be associated with.

This is a form of judgement oriented to preservation of self and of the common good; yet it actually respects the choices of those who disagree or want to behave in ways that are unacceptable. This is a form of respect for the freedom of conscience. When the bishops of the universal Roman Catholic Church met in Rome from 1962-65 four years in a row for a month or so in October at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, they robustly declared the universal right to freedom of conscience with the obligation to inform and form well one's conscience (sections 1776-1802) as well as the freedom and responsibility to hold, practice, and live in accord with one's own faith or beliefs (1730-1748).

The extreme measures of the Spanish Inquisition are no longer possible in the contemporary Church given that those practices arose in the context of a medieval society where they understood public order to include all that could impinge on the eternal destiny of individuals and they believed they were under the obligation to impose right order and right belief by force. Throughout the world there remain cultures, civilizations, peoples, and nations where the rule of force is still employed. We have only to watch the evening news to verify how true this is.In a sense, many societies and pockets of societies are still locked into medieval outlooks by which rule can only be maintained by force.

In contrast to those individuals and societies that mistakenly think that it is up to them to impose public order and belief, when the followers of Jesus as individuals and as institutions are well aligned with Jesus' teaching and example, they fearlessly proclaim Him and the truth He taught and conduct themselves as Jesus did. They do so fearlessly even to the point of laying down their lives as so many countless thousands and millions have done throughout the centuries down to our own day. Christ and his followers are bold to give witness to the truth but leave those who hear them free to embrace that truth or not; they don't impose anything.

As a Roman Catholic Christian it is true that I am committed to promoting by my words and actions the value of human life, from conception to natural death. However, I can still respect the right of others to hold different views. I also entertain the hope that through open and respectful dialogue we can progress together in our understanding of the issues and develop ever better policies that truly serve the common good as well as allowing for individual differences. The irritating thing about freedom of conscience is that life lived under this principle is not monolithic, with whole populations walking in locked steps.

The human conscience is ever in a process of being formed as it considers ever more widely and deeply the various elements that need to enter into any moral consideration. The human person needs to have access to ever more complete information as well as to ever better understand itself and to discern what importance to give to various considerations. The links between facts and views need to be ever updated so that our views remain firmly anchored in the facts.

In addition, there are other sources of truth beside the visible and manifest facts. The human sciences may not be able to measure interior or spiritual human experience; yet that experience remains no less real and its impact on human life and society is undeniable and great. All who acknowledge the existence of God, the Creator of the universe, come to understand more about reality through the truths revealed by God to people who have received such communication and recorded it for general distribution. One truth held by adherents to the Judeo-Christian religious traditions relates to the inalienable value of a human life. Because God is the giver of life, only He has authority over it, as it is set down in the "ten commandments" in the Torah or first five books of the Jewish Scriptures.

It is evident to everyone that belief in God contributes to the differences of view on moral issues, given that those who don't believe in God would tend to dismiss God as a viable and legitimate source of knowledge about the full truth regarding human life and all life in general. In the absence of God, any given human being can then lay claim to superiority of view and policy on moral matters, with the result that policy is set in such a godless universe by courts, legislatures, and any other authority with the conviction it has the power to impose its view on the general population. We are not strangers to such dictations of moral policy from above throughout human history, including from church authorities. The difference today is that church authorities appeal to consciences rather than attempt to impose by any show of whatever force.

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For example, on the issue of abortion and the right of people, women in particular, to exercise freedom of choice, I support those people admittedly pro-life who try to offer thoughts in favor of life to the prospective clients of abortion clinics simply in the hope that their presence there might open up more options for those who, in going to an abortion clinic, often are oppressed by the fatalistic impression that they "have no other choice".

It is ironic that many who claim to be PRO CHOICE actually seem not to want to allow people in such desperate straights to even know about all their practical options, to truly be able to make a well-informed choice. In addition, many women who have abortions suffer all manner of painful consequences that either manifest themselves immediately or only later in various forms of guilt. For that reason alone it makes perfect sense that those contemplating an abortion should take the possible consequences into consideration. Alas, all too often the abortion procedure is promoted quite intensively as a "consequence-free procedure" through such statements as "the abortion will solve your problems" and "you'll be able to go back to the way you were before getting pregnant".

Those who identify themselves as PRO-CHOICE tend to believe that there is no guilt associated with the abortion procedure but that, if there is any guilt following the abortion, that feeling of guilt is entirely and exclusively caused by the repressive and dictatorial declarations of people whom they consider against choice and against abortion. In this view, all those who identify themselves as PRO-LIFE are actually ANTI-CHOICE. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pro-lifers recognize from personal experience that far too many women who get an abortion are under duress and pressure from their entourage and actually feel like they have no choice, that there are no other options.

Not all guilty feelings are artificially provoked by other people and ideologies. An abortion actually does kill an unborn infant human being and when guilt feelings manifest themselves, these feelings follow directly upon the action that has been taken independently of whatever others may say about it.

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Dear fellow citizen, there are other moral issues - such as palliative care and euthanasia - that similarly touch on complex human life situations that require on our part and certainly on the part of government to remain open to dialogue, to the complete findings from scientific and medical research, and that seek above all in the interests of the common good to promote open and honest dialogue and that also allow elected members of Parliament to vote in accord with their own conscience as well as in dialogue with their own constituents.
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