by The Rev. James V. Schall, S. J.
The number of subjects we cannot talk about in public discourse are rapidly multiplying. The older notion of “free speech” as a search for the truth through reasonable argument is being replaced. We no longer want to hear speech if it “offends” someone’s feelings or self-defined identity. We would rather “just get along” than to have to decide about the truth of any issue or confront the consequences of its violation.
We thus have become infinitely “tolerant” of anything but truth itself. Speech is not directed to truth or falsity of an issue but to the “sensitivity” and “compassion” of those who hear it. “Objective” standards are subject to the listener’s “right” to hear only what he wants to hear. Thus, whatever is “permitted” in positive or civil law becomes a “right” for those who follow it. Furthermore, we cannot criticize the law as if there were some “standard” by which to judge its worth. There are no standards as there is no nature on which to base them. “Hate speech” laws become effective tools to suppress any objective judgment about the rightness or wrongness of what is legislated or practiced.
Academia and the press were once considered places where delicate and sensitive topics could be more freely discussed without being compromised by human passions. This presumption is no longer the case. Universities and the media are more likely to participate in the suppression of truth or objective reasoning than their advocates. The phrase “political correctness” accurately describes a culture that seeks to silence challenges to ruling orthodoxies. Arguments become unwelcome because they might challenge our way of life.
Moral Attitudes Change in Dramatic Ways
Something new has occurred that serves to further expand the list of things that can only be approved, but never discussed critically. Let us suppose that we have a classroom of high school or college students, or even a church congregation or a public meeting of some sort. We cannot presume that any audience we encounter is firmly rooted in a single culture. We must assume that, in the body of listeners, we will find the results of what may be called “lived multiculturalism.” That is, in any audience, congregation, or classroom, we will find not a few listeners with divorced parents, relatives, or friends. We will find others who either have had or assented to abortions, even euthanasia.
More and more, also, we will have young people born of in vitro fertilization techniques, whether of parents or various surrogates. We will even find those conceived in vitro but born of a third mother who carried the conception to its completion when the fertilized cells were implanted in her womb. We do not yet have actual clones, but these sorts of lives are certainly being pursued by scientists. We will find women who insist on conceiving children long after the normal ending of their natural fertility cycle. We hear of men who have impregnated many, many women.
We increasingly find in audiences members with same-sex parents, whether male or female, and we see some coming from sundry multi-parenting situations. Here the primacy is not the good or need of the child, but of the “right” of parents to do whatever they want. There will also be audience members who have been victims of incest and child abuse. Likewise, it is possible to have children of polygamous families, especially if they are Muslim or sometimes even Mormon marriages. Cultural trends suggest that laws against polygamy will soon be overturned. And soon after we will have polyandry. Though we do not like to admit it, divorce itself is a form of sequential polygamy or polyandry. In many cases, it will not at all be clear just who are the parents of individual children.
This situation would be true in cases of adultery and fornication that resulted in pregnancies. It is difficult to know just who would be responsible for such children, no doubt some government agency by encouraging through it’s welfare policies the begetting of children. It is true today that a DNA search can identify the real parents of real children. We not only have divorce courts but parentage courts. The legal profession is finding new areas of interest in determining parentage, especially if one of the begetting sources is wealthy. The day of the “anonymous” sperm or ova donor is probably over.
There may be other forms of relationship that I am overlooking. For instance, we can imagine the case of a sperm bank carrying the sperm of a “donor” who is long dead, but whose sperm is used to impregnate an ovum in vitro say a hundred years later, or some variant of the same relationship. I recall when the famous baseball player Ted Williams died; his family argued over what to do with the body. Some wanted to bury him, while others wanted to freeze his body so that many years hence, when science found a cure for the disease that killed him, he could be brought back to life and go on playing baseball. This view, of course, is rather a parody on the resurrection of the body, but the efforts to extend life as long as possible, even begetting children so that their bodies could be used as parts to “save” a sick brother or sister are proposed. Also we see legal efforts to deal with three parent offspring in which, presumably, the material that formed a child came from more than a given mother or father. Efforts to “improve” the genetic composition of a given child fall into this category.
All of this is happening in an era of general population decline in which many nations themselves—Italy, France, Spain, Germany—risk disappearing or being greatly reduced in numbers because its populace no longer wants or provides for children in viable families. Traditionally the begetting of children was evidence of hope in the future. Nations thrive on the birth and the raising of healthy children in families. Nations with aging populations and declining births place huge financial and moral burdens on fewer offspring. This leads to a corruption of medicine when euthanasia is seen as the solution to the problem. Immigration is likewise considered a remedy for meeting labor demands in nations with declining populations. In some instances, immigration can change radically the constitutional structures of some nations or even threaten their very viability.
Critics of Dominant Orthodoxy are Silenced
But my topic here has to do rather with limits of speech caused by these non-traditional familial arrangements now found in society. Let us suppose, for example, that there is a good, reasonable argument detailing the case against divorce as the first step in this long process. We would have to be very careful how to make this case since the room is likely to contain many divorced persons who approve of the practice. Such a discussion of this issue, as with the others, will likely lead to protests and disruptions. Will public discussion of these subjects ever be possible again?
“Hate speech” legislation is designed to prevent any conflict over these issues. If these protected practices are considered “rights,” we are legally prohibited from discussing the consequences of exercising them. The “solution” silences anyone who defends marriage, life, or family. Since all audiences are now populated by people who live in abnormal family arrangements, it is thought best to forbid any discussion that might establish objective, reasonable grounds for opposing or criticizing same-sex marriages, fetal experimentation, divorce, or any similar arrangement.
In a way, this political arrangement is a modern version of what Thomas Hobbes proposed to do to eliminate the causes of dissent in seventeenth century England. By identifying religious and philosophical ideas as the cause of civil discontent, Hobbes was able to justify giving the state absolute power over public expression. This prevention was accomplished by the presumed fear of violent death if the law was violated. In a way, modern public opinion produces the same effect, a kind of civil death in which a reasonable position is simply said not to exist. If we do not allow anything but what the state or the culture permits, no matter what it is, we will end up with a “peaceful” society that has been intimidated and ridiculed into silence.
As a result, the arguments against these disorders are never heard. Society becomes locked into itself. No one is able to diagnose its ills. But this new form of suppression of dissent works also in the churches. Since their members also display widespread instances of divorce, homosexuality, in vitro births, abortions, and various other ways of life considered to be unnatural or harmful, it makes opposing these things in church also problematic.
Many basic teachings are simply seldom heard from the pulpit out of fear of dissent in the congregation or the loss of state funds. Politicians and other public figures who advocate positions against basic Church teachings are not expelled. They remain members in good standing. In this context, an ordinary person will conclude that the Church is silent about these teachings because they are indefensible. Protests are immediately heard whenever a strong and informed case is made against these deviations from Catholic teaching; as a result, the Church is often found speechless.
And if the arguments are seldom heard, it will not be surprising if the majority of people assume that the Christian churches have in fact abandoned their teachings as they have been urged to do. There will be in effect two churches.
The first is the old-fashioned one, the minority, that still advocates the orthodox positions that are now largely against the civil law and public opinion.
The second is the church of the media in which everything is understood as evolving and developing in the direction of what the civil law establishes.
This will be presented as what is best for man and what the churches ought to teach. The orthodox Christian view will appear to undermine civil peace. A remnant will be left that will not go along with what modern society permits.