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Morality is Not Paternalism

A Glance Askance

By Liam T.A. Ford

HATE SPEECH; Condescension; Collaborating with Hateful People; Lending My Good Name to an Evil Publication; Paternalism; Being Patronizing; since the most recent issue of Peninsula came out, friends have accused me of all of these, and more besides.

Some people did like my article, which argued that Christians who believe homosexual sex is wrong must nonetheless treat gays with charity, just as they must treat all other people with charity. But even those who did compliment me have raised two objections, saying either that I was condescending/patronizing or that my article was tainted by the other content of the publication.

Although I do not agree with them, I would like to explain why I believe moral arguments such as my own are not inherently condescending and why I will continue to act as a Guardian of Peninsula, despite my objections to some of the content of its recent issue.

Morality and Paternalism:

Most readers of Peninsula assume that the magazine's staff feels guided by the moral precepts of the Catholic Church. Some of us are Catholic, but some of us aren't. My own perspective on life, however, is certainly largely guided by Catholic thought on the one hand, and libertarian-conservatism on the other.

In the political realm, I believe that the best way to convince people that Catholic teachings are applicable to modern life is through the least amount of coercion possible. But this belief comes largely from an understanding of the human person garnered from an odd mix of Thomistic philosophy (meaning derived from Thomas Aquinas) and libertarian skepticism.

Catholic morality may seem patronizing to those who have not studied it. It shouldn't. I pointed out in my Peninsula article that what makes all human beings worthy of respect is that "they are all rational beings capable of love and able to reach perfection in God." The corrolary to this is that we are all fallible, fallen creatures prove to accept evil and reject good.

"You say that about gays," someone will respond. "But you obviously think you know what's right, and think gays are evil people."

Perhaps I do think I know what's morally right. Another Christian virtue, however, humility, causes me to recognize my own limitations. For we all remain defect-ridden and fallible. Catholic especially emphasize Christ's dictum to "judge not lest you be judged." Even the prudential judgments of the popes, while important, can be mistaken.

Catholics thus may believe the teachings of the Church infallible in the moral realm; we may strongly believe our moral judgments correct; we may say "I think you should do this"; but we can never say "I know that you are an evil person." Our knowledge of our fallibility of judgment precludes such stridency.

Each person has certain circumstances and influences which hinder that person's ability both to judge and to take seriously the moral laws of the Church. Many of these circumstances are beyond the individual's control. Most important, of course, is that none of us are able to see all the possible results of our actions or others' actions; all human beings, no matter how wise, are simply too simple-minded for that.

Thus we all have our foibles and strong points: my uncle may drink too much, but have the honesty of a Quaker; my father may spend too much on opinion journals, but work overtime to send me to a decent high school. It would be better that no one had defects, but ceasing to call them defects would not make them go away.

I believe that homosexual sex is immoral; it would take too long to explain exactly why. Given what I believe, I would be much less honest and much more patronizing if I put homosexuals in a category below everyone else. (I don't.) If I say "I believe I should stop turning papers in late, because by doing so I fail to fulfill my duty to my professors," I must also say I believe it is possible for those who commit other immoral acts to cease.

Just because I believe that homosexuals do one thing that is wrong, does not mean I think they are evil. If this were so, I would have to believe all human beings evil and beyond redemption. Christianity forbids this. It says, "value all, because all are loved by God."

Why Peninsula?

Most importantly, I write for Peninsula because I often agree with the moral sentiments of other Peninsula writers. However, I often disagree with their application of these moral sentiments to life, and this often leads to conflicts between me and other Peninsula writers.

There remains, however, the question of why I wrote for this particular issue and why, if I sometimes disagree with the publication, I continue to lend my name to it.

In answer, I can only say that I know that Peninsula will always be associated with orthodox or conservative Catholicism; that it will be thought of as the most strident Harvard voice in favor of conservative thought; and that I care about both these strains of thought and how they are perceived on this campus.

I almost didn't join Peninsula when it debuted in the spring of 1990. I never believed its writers were evil people (remember, I think it's difficult to say that someone is evil). But I thought that its writers were out to get one particular friend of mine, a gay member of the Catholic Students Association Steering Committee who graduated last year. Nothing could convince me to join a publication which was "out to get people."

Obviously, I have since decided that Peninsula has no such agenda. I joined to see what these campus conservatives had to say, and to help shape Peninsula's ideological topography. After spending much time speaking with Peninsula staffers, I know that their intentions are benevolent.

If Peninsula professed Catholic and conservative thought and lacked my voice, I would have a harder time convincing people that what some members of its staff write are not the only Catholic or conservative positions on moral or political issues.

Finally, I attempt to apply the same standard to Peninsula staff members and Peninsula itself that I attempt to apply to everyone. That is, I recognize their fallibility and make excuses for it. But because Peninsula seems to have stumbled upon some of the same truths I have, I feel compelled to attempt to influence its direction.

Some people have found the latest issue of Peninsula "tantamount to hate speech," as one acquaintance told me recently. Knowing those who wrote for it, however, I must protest this characterization. There may have been inaccuracies, some flawed logic and some lack of understanding of the problems that gays face. No one on Peninsula's staff was uniformly pleased with this issue either. But hate was no motivating force for its creation.

I must consider the flaws of Peninsula as I consider everyone else's flaws. When something is done out of malice, I shy away from it. When it is done out of concern, as this issue of Peninsula was, I must respect it. But until I think human beings capable of absolute perfection, I will never cease to give them the benefit of the doubt.

We all have faults, but that doesn't make us bad people. I think that homosexual sex is immoral, but I don't think that homosexual are evil. After all, I could be wrong.

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