Learning to disagree in a pluralistic society: Foundations

In the romantic comedy, Forget Paris (1995), Mickey is in a relationship with Ellen, who is contemplating quitting her rocky marriage to marry Mickey. Late one night, Ellen storms into Mickey’s apartment with her luggage, goes straight to the window and says,

“Do you sleep with the window open?”

Mickey, “Yeah.”

Ellen, “I don’t like it. You will have to stop that.”

Mickey “Ok.”

Ellen, “Do you squeeze the toothpaste at the top or the bottom?”

Mickey “Top.”

Ellen, “Don’t do that I hate it. If you ever use my car, make sure the mirror is back where I put it.”

Mickey, “Ok, I can do that.”

Ellen,  “All right. Do you want to talk about religion, politics, whether you want to have kids or not.”

Mickey, “Nah, that crap will work itself out, we are fine with the big issues.”

Ellen ends, “Ok, I marry you.”

What is more important, agreement on the mundane but daily issues or conformity about one’s deep convictions? Mickey and Ellen are a couple of our culture. When it comes to marital life, where you press the toothpaste matters more than how many children one likes to have.

This is not just one funny couple acting in a comedy. This is the drama of our society. When it comes to living together in society, deep convictions seem to be invisible in the public forum. There is a conspiracy of silence about the “serious stuff”.

In a pluralistic society, ethical opinions and religion must remain “private”. Discussions on divorce, birth control, euthanasia, homosexuality and the like have become the new taboos in a society that prides itself in having overcome old mythical taboos.

This has caused a kind of inferiority complex among Catholics. When it comes to the controversial ethical views of the church, Catholics are often more comfortable hiding in the dark than willing to present and explain their opinions.

Unlike in the past, people today are not convinced by the tradition or authority argument. Today we need solid reasonable justifications. And here is where the modern day Catholic feels handicapped to articulate his ethical views.

This has disastrous consequences. First Catholics give the impression that they are a ghetto, a private club, with strange opinions whose only argument is “the church thinks so.” Second, it deprives society of being enriched with a “different” Catholic perspective. After all, why would a pluralistic society be reluctant to include the opinions of a Catholic population?

At the bottom of this, it lies a fear of facing fundamental issues, on which the particular views are based. If we neglect to talk about fundamental views, the only sound thing to do is agreeing on the practical matters. As long as we all press the toothpaste in a way that does not irritate others, all is going to be fine.

As long as society keeps avoiding the issue or building itself as if there is no truth about fundamental matters, society is going to suffer. False ideas about economics and politics have killed thousands of people. Ideas move the world. False ideas destroy the world. True ideas build it up.

Vatican II was grateful to the criticism of the world that helped the church to purify herself. Today the world is challenging the church to embark in a new purification: The capacity to be always ready to give a reason of our stand on ethical issues. (Cf. 1 Pe 3:15)

Let us embrace this challenge with courage and confidence. Catholics cannot content themselves with saying “I think abortion is wrong because I am a Catholic.” Abortion is not wrong because the church says so but because it kills innocent people and hurts their parents deeply.

Wrong ethical behaviour is wrong because it is wrong, and not because the church says so. And this applies to all the controversial topics of our age: euthanasia, homosexual acts, IVF, contraception, etc.

This can only mean two things. First, Catholics need to re-learn their beliefs and learn to propose them in an intelligible  manner.

Secondly, Catholics today need to learn to dialogue with non-Catholics in a way in which both parties understand each other better.

Failure to do so, will be a great sin of omission on the part of Catholics who owe to participate in the development of their society and cultural purification is part of that development.

In a pluralistic society, ethical opinions are social issues. Catholics should learn to engage the world in a constructive manner so that society develops properly, which includes also the ethical development of the whole person and all persons.

Perhaps, to live together in pluralistic societies we should learn to sit down and discuss about religious and ethical views, while tolerating that others may press the toothpaste on the wrong side and we can still live together in harmony.


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