Valuing the truth over factionalism

Richard Doerflinger / Catholic Courier    |    10.01.2018
Category: Columns


EDITOR’S NOTE: This column was written before a third allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was made public, and before the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of sexually assaulting her when they were teens.

Confirmation of a new justice for the U.S. Supreme Court has been halted, at least temporarily, by an accusation that the nominee when 17 years old tried to force himself on a 15-year-old girl. (A second accusation may delay the confirmation process further.)

I have no special knowledge of the cases.

The nominee’s accusers seem sincere in their claims, as does the nominee in denying them; and as I write this, senators are trying to work out how to proceed. I cite the dispute to make a broader point.

It seems Sen. Dianne Feinstein held onto the first allegation until the last minute, and now wants an FBI investigation, to run out the clock until the midterm elections, when Democrats hope to take over the Senate.

Nor do Republicans have clean hands. They blocked confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of the Obama administration for much the same reason — they hoped to do better in the upcoming election. And conservatives at one point leaped on a claim that the Trump nominee’s first accuser had negative student evaluations at the college where she teaches — until it turned out they had the wrong college and the wrong teacher.

Largely ignored here is a principle cited by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who leads the U.S. bishops’ efforts to defend religious liberty, when he gave a Sept. 12. lecture on that topic in Washington: “A rightly ordered politics needs to be undergirded not by raw power that imposes, but rather by the process of seeking the truth together.”

That principle may seem unrealistic.

In his book, “The Righteous Mind,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt cites evidence that most people arrive at moral judgments first by intuition, then rationalize why they feel that way. And many political judgments begin with allegiance to a party or “tribe,” followed by seeking the facts to support the tribe’s vision of reality. When we want to believe something, we find evidence assuring us we can believe it; when we don’t want to, we question why we must believe it.

As an account of human nature in general, this is open to question — it is largely based on interviews with people already immersed in our modern culture.

Haidt’s thesis describes current politics well. We are increasingly unable or unwilling to listen to any account coming from someone from a different tribe — or even to show that person basic respect.

Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute, notes that politics has moved beyond disagreement and even anger to thrive on “contempt,” — “the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.”

As St. John Paul II warned us, abandoning the search for a common truth means that freedom is about imposing our will on others, and politics is about getting people with a different view out of our way (“The Gospel of Life,” Nos. 19, 96).

That means the death of true freedom, including religious freedom. Even as the church discusses how to address its own crises and divisions, including the sex abuse crisis, we must be vigilant in valuing truth over our party loyalties.

Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.

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