FOR THE SOCRATIC METHOD TO WORK THERE MUST BE GOODWILL ON BOTH SIDES
by Charlie Johnston
THE NEXT RIGHT STEP
14 AUGUST 16
Susan Skinner’s marvelous piece on “Purity and the Domestic Church” drew an interesting response. Much of it was profoundly insightful. Some, though, while not quite crossing over into the offensive, was notably prickly. I asked Susan to write this piece because I know her to be completely faithful to the Church, but well and passionately informed on this issue. I think some people have come to assume that any new initiative that comes out must automatically be offensive or a plot to undermine the faith. In fact, some people, like the Queen of Hearts in ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass,’ decide first and reason later…and some are on a hair trigger to discredit the Vatican or the Pope. On the other hand, some treat any criticism of Vatican initiatives, no matter how reasoned or steady, as an attack on the Pope, himself. If any criticism of Vatican initiatives and personnel is an attack on the Pope, you are also going to have to indict at least the last three Popes, who often complained of Vatican politics and initiatives.
I call on all of you to judge righteous judgment and call things by their proper names. Indeed, it is true that in the rising tide of confusion, more than a few things coming out of the Vatican have been puzzling and troubling. But do not let that make you a reactionary ready to condemn anything coming out of the Vatican even before it has come out. Similarly, the toxic, disrespectful treatment of the Pope and hierarchy has become a cottage industry, most shockingly from much of the Catholic Press. But don’t let that put you on a hair trigger to condemn everyone who raises legitimate questions or offers respectful criticism. When so much confusion rises around us, we are called to be an island of measured, honorable, respectful discourse. Steady on.
I have always liked the Socratic Method. Get people of genuine good will and genuine expertise, but varying perspectives, to question and debate an issue. The dynamic tension that arises from that helps to clear the path to greater insight for all of us. Shoot, when I was a newspaper editor, one of my favorite features was to take a subject of local interest and controversy and get two substantial people from opposing sides to write separate articles that appeared across from each other on the op-ed page. I ran that nearly every week. I wanted our readers to get solid information from each side and become well informed, in order to make good decisions. In almost every campaign I ran, I had a serious contrarian in my councils. I hate tunnel vision and echo chambers. It causes you to stumble into bad mistakes.
But for the Socratic Method to work, you must presume the goodwill of everyone involved and stay away from cheap “gotcha” moments.
I have great sympathy for those who try to come up with innovative ways to deal with the dysfunction of modern culture, particularly involving family life and sexuality. We are in battlefield mode, and many of the old ways are not sufficient to the disorder we face. But I also have great sympathy for those who hearken back to the fundamental goal of purity – and want to guard against coarsening the culture as we deal with these issues. I don’t have the answers, though I ponder it – and I value the people of goodwill who put emphasis on varying elements in the discussion. From the dynamic tension that arises from that discussion I think we will come up with workable answers.
So let us presume each other’s good will…and not decide that because someone has a different emphasis – or even a different opinion – than we do, that it must be because of bad intentions.