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Public Attacks on "Personal Beliefs" |
Carl E. Olson | June 20, 2005
I was recently talking to a Canadian and somehow the issue of "gay
marriage" came up.
"I really respect our prime minister, Paul Martin," he said, "for
how hes handled that issue."
"How so?" I inquired. All I could recall at that moment was that
Martin, a professing Catholic, had been strongly criticized by a bishop
for his support of "gay marriage."
"Well, he said that although he personally is opposed to gay marriage,
hes going to support it because it would be wrong to force his beliefs
on other people. I admire that."
I immediately thought of Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, who had
articulated the same general approach to abortion (albeit in a
lengthy and nuanced manner).
"So are you saying that you admire a man who says he believes something
is true and right, but isnt willing to stand up for it in public?"
As you might imagine, the resulting conversation was rather interesting.
Later, I read up on Martins statements about "gay marriage,"
and it turns out that he doesnt even personally oppose it anymore,
although he once did. In fact, in a February
16, 2005 address in the House of Commons, the Canadian prime minister
"Four years ago, I stood in this House and voted to support the traditional
definition of marriage. Many of us did. My misgivings about extending the
right of civil marriage to same-sex couples were a function of my faith,
my perspective on the world around us.
"But much has changed since that day. Weve heard from courts
across the country, including the Supreme Court. Weve come to the
realization that instituting civil unions adopting a 'separate but
equal' approach would violate the equality provisions of the Charter.
Weve confirmed that extending the right of civil marriage to gays
and lesbians will not in any way infringe on religious freedoms."
Much could be said about these and other remarks and the various arguments
used to support "gay marriage." Thankfully, Archbishop Frederick
Henry of Calgary (and many others) has
been tirelessly working to both defend the sanctity of marriage and
to explain why there can be no such thing as "gay marriage."
My interest here, however, is in the disturbing and increasingly popular
notion that a persons "personal beliefs" shouldnt
affect their public stances or actions. If this is so, some difficult questions
must be asked.
First, is it possible to truly believe something personally (which is often
understood to mean "privately") and then set it aside when making
public decisions? I find it strange that many political and social liberals
have no problem saying, "I must follow my heart" and "I have
to do what I feel is right," but often condemn those people (whether
politicians or otherwise) who admit their decisions are based on religious
principles and beliefs. Could it be that what is so offensive isnt
that a Christian believes in God, but that he believes in God more than
he believe in himself? Or that he trusts God more than newly anointed "experts"
and "progressive" thinkers? That he thinks he must ultimately
answer to someone higher than the court, the press, or the pundit?
Secondly, if the so-called "private beliefs" of individuals shouldnt
affect public decisions, do any beliefs exist that can used to make such
decisions? Put another way, why is that religious beliefs end up being called
"personal beliefs," but beliefs based on, say, relativism and
false pluralism and radical feminism are deemed fit (even necessary) for
wholesale public consumption?
The idea of "personal beliefs" is itself problematic since all
belief is clearly personal in a most basic way: a person accepts a belief
and holds to it. Trees, cars, and airplanes dont have personal beliefs;
likewise, "personal beliefs" and "public beliefs" are
artificial constructs. Everyone holds to a system of morality, even if they
dont think about it or it makes no logical sense. That system of morality
again, whether acknowledged or not guides our private and
public actions. For a politician to say that he wouldnt force his
"personal beliefs" on anyone else is not only a misunderstanding
of the democratic process, but also suggests that hypocrisy or indifference
is one of his guiding ethical and moral principles.
Finally, did my Canadian interlocutor really admire Martin for the reason
he gave or because Martin agrees with him about "gay marriage"?
I think the answer to this important question could have be had quite easily,
if only I had thought to make this inquiry: "If Martin had said that
he is personal opposed to pedophilia, but he must support those who want
it legalized because he must not force his personal beliefs on others, would
you still respect him?"
If he replied that this is a nonsensical question since everyone knows that
pedophilia is a vile and horrific thing, I would show him this quote:
"Today, we rightly see discrimination based on sexual orientation as
arbitrary, inappropriate and unfair. Looking back, we can hardly believe
that such rights were ever a matter for debate. It is my hope that we will
ultimately see the current debate in a similar light; realizing that nothing
has been lost or sacrificed by the majority in extending full rights to
It comes, of course, from Martins speech before the House of Commons.
Yes, he is speaking of homosexuality, but we cannot think for a moment that
there arent groups today actively seeking the legalization of sex
with minors (they exist and they arent going away). Nor can we scoff
at the thought that such groups, in twenty years, might be what active homosexuals
are today: a minority whose actions are not only accepted, but often specially
supported and promoted. As difficult as it is to consider, the same goes
for groups that tout polygamy and far more depraved but also real
bestiality (also known as "zoosexuality").
Perhaps the answer is given that "decent, normal people know that pedophilia
is wrong." Fair enough, but what is that belief based upon?
After all, the overwhelming majority of cultures today and throughout history
believed that homosexual acts are wrong and undermine the moral fabric of
a society. Yet the prime minister of Canada has a response to this fact,
even if my Canadian acquaintance did not:
"Over time, perspectives changed. We evolved, we grew, and our laws
evolved and grew with us. That is as it should be. Our laws must reflect
equality not as we understood it a century or even a decade ago, but as
we understand it today."
Which begs more questions: Is this Martins "personal belief"?
Or is the belief of the Canadian courts? If so, does that reflect the "personal
belief" of the judges in those courts? Or of the plaintiffs before
the courts? Surely this confident belief that "we evolved" and
"we grew" comes from some one. From who? And how?
More importantly, how do know that this belief in inevitable moral progress
is true? Most importantly, is there any Truth?
What Martin says, ever so carefully, is that there is no solid, unmoving
ground to base beliefs upon. Things are always evolving, changing, shifting,
and (we are assured) improving. The only absolute is that there is never
any absolute. This is, in the striking words of Pope Benedict XVI, the "dictatorship
of relativism." Or, as he writes in Truth
and Tolerance: "Truth is replaced by the decision of the majority
. . . precisely because [it is believed] there can be no truth, in the sense
of a binding and generally accessible entity for man."
And so we end up admiring men whose sole virtue is that they dont
believe in anything except not inflicting "personal beliefs" on
others. These are the hollow men described so vividly by T.S. Eliot: "Our
dried voices, when/We whisper together/Are quiet and meaningless
Shape without form, shade without colour/Paralysed force, gesture without
Is there really such a thing as a "personal belief"? No, not if
you really believe. And Im happy to say so publicly.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic
Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com
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