If President Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border of the United States ever comes to fruition, he should expect two things to happen. The first is that there will be protest movements all throughout our country. The second is that he will find a small group of Catholics sitting upon it—not in any sort of protest or to lift the immigrants over it, but because Catholics, that is those who are true Catholics, are always fence sitters. It is not that they are wishy-washy or that they really don’t stand for anything, it is that the fence they sit upon is Truth. In other words, Catholics will be sitting on the fence because they are holding a treasury of great intellectual light that is sorely needed in a world that is growing intellectually darker every day. After being blinded by the Enlightenment, Western culture has entered into a second Dark Ages. The Church as custodian of all that is good, true and beautiful about God and Man must not hide this light under a bushel basket.
With objective truth about God and Man at her fingertips, why would the Church ever need to sit on a fence? Catholic fence Sitting (CFS) is a unique kind of fence sitting. It is governed solely by the animating principle of all of St. Thomas Aquinas’ work—“never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish.” Governance under this maxim made him the clearest human thinker and teacher in history. A mystic, he is also the face of the intellectual tradition of the Church because of his unrivaled clarity and rigor in looking at every aspect of life. It is not just his teaching that needs to be put forth into the world, but also his method.
It is helpful to begin by explaining what this maxim meant to him.
For St. Thomas, everything begins with charity. Charity is the form of all the virtues—that which gives them their true meaning. “Never deny” is not some form of relativism, but an act of charity that says we ought to take everyone’s argument seriously. A falsehood is always a parasite on the truth and so every position has some truth attached to it.
To stop at “never deny” would be relativism, but it is the remaining two legs of the maxim that helps to lead out of error into truth. St. Thomas would rarely affirm outright because he was humble enough to realize that no case is ever completely closed. Man is homo argumentus—the arguing animal. Argument is not just about winning, but about coming to a deeper understanding of the truth. With affirmation comes the temptation to close the case which means we never come to discover the truth in greater depth. How often has an argument about something you knew the answer to revealed a blind spot in your understanding?
Those holes are always revealed to us when we are forced to distinguish—namely to come to better and better definitions of the terms and principles involved This is where rigor is applied and exceptions and nuances are better understood.
Two examples should help to see this maxim in action. Take first one of the most obvious examples of CFS—Capital Punishment. Should Catholics be for or against the Death Penalty? Yes. Like all social issues, the governing principle is the Common Good. Can the Common Good be protected and preserved by the permanent incarceration of the killer? Then you should be against the Death Penalty in that case. If it cannot be protected, then the State has an obligation to its citizens to keep them safe and may have recourse to the Death Penalty. Even though the number of instances in which the latter is the case is greatly reduced in the West, this does not mean it should be outlawed everywhere and in every situation.
The temptation to come down off the Catholic Fence is ever present. This is especially true in a climate that politicizes everything. One political party is for the Death Penalty, the other is against it. Catholics must choose their side. But Catholics are pro-Common Good and anti-Death Penalty—“never deny”. When they come in conflict, it is the Common Good that wins out—“seldom affirm.” This is why we must be careful not to wed ourselves too closely to specific political parties. When this happens, we lose sight of the principles involved and overly focus on individual issues. “Always distinguish” admonishes us to examine the issues in light of the objective principles first.
Political Correctness and Fence Sitting
A sign that you are sitting in the correct position is when everyone disagrees with you. Don’t worry, you’re in good company—”‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Mt 11:17). Liberals will think you are conservative and conservatives will call you liberal. This is why CFS is antithetical to Political Correctness. Political Correctness attempts to make friends with everyone while CFS tries to make everyone else friends with the Truth. When the Church kowtows to political correctness she ruins her credibility. The Church is leaven in society not just through her charitable works, but (and maybe even primarily) as a teacher and former of consciences. She also jeopardizes her relevance which greatly hinders her primary mission—to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Irrelevance is one of the greatest threats facing the Church is the West and preaching political correctness only exacerbates the problem.
This brings us to the second example; one that is particularly timely, namely immigration. Let’s begin by examining the joint statement of Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski, Archbishop William E. Lori and Bishop Oscar Cantú on President Trump’s Executive Order limiting immigration from certain areas of the world.
We recognize that Friday evening’s Executive Order has generated fear and untold anxiety among refugees, immigrants, and others throughout the faith community in the United States. In response to the Order, we join with other faith leaders to stand in solidarity again with those affected by this order, especially our Muslim sisters and brothers. We also express our firm resolution that the Order’s stated preference for “religious minorities” should be applied to protect not only Christians where they are a minority, but all religious minorities who suffer persecution, which includes Yazidis, Shia Muslims in majority Sunni areas, and vice versa. While we also recognize that the United States government has a duty to protect the security of its people, we must nevertheless employ means that respect both religious liberty for all, and the urgency of protecting the lives of those who desperately flee violence and persecution. It is our conviction as followers of the Lord Jesus that welcoming the stranger and protecting the vulnerable lie at the core of the Christian life. And so, to our Muslim brothers and sisters and all people of faith, we stand with you and welcome you.
First of all, would you even recognize that this came from a Catholic prelate(s)? It could have been written by anyone, really. It also pays homage to political correctness—are Catholics and Muslims really “brothers and sisters”? A brother or sister is someone with which one shares the same Father. Since Muslims reject the Fatherhood of God, they would vehemently disagree and might in fact find it insulting. Furthermore, isn’t the entire purpose of the Church to bring others to a share in the Fatherhood of God? If Muslims already have achieved that, then why evangelize them at all?
Furthermore, do they really mean that amnesty should be extended to all religious minorities who suffer persecution? The fact that they mention it shows how deeply embedded political correctness has become. Minority persecution cannot be the primary principle that the government is concerned with—it is the common good of the people that have been entrusted to them. They mention that a government is charged with security for its people, but it is patently false that this includes respect for the religious liberty of all. The common good includes respect for the religious liberty of its citizens and not citizens of foreign lands. We should do all we can to help them, but it can never be at the expense of the Common Good. In other words, the Bishops forgot—“always distinguish. They do end up coming across as soft-hearted, but unfortunately soft-headed too. Credibility and relevance take a hit.
I say this not so much as a criticism of the Bishops per se, but more of a plea to them to embrace their role as teachers. Given the sheer size of the Catholic populace in the United States we should expect that the Church would have formed the culture by now instead of being formed by it. Mistrust in the media has created a vacuum for the voice of truth and the Church, as the pillar and bulwark of the truth, must step into the void. We may have individual conversions here and there, but it is only when the culture is converted that any lasting evangelization is achieved. As historian Christopher Dawson said “Western Christendom was not built up by the method of individual conversions. It was a way of life which the people accepted as a while, often by the decision of their rulers, and which when accepted affected the whole life of society by the change of their institutions and laws.” Only Catholicism with its foundation in God’s true revelation and an adequate anthropology can supply the foundations upon which any just society is built. I am usually quick to blame the laity, but this time only a top-down approach will work. If Catholics are to mount the fence, then they must first find their pastors seated there.