Getting Off the Soapbox: Why I Dare Speak in Moral Absolutes

Published February 14, 2008

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Week after week I offer on this opinion page and on the FOX News Channel ethical analysis of the big news items of the day. It must seem to some I have an unquenchable passion to offer my moralist opinion on everyone else's business. Hollywood movies, political platforms, media bias, sports doping, immigration policy — nothing gets a bye, no flimsy proposal is left standing.

Today, however, I happily step off my soapbox, and put myself and my work under your gaze. For the sake of our future conversations, I want to explain why I — a piece of work, a flimsy project in my own right — would dare speak in moral absolutes, and so often.

More importantly, I throw out a question: can any mortal speak authoritatively about right and wrong? And does it do any good?

In this light, I often ruminate on the many blistering responses to my articles and television appearances: “Who the heck do you think you are (here I paraphrase, out of respect for all audiences)?”; “What makes your opinion so important?”; “Why don't you focus on getting your own house in order?”

The non-religious frequently throw me a bone — a sharp one — by framing the same argument in Biblical terms, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”

All of these stinging missives serve good purposes, no doubt. First, they call me to personal conversion. In my business and in the business of life in general, personal witness is not optional. Second, they invite me to analyze events more maturely, from foreign and often uncomfortable angles. Finally, they remind me to place the individual, in all of his uniqueness and considering all of his circumstances, at the forefront of any moral judgment.

But for every message I receive of ire and contempt, I am blessed to read countless stories of personal growth. “I never thought about it like that before?” “Why didn't they explain these reasons behind the rules when we were kids?” “I'm beginning to see how faith and reason can be friends?” “Why do I almost always agree with you if we don't belong to the same Church?”

Such contradictory reactions to the exact same content sometimes makes me doubt our species' claim to the titles of “intelligent beings” and “pinnacle of God's creation.” I ask myself, “Am I speaking in tongues?”

But then I reflect. Can we at least say some things are always wrong, everywhere, and for everyone? Can we make the claim rape, stealing, cheating and killing the innocent are bad? If so, should we speak out against them when they occur?

Can we likewise say some things are always good? In a world of much darkness, should we try, then, to spread the light of goodness more widely?

Then I reflect some more. There seems to be a faculty of the soul — a conscience — that when left alone, shouts truth on its own. It says, “This is good for you, do it! This is bad for you, avoid it!” When I obey that voice, the next time it gets stronger, clearer. When I silence it, the opposite occurs; tragically, it can even go away for good.

It is as if God has hardwired our hearts and minds to his truth.

My personal reflection continues. If we can recognize good and evil in the big things, with a little search, there is no reason we can't discover them in the little things too! Might it be possible to cultivate a sensitive, fine-tuned conscience that will point us not only to goodness, but also to greatness?

If we can do this personally, can we do it also as a society?

I think we can. And that's why I write and speak as I do, so often, and even in moral absolutes.

It's not about me. It's certainly not about my righteousness. The search for morality in the public square has to do with discovering the truth about how we were made, what we were made for, and the fastest way to get there.

On these pages, I hope you never witness personal attacks. I hope you never hear me break a scandal, dig up dirt, condemn a heart. If you ever do, remind me of who I am and who I am not.

But likewise, if you ever stop hearing me say that we can truly know the difference between right and wrong — in the big things and in the little things — please send me a note to remind me that I have no right to hide behind the fact that I too am a mess.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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