Monday, August 29, 2011

The Thinking Catholic Award

   Catholics, along with all conscientious folks, do well to avoid thinking reflexively about politics. No person who places Truth above party can retreat mechanically to his partisan corner in every political fight and claim intellectual integrity. Most of the really important issues are tremendously complex, which means that while desiring a certain goal, such as alleviating abject poverty, might be obligatory for one claiming to follow Christ, people of good faith can advocate various means to reach such an end. And the likelihood that one party always advocates the best plan to reach desired ends such as a healthier economy, improved education, a more peaceful world, etc. is zero.
   Some fairly pedestrian claims, I know, but perhaps they need to be repeated more often to be internalized. For my own part, I’ll admit to requiring conscious effort to avoid reflexively liberal thinking. Consumption of a wide variety of opinions is one of the best antidotes to narrowness of mind, but it's also paramount to read and listen to the best of what the other side has to offer. (Reading the simplistic moralizing of Cal Thomas, for example, reinforces my preconceived notions instead of challenging them.)
   That said, I'd like to bestow the very first, but no less prestigious, Thinking Catholic Award to one of my favorite conservative writers, New York Times columnist Russ Douthat. He exemplifies integrity and non-reflexive thinking. With almost every issue he handles in his column and blog, Douthat demonstrates a rare understanding of multiple viewpoints, credits the merits of his opponents’ thinking, and insightfully reframes stale arguments. His commentary where culture, ethics, and morality are concerned is particularly cogent and fresh.
     One of his posts last fall, following Pope Benedict XVI's striking comments about condom use, shows Douthat at his best. In it, he forcefully argues for the relevance of the Church's teachings on sexual morality, highlighting some of the more prescient insights from Humanae Vitae, the landmark 1968 encyclical reaffirming the Church's opposition to birth control. But he also thoughtfully explains why, for so many thoughtful Catholics, the arguments are difficult to assent to intellectually—even when fully understood. Douthat skillfully uses Benedict's (then Cardinal Ratzinger) own commentary from a decade earlier to highlight the beauty, power, and difficulty of the Church's position.
    This post, along with just about everything else Douthat writes, is well worth reading. His next challenge, no doubt, will be maintaining the humble tenor of his writing after receiving such a weighty accolade as the Thinking Catholic Award. (Whether this is a weekly or biennial honor is still to be determined).

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