Transcending the Dialectic?

Triumph was a conservative Catholic magazine with a small but devoted readership, including me, back in the 1970s. It was edited by the late L. Brent Bozell, the father of the Brent Bozell, the modern syndicated columnist and head of the Media Research Center, who can be seen regularly arguing for conservative causes as a guest on the evening talk shows.

One of the phrases used by the writers at Triumph was “transcending the dialectic.” Their point was that Catholics should not permit themselves to get trapped in the terms of the debate between political conservatives and liberals in the United States; that Catholicism was not a property of the American left or right, Democrats or Republicans; that the Church had truths to offer that transcended the platitudes of the partisan tub-thumpers.

I often wonder if I will live long enough to see anything like that happen, to see the acrimony lessened between Catholics on the Left and on the Right. Back in the 1970s, I used to ask well-read Catholics older than I if the tension between liberal and conservative Catholics in the 1930s and 1940s was anything like that of the modern era. They assured me that it was not; that Catholic scholars in earlier times would debate the issues that divided them in a heated, but far more fraternal spirit, with the good of the Church uppermost in their minds.

An article in the February 6 issue of America, by Dean Brackley, S.J., professor of theology and ethics at the Central American University in El Salvador, struck me as a sign that there may be hope for a return to the less politically partisan atmosphere of the past — for a few moments. My hopes were quickly dashed. The article was entitled “Higher Standards: Universities can help the Church recover its voice.”

Fr. Brackley informed us that he would like to see Catholic universities devote themselves to “the promotion of social justice,” which he points out “is one of those factors that distinguishes Catholic colleges and universities” from their secular counterparts. So far, so good: Catholic college students should know something about the social encyclicals. Brackley wants this goal to be pursued in a way that takes its inspiration from Pope John Paul II’s call in Ex Corde Ecclesiae for Catholic educators to free themselves from “the models, both liberal and conservative, commonly held up for imitation.” That sounds like transcending the dialectic.

Then why do I hold back in my support for Brackley’s thesis? Because the evidence is clear that he has not freed himself from the views of the political Left; that his version of transcending the dialectic is to call upon Catholics on the Right to give ground. He urges Catholic universities to “free us from bias.” Yet consider the examples he offers of how that is to be done: “Sophistry and propaganda compound the problem. How are teachers to help students unmask deception today, when war is waged on false pretenses and Fox News claims to be impartial? Does impartiality mean giving equal time to the Swiftboat veterans?”

You would think Brackley could have come up with a few other examples of “sophistry and propaganda” if his goal is to free Catholics from political partisanship. How about, for balance, the over-the-top rhetoric of Howard Dean and Michael Moore that you hear parroted by overwrought college students who act as if there is no other side to the debate over the war in Iraq?

And has Fr. Brackley come across something that I missed that demonstrates beyond a doubt that John Kerry was telling the truth about his experiences in Vietnam and that the critics who served with him were not? I followed that debate pretty closely during the last election and I still don’t know what to think about the conflicting memories of what happened in Kerry’s unit. It is clear, however, that Kerry misrepresented certain aspects of his military career and wants portions of his military record kept secret. That doesn’t mean the Swiftboat veterans were telling the truth, but it makes me leery of accepting Kerry’s account. Should a Catholic college be devoted to disabusing its students of views such as mine? Is that what Brackley means by freeing us from bias?

Fox News? No, they are not impartial at Fox. I get the point when John Gibson and Brit Hume raise their eyebrows and curl their lips a bit when discussing the Clintons or Al Sharpton. That is why I watch the station. I prefer to get my news from people who I am comfortable with — rather than from the reporters on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and MSNBC, who tell us they are impartial but shape the news to fit a liberal agenda. If Fr. Brackley cannot see that the mainstream networks, the major newspapers, and the newsweeklies are partisan voices for secular liberal and Democratic causes, then he is as much in need of being freed from his biases as any of the students at Catholic colleges he is worried about.

Brackley points out that none of us likes to go through what he calls “cognitive liberation” because to do so “requires personal change. In the end, prejudice is embedded in my identity, so that to question my world is to question me.” He tells us that “most of the population of Catholic colleges and universities belongs” to a “middle-class ‘tribe’” in need of “wholesome crises” to help “expand [their] horizons.” How can that be done? He maintains that Catholic universities “can help the Catholic Church recover its voice and moral authority in the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandals” by raising “important questions.”

What questions? Here’s his list: “Should the university call for an end to the death penalty? Should it speak out against torture at Abu Ghraib, the violation of rights at Guantànamo and the destruction of Fallujah, criticize inequitable tax policy and the lack of health care for the poor, point out how Hurricane Katrina revealed serious neglect of the common good, defend the rights of gay and lesbian persons?”

I wonder how Fr. Brackley would react if I reworded his proposed questions just a bit. How about, “Should John Paul II’s teaching that the death penalty be used only in ‘extremely rare’ instances be considered in light of the increased number of murders of young children at the hands of sexual predators? Is there a need for a more assertive American foreign policy against Left-wing governments in Latin America because of the long record of tyranny and corruption in Fidel Castro’s Cuba? Should Catholics apply the principle of subsidiarity to call attention to the crippling impact of high taxation on working Americans to finance the failed welfare state policies that were brought to our attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? Should American Catholics be mobilized to thwart the efforts of homosexual activists to weaken the Catholic understanding of marriage and the family?

I doubt that Fr. Brackley would think my proposed reworking of his questions helpful. Which makes the point. A university committed to freeing its students from their biases and expanding their horizons in the spirit of the Church’s social teachings should not have an agenda indistinguishable from what one would find in the editorial pages of the New York Times or Left-wing political journals such as The Nation.

Fr. Brackley is entitled to use human reason to conclude on the basis of economic data and political events that secular liberal programs will work to bring about social justice. But Catholics on the Right are entitled to disagree — without having their moral principles called into question by a Catholic college that purports to be committed to an honest pursuit of the truth.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage