There was an irony to William Bennett’s blockbuster Moral Compass: the juxtaposition of ideas and ideals with the very human behavior and choice of the author, a man who lived in his time. And now, under the microscopic scrutiny of social media, such discrepancies belong to the public realm in a whole new way. But underlying the accusations and shaming in so many spheres lies a deeper truth: right now, determining what is right, what is acceptable, what is offensive, what is humorous versus insensitive or what is classified as dangerous and destructive to others versus exercises of individual rights and right to privacy, all that is terribly unclear just now. Common understandings of meaning are increasingly elusive, defined by small groups rather than shared by broad swaths of Americans and a keen reflection of the idea that there is no longer, if there ever was, a shared cultural literacy or deep values or principles binding generations and ethnic groups.
Instead, discourse is increasingly vulgar and the beauty of language and rhetoric is reduced to bitter diatribes. Rather than exploring discordant views, searching for common ground, or applying the philosophies set out in the Preamble of the Constitution as guidelines, there is name-calling and labeling, angry reactions without reflective responses, and a deepening sense of victimization and alienation among all stakeholders.
As a Catholic, these situations remind me that there is a deep need for compassion and empathy in our culture, that there is an age old distance between the real and the ideal, and that life is extremely difficult no matter who you are, where or when you live and whatever you are doing. As a Catholic, I bear responsibility for myself and for contributing to the whole in a positive way. As a Catholic, I understand that it is not mine to judge, but it is mine to do the right thing. And above all, I am aware that there are moments that I will fail in choices and behavior, and that I will need to experience as well as practice forgiveness. Catholicism invites me everyday to live the examined life, to actively reflect and deliberately choose responses. Even the history of Catholicism promises me that change may be in the smallest of increments, but it will come. Catholicism is the reminder that no matter what happens, what matters is the response and choices that are made. Catholicism helps me begin to understand that not everything is about me.
And just now, in the messy space of 2017, Catholicsm is the invitation to live better, become better, be better. It is the invitation to dare to live more deeply, to strive for choosing behaviors and communications consistent with the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes, to rigorously examine what I do and how i do it, to forgive others and myself, and above all, to try again tomorrow. Because, in a country where such suffering and loss is evident in every news cycle, healing and hope cannot be reborn without courage and compassion. To find the path to a culture where discourse can occur without diatribes and conversation can occur without deepening division, each of us needs to be just a little bit better. And we must believe it is worth trying.