Although often attributed to the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), I often think of the words first stated by American businessman and statesman Bernard Baruch (d. 1965): “Every man (and woman) has a right to his (her) own opinion, but no man (woman) has a right to be wrong in his (her) facts (Deming, NM, Headlight, January 6, 1950).”
This statement is true in both its assertions. Opinions are easy to formulate, whatever their basis, and people have a right to express them. Knowing facts, however, and stating them honestly takes effort.
Following the presidential campaigns and debates of the last year and watching the national conventions of both major political parties, we have witnessed a confusing and oft times mean-spirited mixture of both fact and fiction and opinions hardened as a result of what we may have heard or read or thought we heard or read. Whom and what are we to believe? Whom can we trust?
Of course, this is an election year, and we have come to expect a lively exchange among candidates for political office. Their job is to argue their positions, to convince us of their perspectives and to win our votes. The discouraging reality is, however, that our leaders and those who report on them have encouraged us to follow their example – not in constructive dialogue and discourse but, rather, in name calling, in vitriol and in unchecked incivility.
Sadly, this approach to self-expression has not confined itself to the political realm within a single election year. It has steadily crept into all our interactions with one another, including the arena of faith, religious beliefs and teaching, as well as life in the Church.
As Catholics and Christians, we know whom to believe: Jesus Christ. As Catholics and Christians, we know what to believe: the Gospel. As Catholics and Christians, we base and formulate our “opinions” on how to live in this world, in our communities, in our families and, ultimately, in our relationships with one another on these “facts of faith” as handed on to us, explained, prayed about and lived by and in the Church.
God created the world and its purpose, rhythms and movements. For the person of faith, that is a fact. God created human beings with an intellect and free will to discern and fulfill God’s purpose. For the person of faith, that is a fact. God instilled in every man and woman a soul destined for eternal life and a conscience capable of learning, knowing and distinguishing right from wrong according to God’s purpose. For the person of faith, that is a fact. In Jesus Christ, God created the Church to help us in all of the above. For the person of faith, that is a fact.
These facts lead us to believe and profess that the Church is Divine in origin and intention, but it is also human, profoundly and deeply human. It is to humanity that the Church has been given. It is for humanity that the Church has endured. It is with humanity that God’s revelation becomes known and obliges us in the Church in every generation.
God never fails but we do. That also is a fact. The role of the Church is to help us get it right when we fail. The role of the Church is to help us get back on track when we fail. The role of the Church is to help us know the grace and mercy of God and to pick ourselves up when we fail. That’s what we as Catholics and Christians believe. And that’s not up for grabs.
The challenge for us this side of heaven is not simply to believe what we want. The challenge for us here on earth is to believe what we should.
Yes, in the end, we have the right to our opinion, true or false as it might be. But the truth and the truth alone will set us free (John 8: 32).