By Prof Matthew Ogilvie
“Cancel culture” has many victims today, ranging from children’s authors to students opposing Chinese communism to pro-life Catholics being threatened with violence.
In all cases, the “cancellers” don’t want to debate ideas or argue the truth. They instead shut down discussion and suppress debate.
Even though the Church had its own faults in the past, for example in suppressing the science of Galileo, it came to reject what we now call “cancel culture.”
The nineteenth century produced myriad intellectual challenges to the Church. The 1800s equivalent of cancel culture, which we see later in Fundamentalism, sought to repress challenging views.
But Saint John Henry Newman had another answer to the emerging scholarship that challenged the Catholic faith.
Newman’s response was not to repress other voices, but instead to master their “tools” and to turn the weapons of those who assailed Catholic doctrine against them, and to use that learning to support our beliefs.
That is, Newman thought that if modern scholarship challenged Catholic faith, we should produce a better argument and present a higher, more accurate account of truth.
In 1992, Saint John Paul II showed that the Church had indeed learned valuable lessons.
He vindicated Galileo and expressed his regret for the Church’s errors and its treatment of Galileo.
Most importantly, he expressed a “be not afraid” disposition and a confident approach to truth. In 1996, he gave another speech on the science of evolution and faith entitled “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth.”
John Paul II did not tell us to preserve truth by suppressing challenges but by pursuing a higher truth. Saint John Paul II’s confidence in truth was also shown by Australian philosopher, the late Fr Thomas Daly SJ.
Fr Daly instilled in his students a belief that “truth is that which stands up to persistent questions.” This is again a “be not afraid” approach to truth that is lacking in cancel culture.
Instead of cancelling our opponents, both Fr Daly and the St John Paul II fostered an approach of listening to people who challenge us, then working hard to show a better understanding of what is truthful.
But how can we do that? Perhaps we can observe that many, if not most, proponents of cancel culture lack faith in God (and also seem to lack faith in the values of our civilisation).
It seems as if the cancel culture people have a shaky foundation.
But John Paul II shows confidence in truth when, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, he reminds us that Catholics unite in confidence “the search for truth, and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth.”
I think this is why, as I claimed in a video made last year, that I personally have experienced more academic freedom at a Catholic university than I would have at any secular university right now.
Secular universities are filled with people searching for truth, but they lack faith in the fount of all truth and, lacking confidence, they have to resort to cancelling.
That is, cancel culture seems to be rampant in those institutions that have lost their moral and intellectual compass.
And it seems that people resort to “cancelling” when they have weak arguments (or no arguments at all.)
It is a very different matter at faith-based universities.
A good example was when pro-abortion socialist Senator Bernie Sanders spoke at the Baptist-affiliated Liberty University in 2015. Liberty’s students listened respectfully, then firmly and courteously asked questions and challenged the Senator.
But in 2017, at Berkley, once proudly the free speech capital of the world, saw violence and arson performed by anti-right wing protesters who wanted to cancel those they opposed.
I also recall an event at another Australian university some years ago.
Staff, students and guests inside the building listened courteously, then challenged the speaker with reason and arguments.
But outside, there were “cancelers.” They yelled, chanted, intimidated students, and physically assaulted a staff member.
The incident was ugly, but it led to a deeper question. “Who had confidence in truth?” Was it those inside who had faith in God and truth, or those outside without those foundations?
This faith in truth, the intellectual strength that comes from faith, and the answer to cancel culture was displayed recently in research by Rachel Wahl at University of Virginia.
She showed that students of faith in the USA “displayed a greater ability to listen to and learn from their peers across the political (and religious) divide than did their secular peers.” In other words, students of faith seem more open to discussing and debating alterative points of view than secularised ones.
So what is the Church’s answer to cancel culture? As Father Daly said, we can subject truth to persistent questions. Saint John Henry Newman encourages us to be better and more confident in truth than our secularised peers. We can do this without fear, because, as Saint John Paul II teaches, we have confident faith in truth and He who is the source of all truth.
Matthew Ogilvie is a Professor of Theology at University of Notre Dame Australia. He is also a venomous snake catcher, a self-defence instructor. He is a “political animal” who blogs at www.ogilvieweb.com .