Radio Daze: Is Dr. Laura's talk show good for Catholics?MARK LOWERY
I have mixed feelings about radio personality Dr. Laura Schleshinger. I like listening to her program, but there's something that really bugs me (and a number of my friends) about her style of answering questions and her answers to some questions. Would you please comment?
I have mixed feelings about radio personality Dr. Laura Schleshinger. I like listening to her program, but there's something that really bugs me (and a number of my friends) about her style of answering questions and her answers to some questions.
Let's start with the positive aspects of her show. As I tell the students in my moral theology classes, Dr. Laura's nationally syndicated radio call in program is living proof of the reality of the natural law. That is to say, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 1 and 2, that by virtue of being created we have basic moral principles written on our very being: "The demands of the law are written in their hearts" (Rom. 2:15). These divinely inscribed moral norms can be suppressed by bad habit or by cultural patterns that go against them, but they cannot be erased. Typically, though not always, Dr. Laura's approach is simply to try to make people face up to God's inextinguishable natural law written within them. She exhibits good common sense much of the time, and her answers can sometimes be startlingly similar to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But she's not always consistent in her application of natural law.
If natural law really is "natural," why doesn't it come naturally for people to follow it?
Due to Original Sin, even after Christ's Redemption we retain a tendency to do evil and the tendency toward concupiscence (the inordinate inclination toward what is wrong). Because of this, if we aren't careful to abide by what is good, we "naturally" tend to do evil. Put another way, due to concupiscence, following the natural law doesn't come naturally. We have to work at it. For the most part, Dr. Laura does a good job of hammering home this point: We cant merely follow our emotions, our natural inclinations. These tend to lead us astray. She has a pretty good common sense understanding of original sin and concupiscence.
Why do people call in when they pretty much know that Dr. Laura will be critical of their "lifestyle choices"?
The natural law longs to be acknowledged, and it's what we really need deep down as opposed to what we want. We're not really free, not really happy, until we acknowledge what we genuinely need, the natural law, and try to align our lives with it. These people, perhaps somewhat unconsciously, invite Dr. Laura to be the medium through which they are confronted with the noble truths of the natural law. Its similar to a criminal, say a shoplifter, who is intentionally sloppy in his wrongdoing because deep down he longs to get caught and penalized. Justice cries out from within his being. Our society no longer acknowledges the natural law and no longer gives positive reinforcement to those who follow it. In fact, our society, and this includes plenty of churches, unfortunately gives positive reinforcement to unethical behavior by telling us that our self esteem is all that matters. So people need someone like Dr. Laura to reconfirm their better instincts.
It's too bad their priests and others in leadership positions aren't doing that!
Just looking at the Catholic Church in our country, no small number of leaders have dropped the ball on moral issues, and Dr. Laura has picked it up. For instance, take the primacy of children and the important respective roles of mothers and fathers. There are some absolute truths in this regard, and she drums these into her listeners. She rightly insists that children not be treated as commodities, but as persons who deserve unconditional love. She demands that spouses take their commitment with the utmost seriousness; divorce, except in the rarest instances, is a real no no.
Many today claim that if the Church spoke her doctrines on such matters with real firmness, it would alienate many people.
This is what Dr. Laura can teach our Catholic leadership: people ultimately want the truth even when they have fallen short of it in their own lives. People call her show because they love to hear the truth. Of course, she's in a great position to "get away" with that in our secular society: she's a Jewish, non-Christian, professional woman. And so she attracts many people who otherwise might write off someone of her convictions. And that's why she can be a great source for Catholic evangelists. When you're arguing a moral point with someone with an animus against religion, be sure to emphasize that you are not forcing religion on him or anyone else, but rather the truths of the natural law, the kind of stuff she talks about.
Do you see any anti-Catholic bias creeping into her program?
I recall a particular caller's query. A young Catholic lady said she was thinking of changing religions and was a bit worried about hurting her parents. Dr. Laura pressed her on why she wanted to change, and the caller said she had gone to a Catholic college, had taken a course in which she wrote a paper about whether the Catholic Church could meet the needs of modern society, had interviewed lots of people as data for her paper, and had concluded that the Church was not up to date (we all know what issues she probably focused on!). Dr. Laura cut through the rubbish and asked the caller point blank: "Do you think that if everyone lived exactly the way the pope wanted them to live, this world would be a better place or a worse place?" The completely disarmed caller meekly responded that, yes, it would be a better place. Dr. Laura replied, "So why would you want to change religions?"
So her program is basically good fare, but its not perfect. What are her show's failings?
Let's distinguish between flaws on the level of truth itself, and flaws on the level of method or style. Lets take the latter first. For someone who generally has an uncanny ability to cut right to the heart of a listeners problem, she often is so busy talking, she doesn't listen very well. It's at these times, and they are frequent, that she can be so annoying. Her method of cutting to the quick and confronting people often backfires on her when she grinds into the ground people who have a legitimate point, doesn't listen well to what the person is saying (really saying), and doesn't stop yakking long enough to let the caller make a decisive point. Of course she's under challenging time constraints, but her habit of bullying, and at times belittling, her callers is an unflattering contrast to her usual compassion for the plight of other callers. Also, a lot of teenagers listen to her show, so she needs to clean up her on air language. Once I was in the car with one of my sons, listening to her. She gave some good advice about spending time with ones spouse, adding that the woman caller should be "having great sex" with her husband. Despite her oft-stated reverence for marriage, she manages to slide in enough irreverence to make the show unsuitable for teens. She may think she has to "talk cool" in order to be relevant to her audience. But that's a dead end street. She recently spoke to a group in Dallas and was not well received. These central weaknesses I've just described came to the fore and they irritated her audience. To her credit, Dr. Laura felt badly about this debacle and donated her honorarium from that event to charity. Like all of us, she has some things to learn about life, herself, and other people. As I often say about myself, God isn't through with me yet.
What about the more philosophical flaws of her show?
She needs to think through her stance on homosexuality which is inconsistent with her general philosophy of sexuality (I think she once noted that she gets more criticism on this than on any other issue). On her "best of Dr. Laura" show on March 16 she called homosexuality a "biological faux pas." She needs to read up a bit, and Elizabeth Moberly's recent review of essential books on the topic (First Things, March 97, 30-33) would be a good place to start. Her general philosophy of sexuality holds that we are not animals and can control ourselves hence her strong condemnation of fornication ("shacking up"). Love is not to be equated with sexual release. But then she says she simply cannot tell those of homosexual inclination that they cannot express themselves sexually, and thereby equates love with sexual release. She can't have it both ways. Homosexuality is not necessarily a "biological faux pas," but an environmental one, and one that can be reversed in some, perhaps many, cases (see Moberly). In the meantime, it is beneath one's dignity to habituate oneself to sexual activity outside of marriage, which has as its end the procreation and nurture of children. She tells this to heterosexual fornicators who call in. She should give the same advice to persons with a homosexual inclination as well. Imagine the good she could do in pointing people toward various support groups helping persons with a homosexual inclination to live chastely, groups like Courage, founded by Fr. John Harvey.
To her credit, she says she holds the same high standards for homosexuals as for heterosexuals: no sex without marital commitment. And she's against homosexual couples raising children.
But why does she want commitment? Both for the dignity of the couple and for the well being of the children (her defense of the primacy of children is her strongest suit). She needs to think through the interconnection of these two elements, what the Catholic Church calls the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of conjugal love. Homosexuals want the unitive without the integrally important openness to procreativity, and that is precisely why they tend not to form permanent relationships without procreative openness, the unitive dimension is itself distorted. Interestingly, much of the Jewish tradition holds to very similar views. In her own common sense language, she articulates some of the most essential Catholic doctrines on the nature of marriage. What distinguishes marital friendship from other friendships is the end to which it is directed- the procreation and nurture of children. As Pope Pius XI taught in Casti Conubii, the development of the spouses is the purpose of marriage; but, that relationship has as its purpose something beyond itself, namely the child. There are lots of kids out there that can someday be grateful to Dr. Laura for knocking some sense into their parents. Whether she realizes it or not, she's an ally for Catholics.
Mark Lowery "Radio Daze." Envoy (May/June, 1997)
Reprinted courtesy of Envoy Magazine.
Mark Lowery is Associate professor in the Department of Theology, University of Dallas, Irving, TX 75062. He is also a husband and the father of six children.
Copyright © 1997 Envoy
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