National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

Civil discourse would benefit nation and church

There’s an art to disagreeing without being disagreeable, one that Americans, and American Catholics, are in danger of losing.

The three top selling nonfiction books in the United States today are Dude, Where’s My Country? (where “the author of Stupid White Men calls for ‘regime change’ in Washington”), Who’s Looking Out for You? (where radio host Bill O’Reilly “attacks those individuals and institutions that he believes have let down the American people”), and liberal humorist Al Franken’s subtly titled Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

Rounding out the bestseller list are Bushwacked, in which “two Texas journalists offer up an indictment of the Bush administration,” Persecution, in which Rush Limbaugh’s brother “argues that ‘liberals are waging war against Christianity’ ” and Shut Up and Sing, where Laura Ingraham “attacks the ‘elites’ of Hollywood, Washington and New York.”

The point is not that these are good or bad books (and we like some more than others), but rather that, in their totality, they paint an ugly picture of political discourse in this country. We’ve come a long way from John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage or Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative.

“Even a decade ago, the coarseness of language and vulgarity of thought, now fairly pervasive on television and radio and in the films would have been unacceptable,” Chicago Cardinal Francis George noted in a recent Catholic New World column.

“Public irritability, undisguised rage, raw ambition, lack of basic honesty and plain rudeness are no longer masked by at least a pretense of politeness when a controversial subject is introduced,” writes George. “A difference of opinion is contorted into an attack upon a person. A decline in common standards of decent speech and behavior is evidence of a lack of common standards and common goals for our society.”

Now, our political debates have always been somewhat coarse. The personal attacks on such 19th-century figures as Thomas Jefferson and Grover Cleveland, to name just two, makes some of today’s vilification seem tame.

Nonetheless, George is onto something: The public discourse in the world’s oldest democracy is abysmal -- shallow and ill-informed, mean-spirited and attack-driven.

And, says George, what’s true of the wider society is true of the church.

Writes George: “ ‘Adult Catholicism’ does not mean creating an alternative church, arrogantly breaking faith with the church and her teachings; it means finding ways to take responsibility for them, humbly and together, and to speak of them civilly to those who do not understand, let alone believe.”

Again, George makes a strong point. Those who count themselves as reformers in this institution should embrace the virtue of humility and recognize the tolerance they embrace is only truly tested when pitted against those with whom they disagree.

But it is also occasionally true, as American aphorist Mason Cooley noted, “People who expect deference resent mere civility.”

Three examples illustrate the point.

• Shortly before his death (and prior to the public announcement of his illness), then-Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin announced the “Common Ground Initiative” -- an effort to get factions within the church talking about their differences.

“With two cardinals, two archbishops, and three bishops on the committee, along with papal favorites like [Mary Ann] Glendon and [Michael] Novak and certified right-to-lifers like [Robert] Casey and [John] Noonan, it was hardly a group to start endorsing heresy,” recalled author Peter Steinfels. And yet then-Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, joined by several other American cardinals, condemned the initiative immediately following its creation. “By the usual standards of episcopal protocol,” writes Steinfels, “Law’s response was more than blunt; it was brutal.” Law’s statement included a “remarkable rebuke to the integrity of a fellow cardinal.”

• This past summer, 169 Milwaukee priests urged the American bishops to begin a discussion of optional celibacy in the diocesan priesthood. Their request was respectful and focused on an issue not central to the faith. They were told no.

• Several bishops have banned Voice of the Faithful gatherings on church property in their dioceses. Is it shrill to suggest that such bans are inspired by irrational fear and clerical hubris? We don’t think so.

Despite continued hostility, the Common Ground discussions continue, debate over the merits of mandatory celibacy will not go away, those who think women are marginalized in the church keep speaking their point of view and Voice of the Faithful members work to “keep the faith and reform the church.” But far too often these discussions are carried out without support or encouragement from leading members of the hierarchy. Bitterness and frustration are among the fruits of such reluctance.

What is the lesson here? Civility requires engagement; adult Catholicism suffers when discussion is rejected out of hand, when deference is expected but not reciprocated.

As the leader of Catholicism in a great city, Cardinal George gets more than he gives. But he is a skilled interlocutor, not one to let unfair attacks against the church he leads go unanswered. He does so with wit, passion, knowledge and respect -- a formidable combination. And that is as it should be.

Members of both the hierarchy and the laity -- whatever their ideological predispositions -- would be wise to accept George’s advice when dealing with hot-button issues: “Public life is possible only where one’s word is trusted and trustworthy, where one’s commitments are kept, where one’s colleagues and even one’s enemies are treated with dignity, where legitimate authority is respected, where manners help make the pressures of the day bearable.”

Or, as is so often the case in this 2,000-year-old institution, we could look back further for guidance. To St. Augustine, perhaps, who urged unity in essentials; liberty in doubtful matters; and, in all things, love.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

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