No one benefits when public discourse lacks respect, civility

The end of the elections and a return to civility is near! Or so we may hope. More likely, the bitter exchanges and harsh attitudes marking these political campaigns will not disappear any time soon.

By Bernie Evans
By Bernie Evans

Our nation is deeply divided along a number of political, economic and social fault lines. As a people, we seem to have given in to a form of discourse and argumentation that lacks basic respect and civility. We may not like the negative political ads or the candidates arguing and debating as if facing mortal enemies, but we are part of the culture that makes it possible.

As Catholics we are reminded by our church’s social teachings that we must be able to work with all parties for the common good, that we must be willing to seek common ground in pursuit of what is best for our communities and our society.

We see that in the writings of St. John XXIII, especially his 1963 encyclical, “Peace on Earth,” which notes that we are expected to treat persons in ways that respect their dignity, even when we might hold quite different beliefs (157-158).

Acting with charity

In 1971, Pope Paul VI issued his “Call to Action,” in which he stated it was up to the laity “without waiting passively for orders and directives, to take the initiative freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live” (48).

He added that in addressing the social and economic issues of the day we must recognize that the same Christian faith can lead to different commitments and positions. Where we must agree is to seek a mutual understanding of one another’s positions and motives, and to act with an attitude of profound charity (50).
That is not always as easy as it might sound, especially when we are talking or arguing with someone who expresses a view opposite our own on a topic of great importance to us. How to respond with profound charity? It might require discipline, practice and tools.

Back in the 1990s, Father Phil Murnion and the National Pastoral Life Center, working off an initiative by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, developed the Catholic Common Ground Initiative’s principles of dialogue for a polarized church. Those principles are worth considering by any of us in the church or in the larger society as we face the kind of divisiveness we witnessed in this election season.  The Catholic Common Ground Initiative includes the following principles for civil dialogue:

  • Recognize that no single group or viewpoint has a complete monopoly on the truth.
  • Presume that those with whom we differ are acting in good faith.
  • Recognize the valid insights and legitimate worries of the other person.
  • Address the other person’s strongest points rather than seek to discredit him or her on the basis of their most vulnerable points.
  • Appreciate complicated realities rather than label people, for example, as conservative or liberal.
  • Be cautious in ascribing motives.

Opportunities for dialogue

Our parishes could be a great place for any of us to practice this kind of civility when discussing difficult and sometimes controversial matters — like immigration and refugee issues, or how to ensure everyone’s access to needed medical services, or different aspects of economic injustice that Pope Francis often addresses. Perhaps a couple of parishes or a diocesan office could organize such opportunities.

We as Catholics don’t all agree on the many issues facing our nation, and we don’t need to agree. But we could become much better at learning how to discuss difficult issues with other people who might hold viewpoints different from our own.

If we can develop the skill and charitable attitude to love persons who disagree with us on big issues, we might help to reset the tone of public discourse within our society.  Then, too, political elections might not be so painful.

Bernie Evans is retired from St. John’s University School of Theology/Seminary in Collegeville, where he held the Virgil Michel Ecumenical Chair in Rural Social Ministries.

Author: The Visitor

The Visitor is the official newpaper for the Diocese of Saint Cloud.

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