In the introductory note of “Faithful Citizenship” the U.S. Bishops make a point to declare their hope that by offering this document they could “contribute to civil and respectful dialogue.” In another section, they recognize that “unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype. The Church calls for a different kind of engagement.” This analysis from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) ought to be recognizable to us all. As of late the rhetoric that is employed in politics has become extremely partisan and very divisive. We have witnessed town hall meetings and political gatherings that have deteriorated into unproductive yelling matches. Conspiracy theories abound and folks seem to comfortably accept these fear-based tirades sowing a deep sense of mistrust in all our public officials. Popular media pundits tend to offer opinionated, biased, and often unreflective responses to their political opposition. Rarely does the media engage in offering critical analysis and reflection on important issues that our nation must address. The American Catholic community is not immune to this divisive political atmosphere and often we may contribute to the promotion of civil discord rather than civil dialogue.
Our Bishops invite us to offer “a different kind on engagement.” The invitation is to promote civil dialogue and to approach our political issues and differences with charity and love for one another. Cardinal Dolan of New York gave us a wonderful image of that when he invited both Presidential Candidates to the Al Smith fundraising event saying: “the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of engagement and dialogue. In other words, it’s better to invite than to ignore, more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one.” This remind of what St. Augustine means when he says “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” The Second Vatican Council invites us to adopt a tone of civil dialogue as we engage in our civic responsibilities:
Catholics should try to cooperate with all men and women of good will to promote whatever is true, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever lovable (cf. Phil. 4:8). They should hold discussions with them, excel them in prudence and courtesy, and initiate research on social and public practices which should be improved in line with the spirit of the Gospel. (Apostolicam Actuasitatem #14)
We are called to be a leaven to our American society so that through our witness of careful listening and respectful dialogue we can transform our own political landscape in a way that engenders civility and mutuality. To that end the USCCB “faithful citizenship” website gives us some great resources and tools to help us become this type of political witness. Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, wrote a brief essay on Civil Dialogue that parishes can place in their bulletin. Attention to this statement will be crucial. I would like to highlight the ground rules that Cardinal Wuerl shares in his essay:
- Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak.
- Share your personal experience, not someone else’s.
- Listen carefully and respectfully. Speak carefully and respectfully. Do not play the role of “know-it-all, convincer or corrector.” Remember that a dialogue is not a debate.
- Don’t interrupt unless for clarification or time keeping.
- Accept that no group or viewpoint has a complete monopoly on the truth.
- “Be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than condemn it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2478, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola).
- Be cautious about assigning motives to another person.
The USCCB also has two video’s on this subject.
Finally, I would also like to draw attention to a pledge that is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. This pledge is called “Civility in America.” By clicking on this link you can personally take this pledge to “employ a more civil tone in public discourse on political and social issues, focusing on policies rather than on individual personalities.” Through this pledge your parish community can commit to participate in civil dialogue.