Civility: What's in a Word?

A welcome sub-theme of Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago seems to be a call for civility in dialogue. The theme echoed in an interview with NBC News’s Ann Curry that aired Nov. 16, his homily at the Vespers service Nov. 17, the eve of his installation as archbishop, and even his installation homily the next day.

He reflects an awareness of U.S. poet Emily Dickinson, who stated wisely that “A word is dead when it it said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” A message is there for a polarized nation, perhaps even a polarized church where in the name of religious dialogue people have been known to demonize each another.

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When a word begins to live, of course, it has potential for good or bad. We all know from experience that hurtful words can live forever in families—so too can their healing power.

According to a transcript of the NBC News interview, done jointly with America editor Father Matt Malone, S.J., Archbishop Cupich spoke about life issues, from abortion to the death penalty. He discussed the unconditional right to life and declared, “My hope would be that we can talk about all these issues but always in a way that engages dialogue, engages people where they are. There has to be that kind of dialogue. Not one that it turns into a debating society but one that listens to where other people are—and opens a new way for them to hear us. Fulton J. Sheen said a number of years ago: ‘If you’re only interested in winning an argument, you’ll never win a convert.’”

Archbishop Cupich said Pope Francis advised the U.S. bishops through the Vatican nuncio to the United States that he wanted “more pastoral bishops.” That pastoral nature certainly shows in how Pope Francis speaks to and about people, starting with the words he uses to articulate his vision of them.

Archbishop Cupich also quoted Pope Francis as the pope described the bishops he wants for the future: “'I don’t want people who are going to be antagonistic…'” Archbishop Cupich added, again quoting Pope Francis, “The Holy Father wants bishops who know 'the smell of the sheep.' The pope has been very direct about that.”  

The need for civil discourse and openness to others’ experiences as part of dialogue holds not just for clergy, but also for elected officials, Archbishop Cupich said at the Vespers service where he met with Chicago’s leaders.

“Civil discourse is needed not just so we can get something done for the common good, but because of the impact that failing to do so has on society,” he said. He added that “recent studies on the involvement of young people in religion and public life bear out a common factor that discourages their participation—the harsh rhetoric and lack of comity and civility within each group and in the way leaders in both groups treat each other.”

Civility is vital for those who preach the Gospel. Archbishop Cupich in his installation homily on Nov.18 said that “bishops and priests find that the Good News is increasingly difficult to proclaim in the midst of great polarization in church and society.”

Incivility creeps into the church when it enters political warfare, especially around gay issues. Some people, for example, refuse to use the term “gay” and insist on saying “persons with homosexual inclinations” in its stead. Choosing to define someone by your terms rather than by theirs seems like a power play that rejects who a person declares himself or herself to be. It is more than disrespectful.

The use of scare quotes around words, as in “so called ‘gay marriage’” is equally off-putting. (For the record, in a previous contribution, I objected to media who used scare quotes around “religious liberty” because it dismissed a serious church concern as invalid.) Use of “so called” before the phrase becomes a double insult when paired with scare quotes. 

Much of what the church does could be termed sacred because the church acts in the name of God and deals with the sacred: people. Civility is a minimum requirement for church communications, a point well understood by Pope Francis, Archbishop Cupich, and hopefully all who preach the Gospel.

A word holds potential beyond the moment, notes Emily Dickinson, because “it just begins to live that day.” A word in the church may have the most potential of all.

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church Correspondent for America.

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