9 rules for civility from the Catholic tradition

Former U.S. House Speaker and current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hands incoming House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the gavel after his election on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 29, 2015. (CNS photo/Gary Cameron, Reuters)   Former U.S. House Speaker and current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hands incoming House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the gavel after his election on Capitol Hill in Washington Oct. 29, 2015. (CNS photo/Gary Cameron, Reuters) 

We all know that something is gravely wrong with our public conversation in the United States. The lack of civility is so pervasive that it is pointless to assign blame. We each have a responsibility to change the game, to treat each other better, particularly when we disagree.

Partisan divisiveness infects our church, even on matters of little social or theological significance. Last year, when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday in Lent, I granted a dispensation to Catholics in my diocese so that those who wished to partake of corned beef could do so. My inbox was swamped with nasty responses in the aftermath, accusing me of destroying Catholic tradition, purposely undermining the faith and paving someone’s journey straight to hell. This is a failure of our social discourse.

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Catholic tradition has much to teach us about civility. The starting principle is that every human being has God-given dignity and is worthy of respect. Or, in the words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We each have a responsibility to change the game, to treat each other better, particularly when we disagree.

The Bible also has plenty to say about how we speak to one another. Two stories in particular address our use of language. Genesis tells of a society that sought to challenge God’s authority by building a tower high enough to reach heaven. God responded by reducing humanity to a Babel of languages, unable to understand each other or work together. Humanity’s hubris—the original sin reflected in the Garden of Eden narrative—shattered humanity’s unity. Language became a source of conflict, war and hatred. Language lost its holiness.

But language was redeemed at Pentecost. The Acts of the Apostles describes how, when the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, people of every language background understood them. The holiness of language had been restored. This is how we must use language: to bring about understanding and to speak of faith, hope and love.

The cultural headwinds against civility are strong. The screaming heads on cable news, the fortunes poured into electioneering and the “Wild West” of social media make it hard to engage in reasonable dialogue. I am reminded of my homiletics professor’s critique of a practice homily that was particularly argumentative, closed-minded and delivered at high decibels. He dismissed it as “C.W.Y.L.H.”: “content weak, yell like hell.”

Civility demonstrates strength—not weakness—of thought, voice and conviction.

Civility demonstrates strength—not weakness—of thought, voice and conviction. It is a way of speaking and acting that takes seriously what I believe and what others believe. It includes a robust and passionate engagement with those of differing views. Civility assumes that the ties that bind us are far more important than the differences we have on important social and political issues. A corollary is that people live and learn in communities, including families, faith traditions, affinity groups and civil societies. Civility requires us to work together within and between these communities, for common purposes.

Civility is not willful ignorance of another’s opinion. It is built upon integrity, which is consistency in our beliefs and actions. When we claim to follow the one who called us to love our enemies but then direct caustic diatribes toward those who are even mildly critical of our views, we have no credibility. And we must be careful to treat those within our family of faith as charitably as we do those on the outside. People of faith demonstrate integrity only when our conversations and disagreements ad intra are as civil, respectful and tactful as our ad extra dialogues and arguments.

Civility requires a “civil tongue.” When we direct insults toward another human being, we degrade ourselves even more than we degrade that person—and we display an impoverished vocabulary. Recently a friend of mine could not help overhearing a man making an angry, obscenity-laden phone call. He used one obscenity repeatedly as subject, object, adjective and verb. My friend was shocked that two young women nearby showed no reaction, especially as it became clear this man was talking to his wife.

We need to recapture the sacredness of language. It is through words that we express life, that we express all that we love.

I believe that such routine obscenity is related to the vileness of our public discourse. Vulgar language is not the cause, but it is a link in the chain. The degrading quality of our everyday language numbs us to the frightening degradation of our public conversation. Racial and sexual slurs, bigotry, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and hatred in general have emerged from under rocks and slithered into the public square.

We need to recapture the sacredness of language. It is through words that we express life, that we express all that we love, all that we fundamentally believe.

So let me suggest “Nine Rules for Civility and Integrity for Faith Communities and Everyone Else.” They come from my experience in ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, from which I have learned much and have formed treasured friendships with faith leaders of other traditions. We can disagree on profound theological and social issues but love what we see in each other’s hearts.

1. In a healthy, civil dialogue, we listen to one another. Listening is more than hearing. It requires time and energy to appreciate where a person or group comes from, what they believe and why they believe it. Authentic, empathic listening takes to heart the feelings of another’s heart and builds bridges among people who differ on important issues.

Instead of zeroing in on points of divergence, we should first acknowledge where we can stand together.

2. Civil conversation presumes that we are each working for the common good. We nearly always have areas of agreement and disagreement. Instead of zeroing in on points of divergence, we should first acknowledge where we can stand together. At that point, we can address our differences more effectively. When we work together on such things, we build bridges that can allow a constructive conversation about what abortion does to children, women and our society.

3. Any civil public discussion recognizes the validity of contending groups in society. My goal cannot be to shut down another voice. Democracy and freedom guarantee differences of convictions and conclusions. I frequently hear from groups that disagree with me, whether it is about gun control or liturgy. They have a right, even a duty, to speak up when they believe the ship is off course. I read their letters carefully and try to respond carefully. I may invite some of them to my office for a conversation. While we may never agree, I owe them the respect of an honest dialogue.

Even as the First Amendment allows expression of these hateful ideas, we must condemn them firmly and nonviolently.

Yet not every cause is worthy of respect. For example, we have recently seen the importance of naming the evils of white supremacism, Nazism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. These ideologies must be heard for what they are—efforts to deprive some human beings of the dignity and respect that is theirs as children of God. Even as the First Amendment allows expression of these hateful ideas, we must condemn them firmly and nonviolently. Denounce the idea, not the person. After my predecessor did that 20 years ago, at the time of a white supremacist march in Pittsburgh, a K.K.K. leader renounced his racism, became a practicing Catholic and began working against organized hatred. Civility is transformational.

4. Civility shows respect for the person with whom I differ. You and I can do this, even while we try to persuade someone on the other side of the issue. Search out your critics’ strengths: Are they trying to build a better society, help the abused, right a wrong? Affirm them for that, while pointing out that there may be better ways to achieve their goal.

5. Civility works for the inclusion of all members of society and is especially sensitive to minorities and marginalized persons. Sometimes we will have conflict over what “inclusion” requires, but we can disagree in ways that do not denigrate the other person. Differing beliefs about the nature of marriage mean that I will sometimes have serious disagreements with some in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But if I were to call them names, accuse them of malicious motives or otherwise treat them as anything less than beloved children of God, then I would be guilty of sin. My words would make me the neon sign of the contempt that spewed forth from my mouth.

6. Civility distinguishes between facts and opinions. Let facts speak for themselves where possible. (The quote from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is more pertinent today than ever: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”)

We can critique an idea without lambasting a person.

7. The flip side to this rule is that facts can only take us so far. Disagreements about values are difficult, and we cannot and should not avoid passionate discussion. We can critique an idea without lambasting a person.

Not long ago during a dinner conversation with a good friend, she held that as few immigrants as possible should be allowed to enter our country. I could not have disagreed more, and the conversation became heated. Recognizing how close I was to leaving the table, I asked, “What if the immigrant was your brother?” The conversation ended with the realization that there was something more at stake than either of our arguments. We ended the evening with our mutual respect and friendship intact.

8. We should not assume or impugn motives. People often turn to bad or questionable solutions out of a desire to do good. Years ago I heard a story about a priest who saw the same woman fall asleep every week during his homily. He was incensed that she used his homily to nap, until he visited her home and saw that she had six loud, demanding children. He left that visit glad that she could take a little nap in church. We never know the full story. So why should we judge?

9. We must be willing to be self-critical. Honest dialogue helps us to examine the roots of our own positions, leading us to clarify—and sometimes modify—our convictions.

 

Civility is a virtue, a habit of choices and conscience, which shapes the way we encounter others. It does not come to anyone automatically. Like any virtue, we have to work at it day after day after day after day. But we must, if we are to work for policies that support and sustain human dignity, human rights, human life.

Rules such as these, religious values and moral principles will not, by themselves, solve complex public problems. But they are part of the solution. Faith-inspired principles, when expressed with civility and conviction, are more important than ever. Issues like the economy, foreign policy, bioethics, climate change, health care and warfare require calm, thoughtful and empathic religious voices. We must be bridge builders who call the diverse members of our society to common ground, with shared values focused on the common good.

After all is said and done, isn’t that what it means to live the Gospel? Jesus showed us how to listen. He knew how to change hearts. Let’s all pray to do the same.

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J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

Civility is a lost art for many in our world. These are 9 good rules. I especially like "Civility distinguishes between facts and opinions" and "We should not assume or impugn motives. People often turn to bad or questionable solutions out of a desire to do good"
All this is especially true given what is happening to shout down people in public office and on campuses some within the last few days.

I think Bishop Zubik should be the moderator here. I know he is incredibly busy but maybe he could appoint someone to do this.

Theodore Seeber
4 months 2 weeks ago

"Yet not every cause is worthy of respect. For example, we have recently seen the importance of naming the evils of white supremacism, Nazism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. These ideologies must be heard for what they are—efforts to deprive some human beings of the dignity and respect that is theirs as children of God. "

Interesting the three you choose. I would suggest that abortion pro-choice, identity politics, eugenics, and euthanasia are equally evil to the three you chose- but I suppose it wouldn't be America Magazine if we acknowledged that the right wing might just be as civil as the left wing.

Erin B
4 months 2 weeks ago

This is just my experience, but I have yet to have a conversation with a right-wing individual that has been civil. They have been accusatory, argumentative, and racist. I stay away from political conversations for this reason. I enjoy civil discourse, it's just hard to come by.

J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

Mr. Meisenzahl And Mr. Mosman are always polite and often express opinions based on fact that are contrary to the articles published so try them.
However, the term "right wing" has no meaning today so by using it you are expressesing a prejudice. I know a lot of people use the term but the term has a history that is contrary to how people use it. The term "conservative" does have meaning and so does the term "left", "progressive" and "liberal." The term "libertarian" is also used frequently and has meaning but is murky. A friend of mine thought I was a libertarian but I said I wasn't. I am a classical liberal which means pretty much the same thing as conservative today.

Nora Bolcon
4 months 1 week ago

k

Nora Bolcon
4 months 1 week ago

j

Steve Magnotta
4 months 2 weeks ago

Hatred and bigotry are not matters of debate. Are they? Or are they?! Really?!
It'd also be nice for folks to digest and assimilate the words, and thinking, of the likes of Mr. Moynihan.

J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

Thanks for the civil comments. Are you talking about Senator Moynihan who pointed how Democratic Party policies were leading to the break up of black families and then to extreme poverty and crime?

Nora Bolcon
4 months 1 week ago

Or perhaps Pro-Choice Politics which only seeks not to criminalize abortion (it does not seek or desire any women have an abortion ever) is actually more life saving to the unborn and women than the supposed goals of the Pro-Life movement which seems to be only to criminalize.

Facts - Not opinion: The World Health Organization and Guttmacher are both organizations that are well respected globally, and even by our church, as responsible, articulate and accurate sources for statistical data in their areas of research. Research by both of these organizations has proven over the last several decades the following to be true: Every country of the world that has strict abortion laws or where abortion is illegal has higher abortion rates than the countries that have the more lenient and easily accessed abortions by law. These same countries with the higher abortion rates and where abortion is illegal also have higher maternal death rates too. The higher rates are often higher by a large amount of both abortions and maternal deaths.

Pro-Life groups and our church leadership are well aware of this information and have been for over a decade.

Yet Pro-Life Groups still insist that we must criminalize abortion instead of seek to help mothers and fathers with better health insurance, free or cost affordable daycare, and increased mandatory paid maternity and paternity leaves which are also benefits most of the low-abortion countries offer their citizens so they don't feel pressured to abort.

If Pro-Life and our church leadership are about saving the unborn and women why do they continue to choose a route that they already know will cause more abortions and maternal deaths? Why do they not stand up for the politics to install the helps for parents, previously described above, since they know these benefits do help both abortion rates and maternal death rates to fall in countries?

Learn the facts before you condemn the Pro-Choice Political Movement.

Mark Chandler
4 months 2 weeks ago

I know this article is on civility, but you have a picture of a politician whose stated goal is the destruction of the American Family by taking away financial and medical security.

J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

Is that based on a fact or an opinion? Or if a fact is it out of context?

Larry Motuz
4 months 2 weeks ago

When Christ called some 'whitened Sepulchers' and took up ropes directly to drive the money-changers from the Temple, he was not confusing politeness with 'civility'. He was properly indignant and angry with the hypocrites. Not all civil action is polite, any more than jailing criminals is impolite or a disrespect to their dignity as persons.

Decorum is not civility. It never was and never will be.

J Cosgrove
4 months 2 weeks ago

A quote from Johah Goldberg, author of "Suicide of the West"

And I think that it's very easy for people within their coalition to see the hypocrisy, and cruelty, and nastiness and intellectual dishonesty of the other coalition. But they will make remarkable allowances for the members of their own coalition.

Nora Bolcon
4 months 1 week ago

You know I would love to agree with this Bishop but once again we have a case where our own bishops disprove their own statements. If civility and decency in speech and the willingness to say that we believe all people are equals was enough to gain justice for everyone, then we would have women priests, bishops, cardinals now and would have had women popes throughout our history.

Dear Bishop, what if a woman called to priesthood, just as you were by God, was cut down by her Pope and bishops just because she was female, was also your sister? What would you do to stand up for her after this crushing and underserving rejection of her calling and humanity which goes against everything Jesus Christ ever taught us about how we should treat each other? What will you risk to gain her justice? And by the way she (whoever she is) and there are many women in our church who fit this description is your sister in God's eyes - In Christ's eyes.

What our bishops unfortunately have taught us is that women and justice seeking Catholics can ask with pure civility for justice for women and same sacraments but are ignored as long as church leadership believes they pose no threat to them with their mere civil words. It has taught us that perhaps the only way women will ever get justice is through the same avenue injustice was instituted upon the women of our church throughout our history, and that would be through violence against any people who opposed them. If our bishops were for real they would not allow them themselves to be coerced by any Pope into supporting the continue hatred and oppression of the women of our church.

Shame on all of you bishops who have stayed quiet and not condemned this treatment of your sisters. You know the extreme ongoing pain this treatment causes women and how it has robbed our church of desperately needed priests while being a signpost for the youth to leave and stay away.

Bishop Zubik when are you going to practice what you preach and stand up for all the members of our church. Women are de-valued in our church everyday because we can't be priests.

I, myself, help to run two lay small groups in my parish and have not encountered any male volunteer leaders who choose to lead any in our parish. Yet a priest in our parish, not two weeks ago, let me know that he has put together a group of laymen from the parish and that he hand picks them from the parish if he sees they come to mass with any frequency at all. Then he approaches them and asks did they ever think about priesthood in the past and if they say, yes, they are invited to a free lunch or coffee or both with him, and he then tries to convince them to join his all male leadership training meetings. I said to him is there some reason you are not inviting laywomen? As we have had discussions, in the past, that lay people might feel more inclined to volunteer if they did have someone to train them for leadership in the parish, and that I would be interested in taking that training. (Of course these group meetings are kept out of the bulletin so no women will know the group even exist from which they are automatically excluded because they might be offended or complain.) I was then told that women are just not worth the effort to spend time with on this since the Pope isn't budging on the ordination of women priests. So basically the women who do volunteer aren't worth a cup of coffee or lunch or group leadership training alongside the men of the parish because equal sacraments have been kept from women.

I can't tell you how deeply hurt I was by this reaction from a priest I had always thought was progressive and extremely loving and inclusive. Mind you, this priest had gone thru discrimination due to a handi-cap himself and when he saw my hurt and angry expression, he just said to me, rather casually, I know it hurts, I do, but I am sorry - that is just how it is. I have to suggest this strongly to all priests and people, this much never do, never say your sorry when it is clear you don't mean it, and you don't mean it when you are not discontinuing the behavior that hurts the person you are apologizing to. Christ never calls us to hurt others or help in the oppression of others. This priest was not going to ordain someone at the end of his group meetings so there was no reason not to include women in these meetings. This is another example of how our church uses sexism to make men feel important. We use misogyny to make priesthood appear "special" and those who take part in it "special". This is an atrocious abuse of any sacrament.

Bishop, I pray for the day when you mean what you say, and you take a stand for the women in this church to be treated as equals rather than just called equals while you continually treat us as sub-human, less sacred than yourselves, and unworthy of equal voice and vote in our church.

Phillip Stone
4 months 1 week ago

If you had adequate eduction in Catholicism you would know you already share in the priesthood of all believers.
You also would be familiar with the actual designation of the people currently called priests - they have presbyterial office and function as an extension of their bishop. Think Santa and his elves. The office is one of service, not self-aggrandisement.
The custom of having males only in this role follows the clear and consistent practise of Jesus and anyone familiar with the New Testament would not get the impression that He was sexist.

Nora Bolcon
4 months 1 week ago

Actually, if you had any understanding of the Gospels, and you obviously need to read them, they don't show Jesus making anything but 12 Judges for Israel which were required to be both Israelite in blood (which none of our clergy are now and over 90% of our clergy in the past were not either) and men and for the reason of lineage and the ability to pass down Abraham's blood to symbolize proper heritage rights. So if the apostle are how you say the church should determine priest than all of our present and most of our past clergy are invalid due to their Gentile blood alone. This is why we know Jesus would never pick priests or leaders of his church by gender or blood or by the same qualities he picked the original 12 by. As for what Jesus did teach - he taught - no commanded that we never treat anyone any differently than we wish to be treated and this command he told us to uphold as high as loving God first and to let no other laws be held above it period. The only way to follow this law is to treat all people the same not similarly or different and supposedly equal - But exactly the same!

Jesus never spoke of ordaining anyone, including the original 12 as priests and neither did any of the 12 speak of any form of ordination outside the Royal Priesthood which he claimed all members were equally apart. Ordination came hundreds of years later and was based on nothing in the Gospels. There were male and female presbyters and Peter refers to himself as presbyter because he leads the flocks. There was likely ordained female priests and even possibly female bishops. Historians tell us that our own church leaders destroyed upwards of 5 times its own current historical documents and often to hide past practices it did not want continued in the future. This fact makes history too corrupt a source to gain valid information for either case, pro or con on were there ordained women priests. There is evidence to support there may have been both women priests and bishops. Patriarchy had purpose in Israel because that is how tribal ownership of lands remained equally spread throughout the tribes and that was its purpose - not to subjugate women. Patriarchy ensured equality of tribal wealth thru the passing of property thru lineage. Our church does not pass down it priestly rights thru lineage (popes don't spawn priests thru their loins). Patriarchy then has no purpose other than to subjugate and oppress women. This is grave sin which breaks the command to treat all people and members the same. I don't blame you for being confused, we as a church, have gone out of our way to brain wash, propagandize, and coerce our laity into accepting and supporting misogyny. We have also brutalized, tortured and murdered men and women who spoke against misogyny in our church history. Still there have been bishops who have ordained women to priesthood throughout our history and even now. The past popes and recent popes always declare these priests invalid even though they were all ordained by valid Bishops. This amounts to basically an invalid invalidation since there was no justifiable reason given in any Gospel to not ordain women to any ministry at any level.

I think you need to realize it is more you than I that lack understanding of both Old and New Testament Scripture, not to mention lacking understanding or knowledge on church history and world history.

The truth is our own canon law states clearly that for a dogma to be held definitely infallible it must be either declared "ex cathedra" by a Pope, (and the understanding in this even is that this declaration is not contradicting clear commands in the Gospels purported to be stated by Jesus Christ himself) or have agreement of all bishops around the world for a long period of time. JP II did not declare the ban against women priests as "ex cathedra" in large part because he was informed that there was no proper bases in scripture to support that belief as infallible. The church cannot meet the second condition either since the only way the leadership can prove that it has agreement of the whole body of all bishops worldwide is by an official vote. Also, the agreement must be un-coerced and voluntary. So no pope can tell bishops they have to agree - pro or con or threaten any retribution for what they state they believe or vote on the issue.) We have no evidence of any such vote on the subject of women's ordination ever having been taken and it is unlikely all bishops would have agreed to ban women in any generation.

To start the road to infallibility of this ban, we would have to have such a vote now of all bishops and it would have to be anonymous and they would have to be read by an unbiased non-church leadership group to ensure no negative retribution could be paid to any bishops based on their votes. Then if we got agreement against women's priestly ordination from all bishops now, we would then have to take the same vote over the next 40 years, say every 5 or ten years to prove we have the agreement for a long time. If we were to take such a vote of all bishops now, we definitely would not have agreement so I am all for such a vote to take place that way we could prove this law is in no way infallible because we can't even get agreement now. This is most likely why our Pope and leadership are not suggesting we take such a vote as it will merely destroy their own case against women.

For the record, it seems self-evident to me that the reason the church must prove voluntary agreement of any subject by all bishops over a long period of time is very good. This rule seems to be designed to ensure that infallible statements are rarely ever declared since, if ever made for wrong reasons, can cause enormous harm to the church. The law seems designed to make certain that one highly opinionated or angry pope doesn't make a rule that is very harmful or needlessly restrictive or oppressive based on his human weaknesses. Remember popes are really only speaking infallibly when they are quoting actual scripture or when speaking ex cathedra.

And by the way - even Santa had female elves and they were treated the same as the male elves. That is because Santa like Jesus is all about justice not oppression. Not everyone is called to the same service by God but no one should be kept from the service God called them to because of their gender, race, ethnicity, wealth status, etc. Jesus tells us the flesh is nothing and the Spirit in the person is everything. When there is disagreement in the church body Jesus didn't tell the disciples to bring it to Peter, he told them to try and fix it between themselves or then bring it to two of more disciples and then bring it to the whole church body.

Truth is does a Soul good. Peace brother

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