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Thomas J. MassaroMarch 26, 2012

Olympia Snowe, explaining her decision last month to retire from the Senate, cited political “polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies” as prominent reasons for her departure. After 33 years in Washington, Snowe, a Republican from Maine, found herself one of the few moderates left in Congress. Her laudable pragmatic streak had been frustrated far too often by the hyper-partisanship that glows white hot these days, from the halls of Congress to church life.

Something inside me envies Senator Snowe. Her retirement affords her an honorable exit strategy to escape an overheated situation. The Catholic community in the United States enjoys no such luxury. The controversy stemming from new regulations that mandate contraception coverage for employees even of religiously affiliated institutions appears bottomless. You need not have scrolled through blogs, trolled Web sites and digested media coverage as much as I have in recent weeks to know the bitter landscape. Tempers have flared and angry words have been exchanged, targeted at those with variant opinions, questioning their good will, their prudence, even their intelligence.

I have no novel opinion or particular expertise to share on the divisive topic of whether Catholic institutions should accept the Obama administration’s compromise on conscience clause provisions. I wish simply to relate my fear that we as a religious community are choosing to walk the wrong path. I am addressing not the outcome of the policy debate, but the regrettable style of our recent engagement of this issue.

One option would be to keep ratcheting up the inflammatory rhetoric. Portray those with divergent opinions as insolent enemies who must be defeated in a pitched battle. Take no prisoners; make no concessions. We were on this path already before Rush Limbaugh used his broadcast on Feb. 29 to attack Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student and vocal supporter of broader contraception coverage, in the most scurrilous of ways. By then, the echo chamber of vituperation was in full operation. Bloviating media pundits are the most obvious offenders, but my unscientific sampling of Web posts reveals lamentable excess coming from all points of the political compass and all segments of the Catholic community.

A superior option would be to trade the culture warrior agenda for one of diplomacy. Turn away from invectives, jeremiads, hyperbole and hurtful name-calling. De-escalate the overblown rhetoric that paints opponents with the brush of idiocy, poor judgment or willful deception. Exercise the kind of magnanimity that refuses to demonize anyone. Invite others into civil conversations that emphasize mutual respect and a willingness to listen, even when that proves uncomfortable.

Why is the path of civility and fair-minded patience better? Why is it imperative that we tone down the harsh rhetoric? Because members of our religious community who might seem like fierce opponents today are going to be with us long after the flame of today’s controversy eventually settles down. Whatever policy outcomes unfold this year or next or further down the line, those of us lucky enough to be given a longer span of life by our Creator will find ourselves sharing the Eucharist (and much else) with thousands of those with whom we are not currently seeing eye to eye. Should our future sharing of the bread of salvation be compromised by our current failure to share a modicum of civility? Let us not give such power to present disagreements that it will be impossible to forge a decent modus vivendi afterward.

This advice may strike some as indulging in an overly milquetoast approach to important issues that resist compromise. There are many matters of conscience for which a hard struggle is justified. But to advocate civility in discourse is not to urge capitulation.

Regrettably, election years like this one have usually shed more heat than light on complex church-state issues. The 2012 campaign trail is proving once again to be a crucible of inflammatory rhetoric and repeated appeals to our fears about religion in public life, not of nuanced analysis. When religion becomes a wedge issue, we have all lost. Maybe Senator Snow was wise to look for the nearest exit. I hope that Catholics still have a chance to cool down the rhetoric.

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P Davis
11 years 11 months ago
I agree Father but it is hard to follow your advice given the polarized environment in which we find ourselves. The inertia is powerful toward the poles.
    In necessariis unitas, 
    In essentials unity, 
    In dubiis libertas, 
    In doubtful things liberty, 
    In omnibus autem caritas, 
    But in all things love

Cody Serra
11 years 11 months ago

Thank you, Father, for your consciencious suggestion and anlysis of the current environment.

You said: "When religion becomes a wedge issue, we have all lost". We are already there right now. 
I wonder how can we all stop the tide that seems to flood and drown the best in ouselves?  I believe it should begin with the leaders from the church and the politicians, in spite of this being an election year. Perhaps, it would be easier for the pundits, the media. the bloggers, and the general public to follow through, and lower the rethoric.

May the Spirit help us to come to civility and mutual respect, and soon...God created each of us as indivividuals, different from each other, but brothers and sisters in Christ.

Nancy Walton-House
11 years 11 months ago
Superb article.  Couldn't agree more.  Thank you for writing it.  In my parish, we are choosing the path of diplomacy, "civility and fair-minded patience" as you recommend.  I pray our feet stay on that path.
Edward Ray
11 years 11 months ago
Fr. Massino:

I applaud your article and its view.  However, where was this civility when Liberal "progressive" theologians thumbed their noses at Pope John Paul II regarding disagreements with the church?  Why now are people like Rush Limbaugh persecuted yet Bill Mahr applauded for their rantings?  Should not both be EQALLY critized for their comments in the public square?  The moment Conservatives are routinely welcomed to interrupt and harague liberals without negative repercussions then we will have reached a proper level of civility IMO. 
11 years 11 months ago
Mr. Ray
I do believe you are missing the point of the article.  I think Fr. Massino is pointing out that even within our Catholic community there is great polarization, and many of us feel under siege in regard to where our faith, through prayer and conscience, leads us on social issues, regardless of whether that is in a liberal or conservative direction.  I can assure you, as a liberal Catholic, I have often felt offended by the views of many of my conservative Catholic brothers and sisters, especially including individuals such as Mr. Santorum.  Many conservative Catholics do not hold the, "seamless garment" view that I have in regard to hot button social issues.
As a trial lawyer, I could easily engage individuals with certain views on poverty, the death penalty, etc, that differ from mine in conversation during coffee hour after Mass, and use my advocacy skills to reduce them to rubble.  Why don't I?  Because I know, even though it is hard, that I need to try to live and speak in love as our Savior did.  

Besides the obvious fact that no one is going to listen to me if I simply spout my opinions in an angry and aggressive manner, or engage in tit for tat, I think we are both aware that Jesus did not attract followers during his life by engaging in angry rhetoric.  He resonated with those who heard him not because he engaged in angry rhetoric that whipped people up as a revolutionary would, but because everything he said was clearly above the pettiness human beings engage in.  Jesus was clearly, "more" than just a man.  We can never be that.  But as Catholics, we aspire to it. 
I am sure that you feel as justified in your opinions as I do.  But we are directed, as Catholics, to live as much a Christ like life as we can.  I can probably match you offense for offense in the tit for tat sweepstakes if I wished to go there.  Fr. Massino reminds us that to, "turn the other cheek' is indeed what we should be doing, especially if we are to avoid degrading our faith communities, and to try to recognize that we are all in this together, wandering in the wilderness during our life on earth, asking the Holy Spirit to guide us in the way we live or lives and form opinions while we are here.
I encourage you to try to listen with patience, respect and reason to divergent opinions, and not to automatically ascribe bad motives to those whose views differ from yours.  This of it as part of your Lenten journey, I know I have been doing so.
11 years 11 months ago
I hope Cardinal Dolan and the USCCB follows your advice!
John Brennan
11 years 11 months ago
No one in their right minds objects to civility.  So, yes, let's all please be civil.  That being said, we shouldn't waste too much ink on this procedural point, but simply lead by example, each of us in his/her own speech, and get back to the issues themselves.

Otherwise, we end up dialoguing about dialogue.  A hypertrophic concern for civility can become a distraction, or worse, an easy escape hatch for the uneasy interlocutor.  Fearing the costly grace of discernment, we resort to the cheap grace of appeals to dialogue.  Rather than listen and respond to the intelligent contributions and critiques, we seize on the thoughtless outbursts of a few among our opponents and, on our soapbox, preach the uncontroversial gospel of dialogue.  

Jesus, in fact, was not ultimately a diplomat.  He turned may away by "hard teachings" (John 6:60).

If we respect its principles, civility will no doubt serve us well.  But civility should never keep us from asking the tough questions, and from thinking through the present situation as thoroughly and honestly as we can.  In this regard, despite their self-attributed virtues of standing above the fray, "America," Fr. Massaro, et al. have yet to engage in real dialogue with the bishops and the many lay faithful (myself included) who disagree with their stance of false conciliation, or as some would consider it, capitulation.  
11 years 11 months ago
Mr. Brennan
I suppose that you could say Jesus turned many away by "hard teachings" but I believe more often that was not the case.  I think it is important to remember the harshness of God the Father before Jesus brought the new covenant, as well as the brutality of life and social and gender order during that time in history.  Jesus' kindness, and love for fallen women, gentiles, and the marginalized was very controversial for his time.  I don't think, in the lense of that time in history, that even his, "hard teachings" were all that hard.
In regard to the burning issues of this day, I think part of the problem many of us are having with each other is a difficulty accepting that there are times when people of faith, through the process of discernment, reach different conclusions about very important issues.  With proper discernment, an individual has gone through the a long and difficult process of throroughly investigating an issue, praying over it, hearing what the Church has to say, and finally, after a hard slog, reaches a decision. After such a process, it is highly unlikely that another person with a completely different view is going to change that person's mind.  And frankly, I don't know if I should even try.  Sometimes we have to respect the fact that this person has gone through the process of discernment and their conscience is not going to allow them to alter their position. Because they have reached a different conclusion does not make them bad or evil.  In the end, whether they are right or wrong is a matter between the individual, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit on the last day.

This is where civility becomes important.  In my view, the regular practice of civility allows us to engage in quiet dialogue with people of opposing views.  In this process, we are able to get know them and are less likely to demonize them and view them as "ogres". This is not a distraction, it is a necessary process for any of us to get anywhere with each other and work as best we can for the common good. Sometimes to seek a third way.

When we recognize the decency in others, even those with whom we do not agree, it enables us to at least try to seek compromise in the areas where it is possible.
Yes, we need to engage in real dialogue about the issues that are causing such polarization and heartache, but everyone's feelings are so inflamed at this point that we all need to take a deep breath, calm down, and have a polite little conversation about the weather before we leap into the fray again.  The underlying issues that caused this explosion are not going anywhere.  I think sometimes in this crazy, speed of light era we need to step back and take our time. This is one of those instances.
I recall working as an intern the the U.S. Senate when I was in college.  Although I am a yellow dog Democrat, I interned for Senator Hatch.  Until then, I had a very different view of Republicans and of Mormons. I learned so much during my time there.  While I was on the Hill, I witnessed the deep friendship between Senator Hatch and Senator Kennedy, both people of different faiths and backgrounds, but both men of goodwill.  They were able to hold often diametrically opposing views, while regularly working together on mutual projects for the good of our country.  They were not the only legislators I viewed on opposing sides of the aisle who were able to do this.  The bedrock of this process was simple civility, and I was glad I was able to witness it and learn from it so early in life.  Sadly, Senator Snow is correct about the loss of civility and polarization, even in our Senate.  I have watched the deterioration of that great body over the last twenty years since I left and truly mourned.  The polarization has not helped our country, and the lack of respect by the public for our government has plummeted.  To diminish the importance and power of civility is simply wrongheaded.  Take it from an attorney who works every day in an adversarial system.  The majority of my cases settle with less harm to everyone involved because I am not automatically hostile to the other side, even when I believe in my case.
Try to keep in mind that words are very powerful.  When you use terms like, "false conciliation" you are ascribing bad motives, and it makes you sound like you are just spoiling for a fight, rather than dialogue.  Let's try to be the Brothers and Sisters in Christ that Saint Paul saw.  If we remember we are all family, and are called to love each other, maybe we can make this effort at "conciliation" truly work.
11 years 11 months ago
Thank you, Fr. Massaro for writing the piece, and Deb Truitt for your comment.
11 years 11 months ago
Apologies to Senator Snowe for dropping the e on her name!
James Richard
11 years 11 months ago
Good article Father!

Anyone who participats in the popular Catholic Chat boards, will be labled a liberal, and treated as an enemy of the Church, just for linking an article at this site, never mind trying to reject the nasty rhetoric that is used.

Name calling like baby murderers, athiest etc are so common, at these chat boards, especially when speaking about President Obama.

Yet, they claim to be devote Catholics.
Mary Pearlman
11 years 11 months ago
Dear Father Thomas - you have my deepest and heartfelt appreciation for your kind words.  I've been watching my adult children and my teen-age grandchildren pulling further and further away from the church and it's breaking my heart.  How good it is to hear words of calm and empathy for those who don't think exactly as we do or those who already rightfully question the moral authority of the bishops who seem to be saying more and more clearly that the individual conscience no longer has authority.  

This is an awful period for many faithful Catholics - and especially for those who are experiencing doubt and questions.  

Thank you, and please pray for my family. 
Rosario Conde
11 years 11 months ago
Thank you for your thoughtful column.  Cardinal Dolan and the USCCB need to measure their words, give up magisterium by tantrum and recommit to their pastoral role.  More importantly, though, is to consider how the church engages in the political sphere.  I do not believe that it is appropriate for the church to get in the details of particular legislation.  The proper role has always been one of witness and counsel.  I am mortified to read about Cardinal Dolan's statements that the proposed extension of the NY statute of limitation for child sexual abuse improperly singles out the Church.  First, it's not true. Second, the Church has lost its moral credibility to speak on this issue, so it is not taken seriously.  Third, engaging at this level reduces the Church into one more interest group.  I would love for America to feature a thoughtful article on John Courtney Murray.  His writings would shed great insight on how the Church should approach engagement with the political sphere.
Andrew DiLiddo
11 years 11 months ago
Its great to laud Snowe on her way out but we should also remember that she unnecessarily held up the Affordable Care Act, healthcare reform.  Like a petulant child, she had a hissy fit and insisted that the legislation be written to suit her and when that task was completed, she blew it off anyway.  We don't need that kind of bipartisanship. 
Andrew DiLiddo
11 years 11 months ago
"will find ourselves sharing the Eucharist (and much else) with thousands of those with whom we are not currently seeing eye to eye."   geeze

I searched scripture and the Catechism and did not find any indication that in order to celebrate this Sacrament, that all those receiving were required to see eye to eye.

 This standard did not even apply to the last Supper with our Lord!  Shortly prior to the Last Supper the apostles were arguing with each other about who among them was the greatest.  Yet, Jesus allowed/welcomed all of them to celebrate the  Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper despite their prior kibbling and comparing behavior. 
Lisa Weber
11 years 11 months ago
Thank you, Father Massaro, for a much-needed call to civility.  And Deb Truitt, thank you for your insightful comments.  When hostility is clearly displayed in church, evangelization is nearly impossible.
11 years 11 months ago
I agree.  George W. Bush was treated very terribly by his opponents with mockery and vile insults.  We should rise above this.
Amy Ho-Ohn
11 years 11 months ago
Civility is a good thing, but politics is a high-stakes game, not for weaklings. People also need to work on not taking things too personally and not being overly (even insincerely) offended by noisy disagreement. If you can't share a beer with somebody who just slammed you into a wall, you shouldn't play ice hockey. If you can't celebrate the Eucharist with somebody who just called you a liar, an idiot, a shill, a traitor and an apostate, you should avoid conversations about politics.

Overheated rhetoric is actually a good thing; historically, people have often settled political disagreements with bullets.
11 years 11 months ago

Fr. Tom: Thank you for your thoughtful message to cool the rhetoric. This wisdom is important for all of us to follow. Since we are talking about issues of conscience and morality, I would like to hear more from our Catholic theologians of "nuanced analysis". I have already heard the promulgations from my church hierarchy. Our Bishops previously clashed with our theologians. We do not need another debacle. It would be disatrous to see our Church split as campaign 2012 moves ahead. Somehow the struggle for the common good must keep us together. Our consciences need to be informed by the best minds available.

John Hathaway
11 years 11 months ago
The problem is that abortion and contraception *are* essentials.  There is no nuance there.  The popes are very clear that we have liberty in applying the Church's economic justice teachings and should be respectful of one another there, and I respect that.  A person who is sincerely anti-abortion and anti-contraception but liberal on economic issues, like the late great Robert Casey, Sr., has my full respect, even if I disagree on nuances. 

However, Father writes as if it's OK that Sandra Fluke supports government funding of birth control, that it's OK that Sandra Fluke supports *fornication*, and it's not.

Contraception is a moral abomination that has been solidly condemned by the Church, consistently, from the _Didache_ (and the New Testament, where it's condemned as "pharmakeia," "witchcraft") to _Mater et Magistra_, _Humanae Vitae_, _Donum Vitae_ and _Evangelium Vitae_.  John Paul II made very clear that Catholics are obligated to make it our top priority in politics to outlaw contraception and abortion.

The "polarization" in the Church is due to the view that it's OK for Catholics to decide for themselves what is right and wrong and ignore the dictates of Conscience-which is exactly the power that the Devil tempted Adam and Eve with, the power to decide for themselves what is good and evil.  The "polarization" in the Church is nothing less than the "smoke of Satan" condemned by Paul VI, the fruit of infiltration of the Church by Communists and Freemasons written of by Dietrich von Hildebrand, the fruit of the infiltration of the Church by demons predicted by Our Lady of La Salette and Pope Leo XIII. 
John Hathaway
11 years 11 months ago
Stan Fitzgerald,

It's funny you mention theologians, since the Vatican recently pointed out that "theologians" are not the final word on theology: Bishops are. 
Beware of anyone who talks about "nuance" or subtlety-for the Devil is the most subtle of God's creatures.  Subtlety is the mark of the Pharisee, finding convenient excuses to weasel out of following God's law, where Jesus came along and said, "No.  Moses wasn't strict enough."
Dan Hannula
11 years 11 months ago
Nice try.  Civic virtue is essential for democracy.  However, I suspect most of the Bishops have decided long ago to use their religious positions as a useful "tool" of power politics:alea iacta est!  

In another part of these blogs I reminded my fellow America readers that our very first Bishop, John Carroll, was excommunicated by the the Bishop of Quebec, Jean-Olivier Briand.   Bishop Briand concluded that Carroll was cooperating with evil-i.e., Ben Franklin, George Washington, and the other founders. The more things change the more they remain the same.

As my favorite Catholic politician (JFK) once said; "Those who ride the tiger's back, end up in his belly." Ponder that Bishop Dolan.

Dan Hannula
11 years 11 months ago
John C. Hathaway, OCDS-"The "polarization" in the Church is due to the view that it's OK for Catholics to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.."

I guess that's what's wrong with democracy too-eh?  I think you are right-but, I am not on your side in agreeing.  You know when I used to teach confirmation classes, my first lesson (the first principle in doing ethics, IMHO) was the moral obligation not to be stupid.  That was the phrase I used to get the attention of those bored 17 year olds.  I would have enjoyed having you in my class.  This is probably where the debate should start-eh?
John Brennan
11 years 11 months ago
Ms. Truitt (if you happen to read this),

I thought of this article and your comments again when I heard the following in Sunday's Gospel reading:

And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil. (John 3:19)

Civility doesn't mean ruling out the possibility of bad motives.  If I seem to be ascribing bad motives, it is because I'm open to the possibility that bad motives are involved here (welcome to human history).  The truth is: we ourselves, and our brothers and sisters alongside us, sometimes act out of bad motives, or at least a failure to understand what true love of neighbor demands.  If "civility" involves blinding ourselves to this, then I can't in good conscience be "civil."  Granted, the way to begin a decent conversation is not to accuse the other.  Sometimes, though, disagreements do come down to the difficult question of deeper motives.

I pray I'm granted the self-knowledge to know my own faults.  But I'm not so naive as to consider presidents and scholars much different from what Lent reminds me I am: prone to bad motives and self-deception.
john fitzmorris
11 years 11 months ago
Hurrah! It is time to ratchit it down, way down. This whole birth control affair was a proposed regulation: a proposal and not the binding regulation itself. The reaction by both sides Left and Right was overheated and overblown. This proposal was not the opening salvo of a war on religious freesom. But overheated and overblown is the style of the day. The 48 hour news cycle and the likes of Limbaugh and O'Reilly seem to have condemned us to a series of violent raves and rants that turn a matter of private morality into a cosmic battle between the forces of God and Satan. I only wish the reaction against street violence, war in Afghanistan, revolution in Syria would reach the level that it reached in this instance.  In any event, I congratulate Thomas Massaro for having the courage to call for a cooling down. He is one of the reasons I read America where I continue to hear rational discourse. America is an oasis in a desert of disingenuity and deceit
Bob Hunt
11 years 11 months ago
First, Fr. Massaro is calling for civility on all sides of this issue, yet the comments here suggest that he is calling out only the opponants of the HHS mandate, as if the proponants have been nothing but wonderfully civil and respectful on the matter.

Second, Fr. Massaro never mentions or accuses Cardinal Dolan of being uncivil, and such an accusation would be patently false.  Cardinal Dolan, and the bishops as a whole, have been in dialogue with the Obama administration for months over this matter.  If anything, the Obama administration has been duplicitous in giving the bishops the idea that their concerns were being taken seriously and well considered, when they obviously had no intention of addressing their concerns.

Finally, if I recall correctly, Jesus had a few choice words for the Pharisees (ie: "blind guides!"; "brood of vipers!"), and then there is His cleansing of the temple.  Hmmm ... perhaps our good Lord should have read Fr. Massaro's article first to get a few tips on civility! 
Steve Gethin
11 years 11 months ago

Normal procedure in a debate when those who support one's own point of view, but express it in such a way as to detract from the credibility of the case, is to first take pains to point out that you do in fact support the principle which they are purporting to advance, but then point out that they are not helping the cause by their strident tone. I find the lack of this element in your piece somewhat curious.

Could you please just assure us that you do in fact oppose the contraception mandate and are not using your disapproval of the (alleged) tone of its critics as an excuse to fire a shot at them bcause you in fact either a) support the mandate or b) support Obama and do not particularly care about the mandate but decry the fact that it is being used to (further) damage his credibility among Catholics?  

Further, you have tarred all opponents of the mandate with the same brush. Surely you don't include those who have taken the lead in opposing the mandate, the American Bishops' Conference, within your targets? Perhaps you could have made that a little clearer to your readers.

Yours in Christ
Steve Gethin
11 years 11 months ago

Fr Massaro, You describe Senator Snowe as a moderate with a laudable pragmatic streak. This is a strange epithet to apply to a woman who supports abortion, which is in fact a most extreme position.  If she had advocated the reintroduction of slavery, you would not have the same sympathy for the fact that she found the political arena had become too rough for her.

Political positions involving oppression of the innocent (such as support for abortion or slavery) are calculated to incite righteous anger in a man or woman of justice.  Jesus himself often spoke harshly to the Pharisees on account of their lack of justice.

The contraception mandate involves the State threatening to punish members of the Church for acting in accordance with Church teaching.  This is another position calculated to drive faithful Catholics to righteous anger.  If this debate leaves scars within the Church, the blame will lie solely at the feet of those within the Church who say it is OK for the government to do this or that, at best, it should only be weakly opposed. If there is any offence in the opponents of the mandate it is the "mote" in their eye as against the "log" of the mandate itself and its supporters.  That needs to be made clear in any article on this subject, regardless of how many or few words one has to devote to it.

The mandate “compromise" is of course no more than a cynical attempt to dupe less intelligent members of the Church.  No insurer provides medicines for free out of the "goodness of its heart". The so-called compromise can be likened to a "buy one, get one free" deal offered by many stores. You can't go into the store and just get the "free" one. It's included in the price of the first item, so it isn't free; the customer is still paying for it.  Those of us gifted with greater insight owe it to our fellow Catholics to expose this for what it is.

There is an element within the Church which seems to crave respectability from the secular left. We need to ensure that our tactics in public debates are consistent, regardless of whether the issue is one where the left agrees with, or opposes, the Church's teaching.

Catherine Ivancic
11 years 10 months ago

Thanks Father Massaro

Perhaps there are more of us out here who really do want to be the peacemakers in a world that will never be perfect? Aren't we as Christians obligated to pay attention to the other person's hearrt - even if we lose the power struggle in this world? I think that is the challenge Christ lays out for us. I refuse to be a soldier in any culture wars. If I won that war, I'm not sure I would like who I had become in the process.


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