As a political notion, democracy seems to be very popular; the work of democracy, perhaps not so much. Full and morally responsible citizenship in modern American democracy demands a great deal. Active citizenship requires us, for example, to be prepared to discuss social problems with each other and participate in discerning whether or not the solutions to these problems require government action and, if so, what that action should be.
This is a tall order, as the policy questions we face today as citizens are numerous and complex. Maybe it is more of a burden than many can be expected to bear, so it should not come as a surprise that engagement in community affairs is in decline. Or perhaps it is not the work that turns so many people away from full, active and morally responsible citizenship. It could be the general unpleasantness of political discourse in U.S. culture that is the deterrent.
For Catholics who wish to be engaged, citizenship can be a somewhat lighter burden. The pro-life teaching of the church provides a moral compass that guides our analysis of many of the difficult questions U.S. society faces. It would be difficult to overstate the value of this gift. Even when Catholics disagree, we share in the great benefit of having a common Catholic vocabulary and shared goals to evaluate the issues we struggle with.
But, as we have all experienced, this moral compass does not point all Catholics to the same policy conclusions. One reason we end up in different places, even if we start from the same beliefs, is that the ideological divisions over our nation’s social policy do not fall neatly into life-affirming and life-denying camps. Americans tend to embrace a belief in free and equal individuals but disagree on whether freedom or equality is more important and therefore on what role the government should play in the lives of individuals.
A Catholic pro-life perspective values both freedom and equality to the degree that each recognizes and nurtures life, but when freedom allows one person or group to enslave or oppress others, or when equality justifies denial of the development and expression of the individual’s God-given special talents and gifts, these values have lost their life-affirming qualities. Catholics also tend to place more emphasis on community than on individualism, which may isolate us from the American norm. Consequently, in the world of actual policy debate, the pro-life moral compass does not guide us clearly to one or the other side of the American conversation.
So there is still much for us to discuss. But it is here in the discussion, in our civic discourse, that it seems that we so often fail to follow the guidance of the pro-life moral compass, adopting the tone and rhetoric of our American political culture. Letting our Catholic values guide our civic discourse instead could have numerous benefits, not only for U.S. Catholics but for American democracy as a whole.
Looking for a Win-Win
Generally speaking, American politics is practiced as a zero-sum game; there can be winners only if there are also losers. As a result, discourse is typically motivated by the desire to defeat those who hold a contrary position. The goal of both candidate and issue campaigns is victory, which requires building majorities in order to win elections or votes in legislative bodies. The political rhetoric that results can be hysterical; insults can be brutal; anger can be palpable. There seems to be very little concern with the damage being done to civic life. Presumably, this is not the life-affirming discourse that pro-life Catholics would like to see, but most of us have come to accept this as normal.
In our political culture, civic discourse, motivated by a desire to win, involves four closely related and mutually supportive tactics aimed at building a majority.
Simplify. Focusing on the complexity of an issue by presenting careful analysis of the problem and the reasons why one particular solution is preferable to others is not a path to success in American politics; it demands too much of a potential supporter’s time and energy. On the other hand, reducing the presentation of the same issue to powerful, symbolic buzzwords and pithy phrases lowers the amount of time and energy that must be invested by a potential supporter of an issue or candidate. This approach is much more effective in attracting followers.
Bifurcate. Presenting a social policy issue as if there were only two possible predetermined sides also facilitates “followship.” This tactic seems to grow out of the fact that democracy ultimately requires us to vote, and voting usually means choosing between two available options. When a vast array of theoretically possible policy options on a difficult issue is neatly trimmed to two diametrically opposed sides before we even start discussing the issue, we tend not to ask more questions but simply pick a side.
Exaggerate. Hyperbole is another effective tactic to recruit followers and build a winning majority. Efforts to recruit supporters are generally aimed at persons who do not yet have an opinion on the party, candidate or issue rather than at those who hold a contrary position. It is therefore useful to present the party, candidate or issue in a way that creates an impression that not having an opinion is not an option—that too much is at stake for a citizen to ignore the question. The common approach to achieving this goal is escalating the rhetoric and overstating the threat of inaction or of supporting the wrong side. The American way of life, we are constantly told, is teetering on the edge of collapse.
Vilify. Political operatives often seek to portray the diabolical character of the opponent or opposing view. This is often achieved through direct and personal attack, either on the opposition generally, “extreme liberals” or “radical conservatives,” or on a proxy for the others, a president or Supreme Court justice, for example. Following this technique, even the most mind-numbingly intricate policy question—how to provide health care for the poor, for example—can be reduced to the most primitive of narrative forms: good versus evil.
From these elemental pieces, American civic discourse assumes its character. Our discourse involves plenty of so-called “debate” in which no one is listening. The parties and interest groups attempt to cajole citizens to join their side rather than provide arguments about why they should do so. Instead of policy discussion, we see competing public relations campaigns focused on branding and counterbranding, advertising campaigns playing off raw emotion and catchy slogans.
But what is lost on this path to defeating the opposition? Real understanding of the issues is sacrificed by simplification. In truth, few contemporary policy questions are simple. We abdicate the responsibilities of citizenship when we accept the reductionist rhetoric of the marketing professionals. Meaningful involvement with our democratic form of government requires, at the very least, an effort to understand the sources of a problem and the implications of various proposed responses to it. As meaningful involvement declines, we become ever more dependent on the framers of the “debate,” those who deliver it all to us in bite-sized morsels.
Bifurcation closes the door on policy options at the beginning of the debate so that numerous possibilities are never considered. If we presume that there can be only two positions on an issue, only two answers to any question, a great deal of creativity is precluded. Also lost is the possibility of seeking win-win solutions; by definition such outcomes are impossible when our civic discourse is founded on the principle there must be only winners and losers.
Hyperbole undermines a sense of context and our ability to discuss priorities. When every issue is a pressing crisis requiring immediate action, we lose the awareness that governance is primarily concerned with allocating limited resources. Actual governing requires seeing needs in the context of other needs and establishing priorities. The consequences of an inability to prioritize are an incapacitated government and a growing sense of panic about what government is failing to do. Citizens feel simply lost and angry and have the impression that governance is beyond their comprehension. This undermines even a basic desire for engaged citizenship.
Vilification destroys community. There is no broader “us” that we are concerned about if we view our communities as being populated by two types of people, the good guys and the bad guys. Furthermore, the space for compromise is closed off when any compromise is viewed as a deal with the devil. Where would our nation be if our founders had held this view? There never would have been a nation.
In summary, the zero-sum, competing-public-relations-campaigns approach to civic discourse does not serve democracy well. It diminishes citizen participation in meaningful civic discourse. Citizens are expected to pick a side and repeat what they are told. The beneficiaries of this system are the institutional entities that run the campaigns. Simplification, vilification, etc., are a perfect recipe for the fundraising and self-perpetuation of these institutions. Human citizens, on the other hand, are left with an impression of violence and chaos, of dysfunction and disarray and of the rapid decline of society. What is ultimately lost is any sense of what full, active and morally responsible citizenship looks like.
This mode of discourse is antithetical to pro-life principles. By cultivating hatred and hopelessness, it diminishes the role of human citizens and discourages them from accepting their obligations to their communities. It is important, therefore, that American Catholics look for life-affirming ways to discuss issues with each other and with non-Catholic citizens.
A Pro-life Discourse
Though there is not a single path to adopting the practice of a pro-life discourse or a simple list of basic tactics to facilitate it, I believe some of its themes will be:
Moral clarity does not make an issue simple. Though the Catholic pro-life positions on the legality of abortion and the use of the death penalty are quite clear, these issues are not easy as social policy questions. Only by turning a cold heart to a great deal of suffering and a blind eye to some rather thorny constitutional issues is it possible to see these issues as “simple.” Awareness of human, legal and other complicating factors would have a dramatic impact on the tone of our civic discourse.
Because no issue is simple, investment of time and energy is necessary. Gathering information, listening to and understanding other perspectives, reflection and creativity are all essential to healthy civic discourse. If we wish to nurture respectful civic discourse, we cannot simply accept someone else’s hyperbolic rhetoric or succumb to other advertising gimmicks. We also must recognize that a preoccupation with private concerns that pre-empts consideration of public concerns undermines the best of pro-life intentions.
We should not reject the humanity of any person in favor of an ideology or a short-term political end. Pope Francis calls us to authentic human interactions rather than ideology in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” (see especially Nos. 199, 213 and 243).
Most real-world policies require us to choose between two goods rather than between good and evil. Fundamentally sound values and reasoning are at the core of most policy positions finding voice in the American polis today: lower taxes are certainly a good thing, but so are better government services; smaller government has much to recommend it, but so does a government that meets its obligation to protect public health and safety. Freedom and equality are both valuable social objectives. The host of policy positions that grow out of these principles can never be simply dismissed by one group as manifestations of the corruption of the other group. This is not to say that any and all policy positions are valid or valuable, but in a conversation with a fellow citizen with whom we disagree, righteous dismissal of his or her policy position should be a last resort rather than a first move.
A change in governmental policy is usually only one aspect of the process of achieving pro-life social change. Changing hearts and minds is also critical to most of the social issues that we as Catholics care about. Defending and advancing civil rights for African-Americans is an example of a policy that would be generally supported by pro-life American Catholics. But legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not in and of itself establish those rights.
As history shows us, that act was the result of substantial social change that made passage of the legislation possible, and we continue to strive to achieve the ultimate goal of full citizenship. The passage or repeal of one law or a decision in a single Supreme Court case does not suddenly resolve the problem at hand. Pro-life civic discourse must focus on building the social bonds that make broader societal change possible even when a change of law is a desirable piece of the broader change.
Policy compromise is a pro-life concept. In fact, compromise should come naturally to those who recognize the human dignity of their fellow citizens. Only through active engagement with our fellow citizens can we achieve the incremental changes that move governmental policy and social values in a pro-life direction. And only through such active engagement do we establish a foundation on which to work for further change in the future. In a pluralistic, democratic society, a compromise on policy does not require, or even indicate, a compromise of values.
Ultimately, we will discover that pro-life and zero-sum discourse do not work well together. To bring about the social changes we would like to see in a life-affirming manner will mean educating or being educated by others rather than defeating others. We must be aware, however, that zero-sum culture is a powerful force in our nation, and American Catholics are not immune to its influence.
Adopting a pro-life approach to our conversations with fellow citizens could have many benefits. It could make American democracy stronger by increasing the role of human citizens over that of institutional citizens. It could be practically beneficial in achieving the social objectives of pro-life Catholics by establishing stronger social bonds.
Theoretically, one would expect it to be difficult to argue for a pro-life issue position while exhibiting a life-denying attitude about a neighbor and using life-denying rhetoric. A pro-life approach to discourse would also bring our practice more in line with our professed beliefs. Practicing pro-life civic discourse could be a win-win for everyone.