What John Courtney Murray would say about the state of public debate

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“Civilization,” wrote John Courtney Murray, S.J., “is formed by men locked together in argument. From this dialogue, the community becomes a political community.” Father Murray was quoting the Dominican Thomas Gilby, a fact that was sometimes ignored by my predecessors in this column, who were so very fond of this quotation. Regardless of who said it, however, the point is that the use of reason in argument is the specifying note of a civil society. Yet while civil society is characteristically rational, says Murray, “it is a need of human nature before it becomes the object of human choice.” For Murray, civil society is the flowering of the human person as homo politicus. We are not radically autonomous individuals, but rational social animals. We need reasoned debate, not simply because it is better than a bare-knuckle brawl, and not simply because the manners of polite society require it, but because it belongs to our human nature to reason and to argue in civility.

Public argument, much like the American proposition Murray described with such eloquence, is collapsing.

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I can see why my predecessors as editor in chief liked this idea, for it furnishes the warrant for this journal of opinion. But more than that, they saw, as Murray did, that this insight was a fundamental component of the American founding. “It was the force of a great tradition that launched our republic,” Murray said in 1960. “And I suppose one of the problems...is how does this tradition fare today?” Were Father Murray asking this question in 2017, I think he would quickly answer, “Not well.” Public argument, much like the American proposition Murray described with such eloquence, is collapsing. A quick glance at Twitter and the mobocracy that presently occupies our commons and campuses tells us as much. This crisis in the public discourse poses such a clear and present danger to the body politic that Catholics must fundamentally reassess our public engagement, asking how we have been complicit in the demise of the public discourse. And recent events indicate that the church in the United States is afflicted by many of the same problems that beset civil society.

On Sept. 15, 2017, Theological College in Washington, D.C., the national seminary under the auspices of The Catholic University of America, announced their decision to rescind an invitation to James Martin, S.J., longtime editor at large of this magazine, to address the faculty and students during their upcoming Alumni Days celebration. According to a statement issued by Catholic University, the seminary’s decision to rescind the invitation was contrary to “the specific counsel” that the college had “received from the university and its leadership.” Theological College’s decision followed the recent cancellation of Father Martin’s scheduled appearances before two other prominent Catholic groups.

It is one thing to engage in spirited debate. It is another thing to seek to stymie such debate through fear, misinformation or blunt censorship.

Father Martin had been invited to deliver remarks on Jesus and Ignatian spirituality in each of these forums. Yet the sponsors of the events felt compelled to rescind their invitations in light of the public controversy surrounding Father Martin’s recent book Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. After being reviewed by the censor librorum, the book received the required imprimi potest from Father Martin’s Jesuit superior, the Very Reverend John J. Cecero, S.J. Building a Bridge has received public endorsements from two cardinals, an archbishop and several bishops.

Most readers and commentators have welcomed the book, while some have raised questions about its thesis. For the most part, the criticism has been intelligent and charitable. Some elements in the U.S. church, however, have taken it upon themselves to organize a campaign, not only against the contents of the book but against Father Martin himself. In recent weeks, Father Martin has been subjected to repeated, calumnious attacks in social media and in print, involving invective that is as appalling as it is toxic. It is one thing to engage in spirited debate. It is another thing to seek to stymie such debate through fear, misinformation or blunt censorship.

In response to these events, John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, released a statement: “Universities and their related entities should be places for the free, civil exchange of ideas. Our culture is increasingly hostile to this idea. It is problematic that individuals and groups within our Church demonstrate this same inability to make distinctions and to exercise charity.”

John Courtney Murray would almost certainly agree.

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Chuck Kotlarz
1 month ago

Out of respect for Fr. Martin, I have replaced my initial comment.

Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, in today’s environment, perhaps would have been treated the same as Fr. Martin. The note below comes from Wikipedia regarding the film, The Scarlet and the Black.

SS Head of Police for Rome, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, was captured in 1945 and interrogated by the Allies. During his interrogation, he is informed that his wife and children were smuggled out of Italy and escaped unharmed into Switzerland. Upon being asked who helped them, Kappler realizes it must have been O’Flaherty, but responds simply that he does not know.

The film epilogue states that Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was frequently visited in prison by O'Flaherty, his only regular visitor. Eventually, the former SS officer converted to the Roman Catholic faith, and was baptized by the Monsignor in 1959.

Sharon Boland
1 month ago

The four cardinals who submitted legitimate inquiries in the form of Dubia were and continue to be ignored; their voices effectively silenced.

What happens at the top permeates the entire Church.

Reyanna Rice
4 weeks ago

You say the 4 cardinals have been effectively silenced because the pope has chosen not to fall into their trap, the same kind that the Pharisees set for Jesus, of only giving "yes" or" no" answers to their questions. Card Burke is one of those 4 cardinals. I have read quite a few articles and interviews where he is still talking about the dubia , AL and numerous of his other pet causes. Obviously the good cardinal does not consider himself silenced.

Tim O'Leary
1 month ago

I love the phrase "locked together in argument" from the Dominican quote. Fr. Martin deserves the respect due everyone in an argument, especially from Catholics. He should also be given the benefit of the doubt in any ambiguous comment, unless there is a constant leaning in one direction and a pattern removes the ambiguity, in a bad way. But, it is completely within the bounds of argument to critique his dialogue strategy, and even to question his actual position on aspects of Catholic doctrine in a respectful but forceful way. I agree that civility should be the method, even if one is just complaining about unfavorable treatment in the opposite direction.

We presently have a US President who is an inveterate insulter and denigrator of those he disagrees with, even if he interchanges his insults with complements, depending on his mood. So, Trump has certainly coarsened the conversation in an unprecedented way.. But, several of his critics have also gone totally overboard. We are all worse off for a race to the worst. The late night comedians are not helping. But, if one thinks of the amazingly harsh attacks on President Bush (remember that NAACP ad, and all the intelligence insults) or even President Reagan, one remembers that this is a constant problem. In the present discussion, it is of course impossible to be civil and call the debating opponent racist or homophobic. If one doesn't have a swastika tattoo or KKK hood, or a "God-hates-gays" sticker, or is not using actual insults, just leave these epithets out and focus on the arguments.

Unfortunately, one other very prominent person who is especially famous for peppering his interviews with insults is our dear Holy Father. There is even a book/website dedicated to collecting his denigrating insults of others. http://popefrancisbookofinsults.blogspot.co.uk/ While initially it had a freshness and frankness about it, it has probably gone well passed its sell-by date. In religion and politics, one often takes a lead from the leader.

J Cosgrove
1 month ago

For Murray, civil society is the flowering of the human person as homo politicus. We are not radically autonomous individuals, but rational social animals. We need reasoned debate, not simply because it is better than a bare-knuckle brawl, and not simply because the manners of polite society require it, but because it belongs to our human nature to reason and to argue in civility.

I find reason and civility missing from most of the articles published here at America. It is mostly emotional appeals that are used to persuade. Scaring and shaming are part of too many articles here.

Mark Herlihy
1 month ago

What an odd collection of comments: two fail to make any attempt to engage the article, but merely grind their own what-aboutist axed, while the third offers a wildly tangential story. None is genuinely on topic.
For my part, I support the position of this editorial, but I believe it does not go far enough in its condemnation of the attacks that have been made on Father Martin by “alt-right” religious social media provocateurs, who claim, somewhat astonishingly, to be Catholics. Prominent among those attacks is the description of Father Martin as a “homosexualist,” a word spellcheck doesn’t recognize, but which dictionaries indicate is an “old-fashioned” word to describe a practicing homosexual. In my view, the application of such a term to Father Martin is scandalous, in the technical legal sense of the word, and any Catholic clergy who have propounded this scandal should be subjected to discipline under Canon 1390, sections 2 and 3. Let those who presume to judge be judged.

J Cosgrove
4 weeks ago

while the third offers a wildly tangential story. None is genuinely on topic.

Since one of the comments is mine, I will respond. The first two paragraphs of the editorial say nothing about Fr. Martin but mainly discuss F.r Murray and his insistence for reason and civility when discussing important issues.

I discussed the lack of civility and reason in the typical article here at America. I was pointing out the irony that the editors are now calling for civility and reason when it affects one of their own.

I just wish they would try to maintain it throughout their editorials and articles here on America. Reason seems to be completely missing from most of what is printed here. Not all but a large number. Then there is the commenters and a lack of both reason and civility from many of their comments. The Ad hominem seems to be the argument of choice for many..

I will make a prediction and that is a discussions of "race" will be front and center in the upcoming weeks. Let's see if the editors and authors are up for a rationale and civil discussion. My guess is that it won't happen. I hope I am wrong.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month ago

Father Malone
This issue has torn the Anglican Communion apart and even provided an opportunity for a Pope to invite the dissenting members of Episcopal Church to leave and join the Catholic Church.
Father Martin was assuredly aware of this state of affairs in the Anglican Communion from which the Episcopal Church of America is currently suspended. You yourself must have been aware of it when America published Cardinal Sarah' s reference to homosexuality as ..."Demonic".

I have no problem with this Column's deploring the loss of linguistic civility and polite forbearance, but I have a great deal of trouble handling your "surprise" that things have devolved to the current distasteful state. Father Martin threw a brick at a known hornets nest and you are surprised that the bees came piling out? Anyone who paid any attention to the Anglican/Episcopal debacle could see this escalating out of control.
Of course Father Martin should be allowed to speak wherever and whenever ......but spare us your outrage/disappointment that many many Catholics object ...Catholics who were inculcated by Jesuits and others to believe exactly what Cardinal Sarah articulated in his critique of Father Martin's book

Antoinette Carbone
1 month ago

Fr. Martin was trying to offer a way of coming together as there are in many families a son or daughter who are gay. A respectful approach so to speak. What happened at the seminary at CUA in cancelling their invitation for Fr, Martin to talk about Jesus, says a lot about their wanting to hear about the Lord. To many Christians don’t know how a Christian is expected to live. First. Love God, second. Love your neighbor.
Even the neighbor who is not perfect, for no one is perfect.

Michael Barberi
4 weeks 1 day ago

From my limited experience, there is a significant difference between the policies of a Catholic University (e.g., Notre Dame) and a Pontifical Catholic Seminary (e.g., the Josephium, CUA). Essentially there is a stone wall to inviting anyone who appears to promote controversy especially someone that is directly or indirectly calling for a rethinking of a Magisterium teaching or pastoral practice with respect to the treatment of homosexuals.

Try getting an article that is moderately critical of Humanae Vitae in a Catholic Journal of Theology that is connected to a Pontifical Catholic Seminary. In my opinion you will not find a free exchange of legitimate ideas and arguments in such a seminary. Is anyone surprised that most newly minted priests are unprepared to deal with the many complex problems of average Catholic families (e.g., contraception, in vitro fertilization, homosexuality, irregular marriages and the divorced and remarried)? Priests, both young and old, don't have a convincing moral argument in support of many moral teachings of the Magisterium that ring true to the deepest levels of the minds, hearts and souls of average Catholics.

I applaud and respect Fr. Martin for having the pastoral love and mercy of a priest and the courage to call for a dialogue between the Institutional Church and the gay and lesbian community. We need to find a much better way to treat the LGBT community with respect, compassion and sensitivity.

Lisa Weber
4 weeks ago

The only problem with Fr. Murray's quote is that it excludes women, but I assume the quote came from a time before women existed. The attacks on Fr. Martin certainly demonstrate that the dialogue supporting the political community of the Church is significantly broken. These attacks are no different than the ones taking place in nation.

Every problem presents an opportunity. The Catholic Church has an opportunity to develop and demonstrate a healthier and more useful way to conduct a community dialogue. The teachings of Jesus provide a sound guide to positive community dialogue, though Jesus' teaching needs to be looked at with new eyes in order to see it.

As a starting point, Jesus included women in the dialogue of the community. Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus' feet as a disciple among the disciples and Jesus defended her right to be there. Women were included in most gatherings of the disciples. The Church has yet to adopt this teaching of Jesus. Secondly, everything Jesus did with regard to sexuality was to make it more private. If the Church sought to treat sexuality as a private matter over which adults have control, Humanae Vitae would be an advisory document that people may ignore. People already ignore it, so there would be little change. Sexual orientation would also be considered a private matter. The Church may determine which marriages it recognizes, but civil marriages will continue to exist and the Church needs to include those married in civil ceremonies. Treating sexuality as a private matter while speaking the truth about matters related to sexuality would create a monumental change in the tone of Church dialogue about sexuality.

Including women in the public dialogue of the Church and treating sexuality as a private matter for adults are only two of the lessons still to be learned from the Gospel stories. When the Church looks again at the Gospel stories, it will see that the structure of the church should be a community rather than a family and the goal of spirituality is maturity rather than blind obedience. The Catholic Church has an opportunity to help heal the broken dialogue of the larger society, but it has to heal its own dialogue first.

Carol Goodson
4 weeks ago

We have entered a new Dark Age. however, the Church has survived such times before. Jesus promised that His Church would last until the end of time, and I believe Him. I just hope I live to see our escape from this terrible time.

Henry George
2 weeks 5 days ago

I was taught by the Jesuits and I taught Jesuit Scholastics/Theologians
and rigor in argument and openness in discussion was expected.
Our duty as students and teachers/professors was to seek the Truth
no matter how long it took to do so, no matter how many objections/false trails were presented to us.

I support Fr. Martin and anyone who honestly reaches out to bring the
Good News of Salvation through Jesus Christ to anyone and anywhere
but we must take the greatest care that we are witnessing to what
Jesus our Saviour said and not what we would like Jesus to say or do
or think.

I do not understand why Fr. Martin or other writers for America
do not engage the commentators "dubia". I try to respond to whomever
responds to me - we may disagree - but at least I talk with them and
without conversation how can we ever come to understand each other ?

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