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