BY BISHOP HOWARD J. HUBBARD
In my advice to graduates this spring, I have focused on the need for civility in our society and Church.
That civility in public discourse is needed is indisputable. Over the past quarter of a century, with the emergence of shock radio and TV hosts and the unfiltered commentary in the blogosphere, our public discourse has degenerated and cyber-bullying has accelerated.
Vicious personal attacks, negative political campaign ads and unsubstantiated rumors borne of ignorance, anger, fear, uncertainty and paranoia have become commonplace, fueled by the anonymity which contemporary technology makes possible.
To cite a few recent examples:
• there was Hilary Rosen, a Beltway operative and frequent CNN pundit, making dismissive comments about Ann Romney and her lack of real life work experience, opining that since Mrs. Romney was a "stay-at-home mom," she "never worked a day in her life."
• There was Rush Limbaugh spewing crude and inflammatory language against a female law student.
• There have been the biases reflected by some in the blogosphere and satirized in New Yorker magazine as "fierce hatred of the mainstream media, condescending disdain for the freeloading work-averse poor, and racially tinged contempt for the allegedly secular-socialist, anti-religious (though Islam-friendly), Kenyan anti-colonialist, teleprompter-dependent 'food stamp president.'"
• Further, already in this year's federal elections, there have been the carpet-bombing of negative political ads in the presidential and congressional campaigns, fueled by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which allows unlimited funds from corporations, unions and wealthy donors to be employed by "super political action committees," supposedly not coordinated with the campaign or the candidate the PAC is supporting.
Uncivil discourse has also been evident in the controversy stemming from the new federal regulations which mandate contraception, sterilization and abortifacients coverage be provided for employees of Roman Catholic-based institutions which oppose these behaviors as morally unacceptable.
Tempers have flared and angry words have been exchanged, targeted at those with differing opinions, questioning their goodwill, their prudence and even their intelligence. A sampling of web posts reveals lamentable excess coming from all points of the political compass and all segments of the faith community.
As Rev. Thomas Massaro of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry suggests, "A better option would be to trade the cultural 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."
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, DC, has expressed a similar perspective in his archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Standard. Increasingly, he says, there is a tendency to disparage the name, reputation, character and life of a person because he or she holds a different position than we do.
The identifying of some people as "bigots" and "hate-mongers" simply because they hold a position contrary to another's has unfortunately become all too acceptable today.
Why is it so important that we respect both our constitutional right to free speech and our moral obligation that we not bear false witness against another? A profoundly basic reason, Cardinal Wuerl points out, is that we do not live alone.
While each of us can claim a unique identity, we are nonetheless called to live out our lives in relationship with others, in some form of community. No community - human or divine, political or religious - can exist without trust.
At the very core of all human relations is the confidence that members speak the truth to each other. It is for this reason that God explicitly protected the bonds of community by prohibiting falsehood as a grave attack on the human spirit: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Ex 20:16).
To tamper with the truth or, worse yet, to pervert it, is to undermine the foundations of human community and to begin to cut the threads that weave us into a coherent human family.
It is a disservice to the truth when one's opinions, positions or proposals are based on unverified gossip, unsupported rumor or partial information when all the facts are readily available.
We are not free to say whatever we want about another, but only what is true. To the extent that freedom is improperly used to sever the bonds of trust that bind us together as a people, it is irresponsible. The commandment that obliges us to avoid false witness also calls us to tell the truth.
We need to look at how we engage in discourse and how we live out our commitment to be a people of profound respect for the truth and our right to express our thoughts, opinions and positions - always in love. We who follow Christ must not only speak the truth, but must do so in love (Eph 4:15).
Back to catechism
In this regard, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Ignatius of Loyola, who speaks, in his spiritual exercises, about Christian discourse: "Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love."
We in the Catholic community need to regularly reflect on how we engage in discourse and how we live out our commitment as members of the Church. Basic to Christian discourse is the belief that truth itself is strong enough to win the day. It rejects the maxim that "the one who yells the loudest wins."
All have a right to voice their opinion, but it is the truth that should direct the discussion and ultimately prevail.
Freedom of speech and respect for others, freedom of expression and regard for the truth should always be woven together. Yes, we must express the truth as we perceive it - but always with love, respect and concern for others, never by demonizing them.
This should be true of all of us, whether we speak from a pulpit, a political platform, through the electronic and print media, through other means of social communications or in personal discourse.
Listen to spectrum
In the Church, especially, our interactions must be characterized by civility, humility, temperance and prudence.
We must be a Church that hears the voices of Mother Angelica and Sister Elizabeth Johnson; of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; of the Legionaries of Christ and the Voice of the Faithful; of Opus Dei and Call to Action; of those whose opposition to abortion and euthanasia are the litmus test for voting, and of those who advocate that climate change, nuclear disarmament, criminal justice and immigration reform be our priorities.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late Archbishop of Chicago, put it well in his Common Ground Initiative when he stated that "no individual or group within our society has a monopoly on the truth. Neither can any individual or group function as an elitist corps who spurn others as unenlightened. Rather, we must put the best possible interpretation on the position of those with whom we disagree. We must presume that they are acting in good faith and never impugn their motives."
May the late cardinal's insights be a guiding light for all of us in our increasingly polarized Church and society.