True Civility is a Servant of Civilization; False Civility is a Bludgeon to Silence Opponents

The University of Notre Dame.
The University of Notre Dame. (photo: By Know1one1, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Notre Dame recently announced that it would award its highest honor, the Laetare Medal, jointly to two politicians, Vice President Joseph Biden and former Speaker of the House John Boehner. Many will recall the controversy surrounding the commencement invitation and honorary degree awarded by Notre Dame to President Obama in 2009. Eighty-three bishops objected to the invitation which violated their 2004 statement, “Catholics in Political Life,” declaring, in the context of the Church’s clear commitment to the sacredness of all human life, “[T]he Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Having learned a lesson from the Obama controversy, Notre Dame took an offensive approach this time, issuing a statement that it “is not endorsing the policy positions of either, but celebrating two lives dedicated to keeping our democratic institutions working for the common good through dialogue focused on the issues and responsible compromise.” Civility in public discourse is a favorite theme of Notre Dame President (and Holy Cross priest) John I. Jenkins who three years ago penned a piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Persuasion as the Cure for Incivility.” There he argued that a return to civility is necessary for reasoned discourse: “If I am trying to persuade others, I first have to understand their position, which means I have to listen to them. .... I have to ask them to listen to me, which means I can't insult them.”

Hours after the Laetare Medal was announced, columnist Michael Sean Winters lauded Notre Dame’s “bold move” in an article in the National Catholic Reporter entitled, “The Laetare Award: Dismantling the Architecture of the Culture Warrior Church.” Winters is a faithful advocate of Father Jenkins, having enthusiastically supported his decision to honor Obama. Winters shares Jenkins’ concern about the lack of civility in public discourse; last year, for example, he was invited to participate with Father Jenkins in a panel discussion at Notre Dame on the problem of polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church.

In his article, Winters asserts that the bestowal of the 2016 Laetare Award on Biden/Boehner is an important step away from the “regrettable” positions articulated in the bishops’ 2004 statement. Winters believes that the award—amplified by the imprimatur of Cardinal Wuerl, who will receive an honorary degree from Notre Dame during the same ceremony—makes clear “what should have always been clear, namely, that there is more to know about a candidate or government official than their position on abortion.”

And yet, when we read Winters’ column in the hopes that we might find there a model for the sort of Jenkinsian civility that Notre Dame wants to encourage, what we find is the repeated use of an underhanded rhetorical device known as “poisoning the well,” where one makes a preemptive ad hominem attack on one’s opponent with the goal of discrediting and belittling an argument before it can be made.

Anticipating criticism from those concerned about Catholic character in higher education (because Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of fundamental moral principles), Winters dismissively states, “[T]his announcement will certainly occasion heartburn over at the inaptly named Cardinal Newman Society.”

Anticipating criticism from some members of the episcopacy who might still be attached to their 2004 statement (because Biden opposes Church teaching on every major contemporary moral question including abortion, embryonic stem cell research, the sanctity of marriage, and religious liberty), Winters says, “I do not anticipate the U.S. hierarchy will froth at the mouth as they did in 2009.”

Anticipating criticism from the pro-life movement (because Biden supports the right to abortion), Winters states, “I am sure that whatever outcry there is will come mostly from the zelanti in the pro-life movement.” [Zelanti was a term used to refer to a group of Franciscans who opposed any loosening in the rigor of the Rule of St. Francis, but now is used dismissively to refer to any movement marked by zealous adherence to an overly strict rule.]

Critics of the 2016 Laetare Medalists, beware! You have already been dismissed as dyspeptic, rabid and fanatical. Winters’ preemptive strikes preclude any possibility of civil engagement. He denies that there might be any reasonable objection to honoring a public figure who—throughout his entire political career—has worked directly against such fundamental moral principles as the dignity of unborn life.

And yet, prescinding from his policy positions, one might ask what evidence supports looking to Biden as a model of “respectful dialogue” or “honorable compromise.” Biden, who chaired the judiciary committee during the ugly, contentious confirmation hearings against Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, was responsible, perhaps more than any other person, for ruining any hope of such civility in the judicial nomination process. These hearings are now, thanks in part to Biden’s leadership, characterized by the very “poisonous invective” and “partisan gamesmanship” Jenkins claims to abhor.

Of course, contra Winters and Biden, public discourse should be marked by civility. But we should not confuse civility in service of a higher good with civility as the higher good itself. How can Notre Dame give its highest award to someone based on his civility, which has been in service of fundamental principles it claims to oppose? Would that the Laetare Medal had been awarded, as the local ordinary Bishop Kevin Rhoades suggests in his critical statement of Notre Dame’s action, to someone who embodied civility and whose life and work “are exemplary in witnessing to the Gospel,” rather than to one who dissents “from the truths and values we profess and hold dear.” 

Civility unhinged from its connection with preserving an order (a “civilization”) that allows other higher goods to flourish devolves into a self-righteous tool of political correctness wielded to eliminate disagreement. We should argue with our opponents because to do so pays them the honor of thinking that they have an argument to engage and because it assumes that there is a truth that we both desire to seek. Not addressing the real arguments of one's opponents is a hallmark of the lack of civility. To reduce civil public discourse to a thin façade of sentimental politeness suggests that disagreement itself—no matter how civilly presented—is ill-mannered, unfriendly, and unreasonable. A claim for civility in this sense is merely a bludgeon – albeit sometimes an elegant one – to silence one’s opponents.