Watching Tonight's Debate from Rome

(photo: Register Files)

I have always enjoyed following presidential debates. They open a window onto the mind and moral conscience of the candidates who participate in them. Since moving to Rome, Italy, I have continued to follow the presidential debates back home.

As luck should have it, my home city of Milwaukee will be hosting tonight’s debate. Unfortunately, I won’t be in one of the seats inside the auditorium, but I do hope to follow tonight’s prime time event from afar.

An issue I’d like to hear the candidates discuss tonight is abortion. That issue is currently experiencing something of a rebirth as a much controverted political subject, especially as the on-going drama over Planned Parenthood's practices continues to embroil the nation.

Although many Europeans look on at the technicalities of the race to the White House with a mixture of interest and confusion, there is between our two continents a deeper spiritual and cultural reality that readily gains and commands the understanding and attention of Europeans. Or, at the least, the understanding and attention of committed Catholics here in Europe.

When confronted for what it is, and when stared point-blank in the face, this issue has the potential to relativize -- if only for a moment -- historically significant and culturally meaningful national differences. For, this problem of abortion -- and with it the demise of human dignity -- reminds all those troubled by it of our common cause in a global crusade for the gift of creation, which includes in a special way human life.

In recent decades, we have witnessed together -- Americans and Europeans -- the deeply problematic rise of something Pope Francis terms a 'throwaway culture.' We have seen how it regards human persons as commodities to be exploited for private benefit, rather than unique and unrepeatable centers of spiritual and personal dignity.

Certainly, we have noticed how language has been employed in the fabrication of this culture. Here in Europe, as there in America, persons without any opposition to the evil of abortion speak of 'family planning,' obfuscating the harsher reality that is abortion. How oddly discordant that language sounds when compared to the ancient wisdom of the Didache, considered an almost sacred text among Christians.

That text says forthrightly, in the language of a desert people, "You shall not murder a fetus by abortion, nor kill that which is born" (Didache, II.2). The language stings. It pierces to the core, saying only what is essential -- only that which cannot be manipulated by the denizens of political correctness. That language cannot be masked or covered over by transparent attempts at euphemism or obfuscation.

How our times need that language. How we Americans need that language tonight!

As you follow the debate at home, and as I do the same here across the water, attend to how the candidates speak about this issue of abortion. Do they do so without any obfuscation, equivocation, or attempts to conceal the truth? Or, do they manipulate verbiage in a half-concealed attempt to hide the truth?

We might be tempted to excuse our favorite candidates from speaking more bluntly about abortion. After all, does language really matter that much? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about what the candidates plan to do about abortion in America than how they speak about it?

Recently, while visiting the famous Bocca della Verità near the Colosseum, I had the occasion to reflect on the biting reality about words and language.

Consider how language is power. It either seeks subservience to the truth, recognizing the power of the powerless. Or, it sets upon the truth, seeking to reduce it to a kind of standing reserve in the interests of the select powerful few. Either language seeks to transparently relate the truth, or it sets out to manipulate and market it for private benefit.

We will all learn a lot from paying special attention to how the candidates use language tonight. They will have before them a fundamental choice between the power that bows to the truth and the power that robs from the truth.

Insofar as the choice to engage language occasions, perhaps necessitates, a choice between these two powers, it can be asserted that it is deeply spiritual and reveals the heart of the human person. How one speaks, most especially about moral matters, reveals whether one takes a stance on the side of logos (manipulated words) or the Logos (who is God, the author of truth). This is why it is important to pay attention to how the candidates speak, not just what they say.

So, watch and listen carefully. If the future of the nation passes by way of respect for life in the heart of the family for the common good of society, how the candidates speak of this issue will send a clear signal to what we could expect from their plans for national governance.

Mark their words well.