On Christian Democracy and the Lost Tradition of Courtesy

COMMENTARY: Courtesy is an old-fashioned and out-of-fashion word, but it’s an up-to-date idea.

Étienne Parrocel (1696-1775), “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman”
Étienne Parrocel (1696-1775), “Jesus and the Samaritan Woman” (photo: Public Domain)

The young Catholic man criticized a woman he saw on the bus for looking “slutty,” and his disgust for her came through the way he described her. 

A friend asked him, “Is that the way a gentleman talks?” Clearly puzzled, he said, “I don’t talk that way about ladies, but she was no lady and doesn’t deserve the respect I give you.” 

My friend noted that this meant that any respect he gave her, and women in general, was conditional on their meeting his standard of perfection as a “lady.” Not that she was a daughter of Eve, as C.S. Lewis put it, a human being made in the image of God for whom the Son of God died. But that she was “a lady” by a young man’s personal definition.

As I was writing this, I remembered that I once called a girl a slut, when I was 14 or 15, and both my parents came down on me. I protested that she was, and they said that didn’t matter, that you didn’t speak about anyone like that and — they were traditional about these things — especially not about a woman.

They’d taught me to hold the door for women without regard for who or what they were, and the same rule applied to my speech. You treated everyone, and spoke of everyone, as if they were at their best.

We’d Both Failed

The young man and I failed in courtesy, to use a word that’s now old-fashioned, even among Christians. If we want a newer term, we could call this way of speaking of others, which comes from a way of seeing them, Christian democracy.

In the form of manners of which courtesy (or Christian democracy) is a part, you treat everyone as if they were the ideal. You express this through certain formalized acts and words.

You shake other people’s hands when you meet them not because they qualify as a lady or a gentleman but simply because they’re human beings. You listen to someone else in a conversation not because he’s smart enough to interest you but because he’s a human being who gets a turn. You speak of others as a lady or a gentleman not because they meet your standards but because they’re alive.

It’s a form of relation that helps people get along, by positing a basic human equality. It’s a form of relation useful for maintaining social comity and peace between people who might easily come into conflict.

As Christians, we can do it with impartiality, because we know who we are. The rules of courtesy give us a formalized guide to how we treat our equals, our peers, our fellow men and women created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus. It’s how we relate to the other sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. 

Of course in reality, who was the right object of courteous treatment was decided by race, religion, sex, class, ethnic heritage, intelligence, income, appearance and other factors, beyond anyone’s basic humanity. In practice, the formalized acts undermined human equality and perversely marked everyone’s place in one category or the other, establishing the differences and therefore the hierarchy.

But as Christians, following St. Paul’s “In Christ there is no” rule, we do not make such distinctions based on such trivial and accidental differences. 

As Aslan tells Caspian in the “Chronicles of Narnia’s” Prince Caspian:

“You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve. And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth.”

Outdated Word, Modern Idea

It’s an old-fashioned and out-of-fashion word, courtesy. But it’s an up-to-date idea. The way we express it needs to change, because the ways societies express human equality change. But we haven’t grown so good at kindness that we no longer need such set, mandatory forms of word and act. 

As C.S. Lewis wrote in a short essay called “The Necessity of Chivalry” (chivalry being a subset of courtesy), it “is art not nature — something to be achieved, not something that can be relied upon to happen.” We learn from the forms but only if we practice them. That’s one reason the Church gave us liturgies and rules of life.

Yes, it’s a pretense, a performance, an act. But as we act, so we, at least some of us, to some extent, become. And more to the point, the way we act can change how others think of themselves.]

How Eliza Doolittle Became a Lady

As secular a man as George Bernard Shaw saw this. In his classic play Pygmalion (the source for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical My Fair Lady), Eliza Doolittle has been transformed from an impoverished girl from the slums selling flowers on the street into a “lady.” The scholar Henry Higgins has taught her to speak like and carry herself like one. 

But that, Eliza says, “was just like learning to dance in the fashionable way: there was nothing more than that in it.” Her “real education” came from something else — the way Doolittle’s fellow scholar and housemate Dr. Pickering treated her, like calling her “Miss Doolittle” the first time she came to Prof. Higgins’ home. 

“That was the beginning of self-respect for me,” she told him. “And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening doors.” His actions had shown her what he thought and felt about her, and who she really was.

Pickering tries to wave the compliment away. Eliza continues, “You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up (the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on), the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

Not for Us to Decide

We are more equal than we tend to think — than that young man and I thought — and we need to act out that understanding. It’s not for us to decide who qualifies for our regard and who doesn’t. Indeed, you should be most assiduous in treating this way “the least of these,” and especially those the world rejects. People put them down often enough as it is.

And you don’t speak strongly to them, telling them who you think they are and how they must change their lives, unless you have both very good reason and the status in their lives to speak like that, and love them enough to speak with charity. Which you probably don’t, and pretty much never have with strangers and acquaintances.

That raddled woman on the bus with the garish fading tattoos and her underwear showing, who keeps swearing and reeks of weed? You smile at her and speak to her as if she were the queen of a small European country. That drunk dirty man dragging his feet down the sidewalk talking to himself? You smile at him and speak to him as if he were a cardinal archbishop.

After all, there but for the grace of God go we. And in God’s eyes, compared to us they may be the true ladies and gentlemen. The Lord sees not as man sees, for man looks on the outside, which usually doesn’t tell us much, and not nearly so much as we think it does.