Putting Civil Discourse Back on Course

News Analysis

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

WASHINGTON — Back in 2014, as the U.S. debate over the legalization of marriage between persons of the same sex reached a fever pitch, Ryan Anderson, a Catholic author and exponent of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, faced a barrage of personal attacks on Twitter.

In one series of tweets, Josh Barros, then a New York Times reporter, asked why Anderson should expect a “civil” response to his public statements when “[y]ou devote your life to promoting anti-gay public policies.”

Anderson challenged that characterization of his work, but he also insisted that “even in the midst of disagreement we should treat all people with respect.”

Barros asked if Anderson would also insist he “treat segregationists” with respect.

Yes, tweeted Anderson: “People are always worthy of respect, even if their policy views are misguided.”

It was just one skirmish in the ongoing culture wars, but the exchange signaled a striking decline in respect for civility — a practice designed to create the conditions for substantive deliberation in liberal democracies — that has only worsened since the 2016 election.

Politically, Democrats have bemoaned the angry, demeaning tweets issued by President Donald Trump and asserted they have fueled a surge of right-wing violence. And Republicans have called out the extreme behavior of partisan activists among the opposition, notably those who disrupted the 2018 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and ambushed GOP lawmakers and Trump cabinet members  in restaurants and other public settings.

But that dispiriting record hasn’t shaken Anderson’s belief in the need for civility — even if some Americans dismiss its value entirely or reduce it to a superficial matter of etiquette alone.

“Civility isn’t primarily a political strategy or rhetorical technique — it’s a basic demand of morality,” Anderson told the Register.

After the release of his 2018 best-seller When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment, “LGBT” activists attacked Anderson’s critique of the movement’s positions as “junk science,” and students protested his appearance on their campus. But Anderson stood his ground in what has emerged as an increasingly one-sided debate.

“If people are put off by the word ‘civility,’ they can think of it instead as ‘charity,’” he said. “We should interact with our neighbors — including political or ideological opponents — with charity. This respects their dignity as people made in the image and likeness of God.” 

That central biblical teaching also provides the impetus for the U.S. bishops’ new campaign to promote civility in the nation and the Church: “Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate.”

Launched this month, the program has already been adopted by 23 U.S. dioceses (see accompanying info box). It is designed to model “civil dialogue” as Catholics navigate tough conversations on abortion, immigration, LGBT rights, climate change, gun control and health-care reform in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election.

The program includes a three-part pledge to refrain from name-calling, base political views on Gospel teachings, and approach others with compassion. There are tips for homilies and guidelines for engaging in respectful public discourse.

“When we interact with one another we need to recognize the innate dignity that every human being possesses,” Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, the chairman of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development that has launched this campaign, told the Register. “It is more than making nice. And if I want to be respected, I need to respect the other.”

During the U.S. bishops assembly in Baltimore this month, Church leaders offered a striking example of civil, but robust, dialogue as they reviewed proposed language for an updated 2020 “Faithful Citizenship” document and discussed whether to underscore the special moral gravity of legal abortion when compared with other critical issues voters are considering.

During an intense floor debate, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego argued that abortion is not “the preeminent issue that we face in the world of Catholic social teaching. It is not.”

But Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia rose to challenge that assertion: “I think it’s been a very clearly articulated opinion of the bishops’ conference for many years that pro-life is still the preeminent issue.”

The approved language of the election-year document presented abortion as the “preeminent” issue, but though the dispute included some fireworks, there was no disrespect on either side.

The bishops new campaign, “Civilize It,” builds on an initiative developed and launched for the 2016 election cycle by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Catholics who took part in this effort participated in parish discussions, reviewed guidelines for engaging in discussions on controversial matters and signed a pledge to approach such conversations with civility, clarity and compassion.

Andrew Musgrave, the director of the Catholic social-action office for the Cincinnati Archdiocese, told the Register that the initiative was designed as a complement for discussions on the U.S. bishops’ 2016 election-year document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which tackles a range of policy issues from the perspective of Catholic moral and social teaching, as well as recent papal and USCCB documents. And U.S. dioceses that adopt the civility campaign will likely include parish-based discussions about “Faithful Citizenship,” providing participants with an opportunity to practice the art of respectful political discourse.

“The archdiocese’s social-action office and evangelization department saw a need to promote faithful citizenship and to combat the vitriol that was so pervasive,” said Musgrave, who said the effort has been accompanied by programs that encourage ecumenical and political dialogue.

The USCCB’s campaign, for example, features a wider ecumenical effort, Golden Rule 2020, which includes mainline Protestant churches.

Developed by the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, the Golden Rule asks participating congregations to pray throughout the upcoming election year “for God’s help in healing our country” and “to adopt the use of the Golden Rule in political discussions and activities.”

The initiative features ideas for homilies, liturgies and joint prayer services and statements that challenge congregants and the general public to pull back from the angry partisan debate and set a  new course.

Research shows that social media and the 24/7 cable news cycle, combined with the rise of identity politics, are major drivers of rising polarization in this country. But experts also point to other factors, like secularization, which has reduced the values that Americans hold in common, leading some to adopt politics as a placeholder for religion.

These developments have produced a largely “negative” style of political discourse that is “less respectful, less fact-based and less substantive,” according to a 2019 Pew opinion survey.

Yet even as many Americans express frustration with the loss of civility, political polarization has generated a double standard for what constitutes civil behavior, noted a summary of the Pew Center’s findings.

“Civility comes from the Latin words for ‘city’ and ‘citizen,’ so to treat another person civilly is to recognize that he or she is a fellow citizen, a person with whom one has to live and with whom one shares a common future and a common good,” Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America, told the Register.  

But today, he said, secularization has contributed to hyperpartisanship, with dueling, often contradictory, visions of the common good.

He argued that well-formed active Catholics are more likely to keep politics in perspective. But “if one thinks politics is the highest thing, then the stakes are much greater and can be seen to justify things that should not be done.”

Last year, Church leaders, journalists and academics addressed these trends at “Though Many, One: Overcoming Polarization Through Catholic Social Thought,” a “Catholic convening” at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Kim Daniels, associate director of Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and one of the event organizers, told the Register that the promotion of genuine dialogue among Catholics requires “face-to-face relationships, keeping close to prayer and the sacraments, and serving ‘the least of these’ together.”

“It’s not about building a false and quietist peace, or pretending that divisions don’t exist,” Daniels added, but “holding fast to principle without demonizing others.

During his address at the three-day meeting, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 12, diagnosed the spike in political polarization as a symptom of spiritual and social alienation. He noted that America’s hyperindividualistic culture has also been battered by a steep rise in suicide, drug addiction and family breakdown.

“Fifty years ago, when he was still a cardinal, St. John Paul II … said, ‘The evil of our time consists … in a pulverization of the fundamental uniqueness of the human person,’” said Archbishop Gomez.

Noting that Pope Francis has echoed his predecessor’s searing judgment, the Los Angeles archbishop underscored the need for effective evangelization. And his larger point seemed to be that Catholic leaders should stop talking about how polarized the nation is, roll up their sleeves, and keep “building the Kingdom.” 

Similar discussions have taken place at other faith-based forums. But even as prominent Catholics have embraced this campaign, a simmering side debate continues over the limits of civility and whether respect for this virtue has been used to silence social conservatives who challenge legal abortion or the promotion of transgender rights.

Sohrab Ahmari, the author of a memoir of his Catholic conversion, From Fire, by Water, raised this question in the wake of the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation battle, after concluding that the nominee had been treated unjustly by Senate Democrats and much of the media.

In a widely circulated article for First Things, published last May, Ahmari argued that Christians must adjust their style of advocacy on social issues and recognize that policy debates do not take place in a “neutral” setting.

Increasingly, progressives are defining the parameters of “acceptable policy positions,” he asserted. Thus, religious believers must weather unfair charges of giving offense while stepping up the fight to secure their agenda.

In an email exchange with the Register, Ahmari explained that in public debate “[c]ivility is used to enforce adherence to an existing moral consensus or system.” 

“But if the moral consensus is corrupt, then civility ends up enforcing corruption. This is the situation in which we find ourselves,” he wrote.

Some of Ahmari’s critics have suggested that he no longer accepts the need for the role of civility, among other liberal values that allow for open and free debate, but he said that was not the case.

“What I said was that civility is a second-order value, secondary to primary virtues like faith [and] charity,” Ahmari noted.

The fierce discussion sparked by Ahmari’s writings is part of a broader anti-establishment trend in U.S. politics that paved the way for the 2016 election of President Trump, as Notre Dame scholar Patrick Deneen argued in his  influential 2018 book, Why Liberalism Failed.

“Today’s widespread yearning for a strong leader, one with the will to take back popular control over liberalism’s forms of bureaucratized government and globalized economy, comes after decades of liberal dismantling of cultural norms and political habits essential to self-governance,” wrote Deneen.

But for the short term, at least, social conservatives are pushing back against a brand of political orthodoxy that labels their beliefs as too extreme to be tolerated.

“To be well-mannered these days means having certain progressive political opinions,” R.R. “Rusty” Reno, the editor of First Things, observed in a March 2019 article, “The Civility Trap.”

When the Register asked Reno to explain how this dynamic played out in real time, he offered two examples.

“Saying that marriage is between a man and a woman is denounced as ‘hurtful,’” he said, while “a priest who preaches, calmly, about sodomy as a sin is certain to be criticized for being ‘divisive,’ a synonym for ‘uncivil.’”

Reno’s comments will likely prompt Catholics to both proceed carefully as they engage in private conversations and public debate on sensitive matters and challenge a politicized code of manners that delegitimizes some beliefs without bothering to engage them directly.

And Ryan Anderson, who has navigated the nation’s toxic political environment for years, and stuck to his principles, thinks his fellow Americans need to keep both these things in mind.

“Some people make appeals to civility in order to load the dice in favor of their preferred … causes,” Anderson acknowledged. “We should reject this false understanding of civility.”

“It is not about going along to get along,” he concluded. What it does require is that “we express the truth in ways that are accessible to others and that respect their God-given dignity as rational agents who deserve to be reasoned with, not shouted down.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is a Register senior editor.


Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate

U.S. archdioceses and dioceses that are implementing the new program:


Austin, Texas

Camden, New Jersey



Davenport, Iowa

Dubuque, Iowa

Erie, Pennsylvania

Joliet, Illinois

Kansas City, Kansas

Los Angeles

Monterey, California

New Orleans

Orange, California

Pensacola, Florida

Portland, Oregon

Raleigh, North Carolina

San Bernardino, California

Santa Fe, New Mexico

St. Petersburg, Florida

Scranton, Pennsylvania

South Bend, Indiana

Tucson, Arizona

Source: USCCB

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