by Bishop James T. Schuerman
We are fast approaching the time of the 2020 national elections. It is an exciting time as we prepare to exercise our rights and responsibilities as citizens. However, we also know that political debate can be very contentious, and, unfortunately, it does not always take place in a civil, charitable manner.
Last November, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops launched an initiative called “Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate,” urging Catholics to practice civility, compassion and respect when entering into political dialogue. For people of faith, civil dialogue is a response of the call of Jesus to love one another.
The bishops’ initiative includes prayer resources and tips for civil dialogue, among other things. The focus of this article is the brief document introducing the initiative titled, “Civil Dialogue: A Response to Jesus’ Call to Love our Neighbor.”
The document emphasizes that the Catholic Church has a strong tradition of social teaching. The social doctrine of the Church moves us to commit ourselves to building up our society according to principles of justice. Of course, we achieve this through participating in the political process. However, at times we may not feel like we want to enter into the process because of the harsh rhetoric all too often used in political debate directed at individuals, groups or parties. The fact that some people choose to engage in personal attacks over honest debate causes much damage.
How should we enter into the political process? The bishops’ document reminds us that in public dialogue, everyone has a place at the table, regardless of race, socio-economical standing, or migratory status. As Catholics, we are called to take our faith to public discourse. Loving our neighbor demands that we work to protect the rights and dignity of all. Committing ourselves to civil dialogue can help us make authentic connections with others, breaking down barriers that keep us apart.
Christ taught us to love our neighbor. As followers of Christ, we are called to be models of civility and respect. The person with whom we may not agree politically is, in fact, our neighbor. In political debate, we must keep that in mind, and approach one another with a spirit of charity. In our dialogue with others, we must refrain from personal attacks and making rash suppositions about the motives of others. Instead, we must try to listen to others and understand their experiences.
In dialogue, it is essential that we use words that honor the dignity of others, and act in a way that upholds that dignity. Use of disrespectful language aimed at others is a betrayal of our own human dignity. Moreover, when we hear others using derogatory statements that disrespect the human dignity of others, we must intervene and point out the injustice.
Participation in civil dialogue can help us as members of the community of faith to create a space in which we become models of charity and respect. What exactly is civil dialogue? It is a conversation among people holding diverse points of view. Individuals come from different backgrounds and have their own distinct experiences. Because of these differences, they may arrive at conclusions that are dissimilar from our own, concerning the best way to promote the common good. Those, who disagree with our point of view are also sons and daughters of God, and deserve our love, respect and care.
Essential for civil dialogue is a commitment to the truth. While we respect the dignity of each person, we recognize that not all points of view are equally valid. We have the responsibility to speak the truth with charity and respect. Each one of us has the responsibility to make sure our conclusions are based on data from trustworthy sources.
Listening to different points of view is a part of the search for clarity. Civil dialogue can be a creative process in which each person is invited to contribute his or her experiences, values and beliefs. We should make an effort to understand how our points of view differ on particular topics, and why. We ask questions to make sure we understand the other points of view. When we think critically about how we arrived at our own conclusions, and when we listen to the experiences of others, we open ourselves to the possibility of arriving at a new understanding and perhaps even finding common ground.
There are times when we have to recognize that not everyone is ready to enter into civil dialogue. Sometimes the best we can hope for is to agree to disagree. Nevertheless, we must remain open to listening and learning the points of view of others. There is always the possibility that by civil dialogue we may come to a mutual understanding based on truth, love and justice on issues that are essential for serving the common good.