By Barb Arland-Fye
Labor unions and race relations were among issues that provoked disagreement between Catholics a half-century ago. But a couple of our diocesan priests who remember those times say disagreeing Catholics were more civil toward one another than they are today.
“Catholics were a persecuted minority. Even in our disagreements we stuck together,” observes Msgr. Marvin Mottet, a longtime advocate of social justice.
As I edit letters to the editor at The Catholic Messenger and respond to telephone calls and e-mails from Catholics of differing viewpoints, I am reminded of Msgr. Mottet’s observation. With Respect Life Month and the election season under way, I think all of us could benefit from a reminder of the need for civility in our personal lives and in our interactions with others.
How can we convince others to respect life or agree with our viewpoints if we’re tearing down individuals or groups we don’t agree with?
Years ago, the secular newspaper I worked for published a weekly “Sound-Off” section where people could vent frustrations in print without having to sign their names. Today it’s the Internet where individuals sound off with diatribes, perhaps emboldened by anonymity. On occasion, we’ve received some spiteful comments by anonymous readers responding to stories published on our Catholic Messenger website. Fortunately, we are able to screen comments and delete those that are less than charitable.
But another aspect of the Internet particularly damaging to civility is the ability to choose only the viewpoints and news we agree with. That isolates us and deepens polarization.
“There is such a fear of difference, such a fear of losing one’s identity,” Jean Vanier observes in his book “Community and Growth.” The founder of L’Arche, communities where adults with and without developmental disabilities share life together, wasn’t addressing polarization per se. But his message has universal applications:
“The question for every person and community is how to remain rooted in the soil of one’s faith and one’s identity, in one’s community, and at the same time to grow and give life to others and to receive life from them.”
Bishop Howard Hubbard clearly addressed polarization and civility in a statement he gave to the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering on Feb. 29, 2005:
“We must demonstrate pragmatically that we can keep our deepest convictions and still maintain our civil courtesy; that we can test others’ arguments but not question their motives; that we can presume goodwill even when we disagree strongly; and that we can relate the best of religion to the best of politics in the service of each other.”
The bishop also reminded his audience of the importance of prayer in our ability to “be convincing without being arrogant, able to confront without being insensitive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and authentic role models and witnesses without being manipulative.”
Hope for civility can be found close to home, in a letter to the editor in Sunday’s Quad-City Times by Rabbi Henry Karp of Temple Emanuel in Davenport. He was responding to another letter writer who accused the Vatican of forcing its will on the state of Iowa via the Iowa bishops’ support for a marriage amendment to the state constitution. While Rabbi Karp disagrees with Catholic doctrine on this issue, he said he would defend “to my utmost the freedom of my Catholic neighbors” to publicly express and promote their opinions.
The rabbi said, “If we deny others the right to publicly advocate their beliefs merely because we disagree with them, then we undermine the freedom of every person in America, including ourselves. Those who suppress their opponents today might very well find themselves suppressed tomorrow.”