Civility, charity, and truth-telling

Thoughtful Americans across the spectrum of political opinion are rightly concerned about the degree to which our national politics has degenerated into the manipulation of consumer desires and passions, often by the seductions of the electronic media. That those manipulations can have a nasty edge to them is just as obvious, and just as deplorable. Christian faith should bring the leavens of reason and civility to public life, for Christian faith teaches us that the “other,” including the politically “other,” is a human person possessed of reason and deserving of respect.

All the more reason, then, to regret that the recent “Catholic Call to Observe Civility in Public Debate,” issued at a press conference in Washington on November 6, should misconstrue civility in such a way as to set civility against the charity we owe the “other” in the form of truth-telling.

The money paragraph in the “Catholic Call to Civility” reads as follows:

“As lay Catholics we should not exhort the Church to condemn our political opponents by publicly denying them Holy Communion based on public dissent from Church teachings. An individual’s fitness to receive communion is his or her personal responsibility. And it is a bishop’s responsibility to set for his diocese the guidelines for administering communion.”

Here, I fear, is a host of confusions presenting itself as a call for civility.

Was it uncivil to remind the public that Senator John Kerry, during his 2004 campaign, misrepresented the Catholic pro-life argument as somehow sectarian, when in fact the Church’s defense of the dignity of human life from conception until natural death is based on first principles of justice that can be known by anyone willing to work through an argument? Is it uncivil to point out that Catholic politicians of both major parties continue to misrepresent the character and source of Catholic pro-life conviction? I don’t think so.

Is it uncivil to ask our bishops, with the respect due the fullness of Holy Orders, to exercise the singular responsibility they bear for safeguarding the integrity of the Church’s sacraments — even if doing so means bringing upon themselves the opprobrium of a hostile secular press?  I don’t think so.

Is it uncivil to point out to fellow Catholics that they are putting their souls in peril when they willfully ignore the first principles of justice, or when they ignore the Church’s two millenium-long teaching on worthiness to receive Holy Communion? Or is such truth-telling an exercise in fraternal charity — indeed, a fraternal responsibility?

Is it uncivil for Catholics to remind each other that there is a hierarchy of issues in the application of Catholic social doctrine to American public life, and that the life issues, precisely because they engage first principles of justice, must be given priority in evaluating a candidate’s fitness for public office? Is it uncivil — or is it a necessary act of charity in the form of truth-telling — for Catholic constituents to remind Catholic legislators that they cannot be given a moral or political pass on the life issues because they agree with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the minimum wage, or health care, or immigration law reform?

The first thing we owe our fellow-citizens is the truth as we understand it, for truth-telling in vigorous public exchange is democracy’s lifeblood. America is a proposition country, and one important index of the health of our republic is the degree to which the proposition — that all human beings are created equal and deserve the equal protection of the laws — is received by our people and given public effect by our legislators. That is why the life issues are today’s premier civil rights issues. When fellow-Catholics who are legislators fail to understand this, it is not uncivil to call them to reconsider, privately if possible, publicly if necessary. It is a necessary act of fraternal charity.

By all means, let us be civil in making arguments. But civility must not be confused with pusillanimity nor set against the imperative of speaking truth to power: calmly, clearly, and persistently.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash