July 16, 2021

Editorial

Archbishop Thompson renews call to civility

“The ability of any community to survive, even thrive, amid adversity is the measure of civility. This is especially true during times of chaos, division and transitioning of authority. Unfortunately today, the misuse of social media includes the proliferation of shaming, abusing and scapegoating.”
—Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

In his “Christ the Cornerstone” column for the Independence Day weekend, Archbishop Charles C. Thompson renewed the Call to Civility first published in November 2020 in the wake of extremely divisive national elections. The archbishop argues that no society can survive, let alone thrive, when fundamental civic virtues are absent from conversations among people with different opinions.

“Far from agreeing to disagree, persons of differing opinions are quick to demonize one another,” Archbishop Thompson writes. “With little ground for compromise, there is little possibility for authentic dialogue. Relating to everything as ‘black and white,’ we perceive each other as ‘for me’ or ‘against me.’ Such are the effects of extreme polarization.”

This lack of civility has become commonplace among families, in communities and throughout the news and entertainment media, especially on the Internet. When we disagree with someone, we’re quick to demonize them, to attribute to them evil motives. Instead of giving those with opposing views the presumption of good intentions, we too readily dismiss them out of hand.

The result is a widespread lack of trust among people from diverse political, racial, social and economic segments of society. This was a serious problem before the pandemic, but it has increased during the past 15 months, and instead of bringing us closer together, the crises spawned by the pandemic seem to have caused further polarization and racial and economic inequity among families, communities, religious organizations, and national and international groups.

“Within any dialogue, there must be an ability to listen and learn from one another,” Archbishop Thompson says. But he argues that “three things, in particular, must be avoided if we are to preserve authentic dialogue: name-calling, making threats and raising voices in hostility. Any one of these can readily erode the trust and openness needed to maintain mutual relationships.”

Name-calling dehumanizes those who have different opinions or points of view. Even the common labels used in public discourse such as “liberal” or “conservative” function as attempts to dismiss people’s beliefs and ideas out of hand before they can even be expressed. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, the archbishop writes, but “there are some who seem to be unaware that not every opinion needs to be spoken. Still others seem unable to distinguish between opinions that are based on knowledge and experience from those that are based on mere emotion or speculation. While conscience and intuition are to be respected, these should not be confused with pride and vanity.”

Making threats and raising our voices in hostility carry things to extremes and make common ground difficult to establish.  As Archbishop Thompson observes, “lack of civility is what we have experienced in our country recently with the pandemic, social unrest and the political election process.”

He is not arguing against legitimate disagreements. On the contrary, “the freedom to protest, march, advocate, hold up signs and make one’s voice heard is a right that we all share,” the archbishop writes. However, “such freedom gives none of us the right to violence, rioting, looting, abusing, slandering or defamation. It is in the absence of civility, of course, that the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable becomes blurred.”

Archbishop Thompson’s renewed call to civility should be taken seriously by all Catholics, and all people of good will, in central and southern Indiana. It is a wake-up call for Americans who cherish freedom of speech and who want to safeguard the rights of everyone to express opinions without the fear of repercussions from those who think differently.

“Civility is not the absence of differences and disagreements,” Archbishop Thompson writes, “though it does involve a refusal to allow polarization to divide and destroy the very soul of humanity. Rather than pulling away, civility demands that we pull together. Rather than succumb to despair, we must dare to trust in the Holy Spirit. It requires of us the capacity to seek forgiveness, understanding and justice tempered with the sweetness of mercy.”

Let’s refuse to allow name-calling, threats and hostile shouting to divide and destroy us as free people. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us pull together as sisters and brothers in Christ.

—Daniel Conway

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