During these days of presidential election primaries, the media is filled with information. We hear talk about politics, often in raw and polarizing forms, but not so much about being a good citizen.
When I am asked to speak about our faith in public life, I often recall the four “Cs” of courage, compassion, civility, and calm. Each is important and, while they are not completely self-explanatory, most of us understand the concepts and the implications.
One of the “Cs” that particularly needs to be promoted these days is civility. While debates are part of the American way and often lead to a necessary clarity to prepare the well-informed voter, these debates ought not to result in mean-spirited attacks. When I studied logic, I was cautioned to avoid what was called an ad hominem argument. Put simply, the Latin expression refers to an attack on the person rather than the idea. Good debate ought to be conducted with civility and should lead not to animosity and division but to a dialogue that seeks what is the best direction for all – the common good.
As people of faith, our religious values, summarized in Catholic social teaching, should influence our decisions about what is best for our common life so that we can promote the common good. These values promote a deep understanding and active engagement on behalf of human dignity, and they are the main reasons we strive to safeguard and preserve religious freedom. Otherwise, the content of the common good will be stripped of the insights of religious conviction and may lack solid moral content. Make no mistake: in the public square we do not impose our faith on others nor do we remain on the sidelines. Rather we seek to invite and persuade with the best of reason and faith.
As we seek to be good citizens, there are several key elements to this development. First, it is important to vote. This is no time to be a couch potato watching on the sidelines. One recipe for a failed democracy is a pattern of non-engagement. Register and vote.
Second, we are often tempted to think selfishly of “what’s in it for me?” Catholic social teaching calls us to be concerned about all people, from the moment of conception to natural death and for every human being graced with dignity in the image and likeness of God. Recently the Kentucky bishops met with Governor Bevin. (He is the third governor with whom I have met since coming to this Archdiocese 8 ½ years ago). We brought our values with us and so spoke to him about protecting the child in the womb and her mother, promoting good educational choices for families, including the option of Catholic schools, providing proper health care for all, and seeking to reform our criminal justice system.
Third, as I mentioned earlier, civility is built on respect and good manners. For sure, it is part of the American way to debate important issues, and we bring our strongly-held principles and passions to that debate. However, our task is to move from debate to dialogue; a dialogue that allows us to articulate our Christian values and to listen to others, moving us to morally sound solutions.
Two weeks ago I journeyed to El Paso to participate in the Mass that Pope Francis celebrated across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez. Prior to the Mass, I took part in a press conference to discuss the “Two Nations, One Faith” event hosted by Catholic Extension. When asked about the highly charged atmosphere in the presidential campaigns, I offered a few insights: Let’s step away from the political fray, go a little deeper, and see the moral implications and the moral values. While we have different opinions and many issues that divide us, here we are, fellow pilgrims with our Holy Father working and moving toward Christ.
Asked about the debates on immigration and Pope Francis’ presence, I added: Important political issues almost always contain strong moral dimensions, and it is the moral dimension that the Holy Father will be addressing. Moving the immigration debate to dialogue does not deny that people of good will may have different approaches to addressing this issue. Instead, dialogue impels us to honestly bring our convictions and values to the table, test them against reality, and make sure that we are seeing and respecting the people with whom we are in dialogue so that we can come up with the lasting, morally sound solutions that unify us instead of dividing us.
In addition to civility, voting, considering the common good, and seeking to engage in dialogue, another important aspect of being a good citizen is education and reflection and, for people of faith, prayer. Caring deeply about people prayerfully forming their consciences and considering the issues, the U.S. Catholic bishops recently approved an updated version of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which provides guidance to the faithful concerning political responsibility. You can find this document here.
So as you navigate this highly charged political climate, remember to pray, learn, reflect, seek the common good, engage in civil dialogue, and vote.