Action Alert!

The High Cost of Political Civility

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 16, 2007

Catholic World News chief Phil Lawler led the way for Trinity Communications in disagreeing with “A Catholic Call to Observe Civility in Political Debate”. When he reported the release of this statement by the Catholic Civility Project on November 7th, Lawler immediately editorialized against it. He did so even though he knows the chief movers behind the statement, has collaborated with them in the past, and has frequently witnessed their dedication to the Faith. If that’s the reaction of a friend, what must the rest of us think?

The Catholic Civility Project is self-described as a diverse group of lay Catholics including eleven former U.S. ambassadors, a number of prominent academics, and several previous chairs of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. The statement argues that as Catholics we “should not enlist the church’s moral endorsement for our political preferences” and “should not exhort the church to condemn our political opponents by publicly denying them holy Communion based on public dissent from church teachings.” The statement concludes that we must “protect our beloved church from being stained by the appearance of partisan political involvement.”

I don't know any of the signatories, but I agree with Phil Lawler, and I'll raise the stakes considerably. Don’t get me wrong. Insofar as this statement is narrowly applied to only the dark side of its title topic—civility in political debate, with a sneering emphasis decidedly on the word “political”—there isn’t much wrong. As a matter of political debate, it is inappropriate to call upon a bishop to refuse communion to one’s political opponents. That is, it is wrong to seek to deny anyone a spiritual good for purely political reasons, just as it is wrong to enlist the Church’s support for merely political preferences.

But this isn't what the statement means or implies, and so it betrays a deep and tragic confusion. Ultimately the Catholic Civility Project is deeply flawed because it is infected by an idea drawn straight out of the larger secular culture, the assumption that religion is essentially a private affair and that our public debates are, therefore, merely political. This assumption is evident in the way the statement is framed. Pointing to the deep divisions over critical policy issues, the statement’s preamble runs as follows:


[S]ome who are active in political life and who differ with the church’s teachings on certain issues…criticize the church for these teachings. Others, for political and even ecclesiastical reasons, seek the public embarrassment of politicians whose public positions differ with church teachings through the public refusal of the sacrament of holy Communion or public admonition by the bishops. To right this wrong [emphasis added], we should observe the following principles.

Knocking Down a Man of Straw

The key point is that this description of the “wrong” in question is a straw man. Worse, it is a straw man who has lost his stuffing. Worse still, what is left of the straw man is already crumpled on the ground. Here’s a similar argument: “At funerals, people speak in hushed tones when viewing the deceased, some because they fear loud noises will disturb the departed, and others because they don’t believe in death and are afraid of what the deceased might overhear. To right this wrong, we must learn to converse loudly while paying our respects to the dead.” The argument is utterly useless because it is directed at a misunderstanding. Yes, it would be wrong to speak in hushed tones for purely superstitious reasons, just as it is wrong to attempt to seize the spiritual high ground for purely political reasons (using the darkly narrow sense of the term). And that’s as far as the argument goes.

It does not follow that we should shy away from involving the Church in public debate any more than it follows that we should speak loudly at the side of a casket. What follows is that at the casket we should speak in hushed tones out of reverence for the mystery of life and death, and in politics we should attempt to engage the Church for purposes of moral, spiritual and religious clarity (out of reverence, by the way, for the mystery of life and death).

Do some whose political positions contradict Catholic principles criticize the Church for her teachings? How I wish it were so, for it would be a service of clarity! Instead, they prattle on about how religious they are and how vital the Catholic faith is to their very identities as public servants, and then they proceed to advance policies and programs which violate the very principles which Magisterial authority insists are the sine qua non of just policies and programs. They seek the benefit of apparent religious sincerity without the substance of religious commitment.

And are those who urge the bishops to end the resulting confusion really motivated by a desire to publicly embarrass their political opponents in the hope of costing them votes? Well, if so, such persons must be at once terribly petty and incredibly naive. Does anyone really imagine that getting a bishop to refuse communion to someone is likely to sway public opinion against the one refused? Are we to assume that those who seek moral, spiritual and religious clarity in our public life are motivated only, or even primarily (or even at all), by a desire to embarrass those with whom they disagree?

Politics and Truth

This is a strange reading of the political landscape. It is a reading influenced by the vast cultural assumption, born of modern secularism, that religion is a purely private affair. On this reading, any attempt to induce the Church either to speak clearly about our public life or to act decisively for the spiritual good of its professional practitioners is ipso facto uncivil. But the contrary is actually true. The Church, by virtue of the spiritual and moral principles at the core of her doctrines, is by a considerable margin the most important participant in the public life of any society. Her principles have vast implications not only for our eternal destiny but for a just social order. The attempt to clarify those principles and who holds them is therefore a signal service to the common good.

But even so, are these attempts primarily political in nature? Do they escalate every few years just because of the political stakes? This hardly seems likely. Rather, most of those who demand straight talk about what it means to be Catholic, including straight talk about the reception of communion by notorious public sinners, are not so much alarmed at the prospect of losing an election as at the scandalous abuse of truth within the Church herself. It is primarily this scandal which visits us with renewed intensity every few years, owing to the cyclical abuse of the Catholic name by those seeking high public office. And it is precisely this scandal which serious Catholics are desperate—it is not too strong a word—to bring to an end.

I cannot speak for the signers of “A Catholic Call to Observe Civility in Political Debate”, but I have not heard anyone in a very long time make the political argument that “if only we could get the bishops to draw a firm line, we could win this election.” Deeply committed Catholics are painfully aware that the Church has tremendous work to do in strengthening the faith of her own members and evangelizing the larger culture before candidates with unmistakably Catholic principles are going to win many elections. But we are drained and exhausted by the failure of our bishops, taken as a whole, to act publicly as if the Catholic faith really matters. The call to refuse communion is not a cheap political trick but an anguished cry: Please teach, rule and sanctify as if my life’s commitment means something. Please, please put our Catholic house in order.

If Church leaders will neither articulate Catholic principles in ways the public can understand nor apply them to the internal life of the Church for the good of souls, then the Church will neither make her members holy nor assist the State in discerning the proper ends of man, and also the legitimate means to those ends, which are vital to a just and harmonious society. Unfortunately, the latest effort by the American bishops to clarify these matters at their Fall meeting has only contributed to the moral murkiness which so warmly cloaks all those who hold religion to be a purely private affair (see Phil Lawler’s latest story US Bishops Eschew Political Leadership).

Viewing yet another exercise of contemporary episcopal committee work, it is painfully obvious that the signers of the Catholic Civility statement are not the only ones hiding in the recesses of confused and divided minds. It is no good arguing that the quest for religious, spiritual and moral clarity is petty and partisan and uncivil. It is rather a luminous service, from which the Catholic Civility Project has sounded retreat when we ought to be redoubling our efforts. The quest for clarity is absolutely indispensable to the successful political exploration of the mystery of life and death. The alternative is a truly hellish politics, for which the price of admission is the abandonment of hope.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

There are no comments yet for this item.