By Janine Marie Idziak, Ph.D.
Special to The Witness
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched a project called Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate. It is an initiative to change the tone of our political discourse, and extends through the 2020 election. This project is undertaken in concert with a wider ecumenical effort entitled Golden Rule 2020.
It is part of Catholic social teaching that we have a responsibility to actively participate in the political realm. However, today our political discussions and processes are often filled with vitriol, harsh language and personal attacks. In conversations with coworkers and even when we gather socially with family or our circle of friends, there may be unspoken rules about topics which should not be raised because we are afraid that the conversation might become rancorous, hurtful or painful. The Civilize It project is a call for us to honor the human dignity of each person by engaging in civil dialogue.
Civil dialogue is defined as the ability to enter meaningful conversation with people whose viewpoints may be different from our own, who have a different background or experiences, or who come to a different conclusion about the best way to promote the common good.
The process is further explained in this way: “In civil dialogue, all are invited to bring and share their values, beliefs, and questions. We seek first to understand how our views on a topic are different and why. We ask questions to be sure we understand one another. In thinking critically about how we arrived at our own viewpoints and listening to the experiences of others, we can sometimes arrive at a new understanding and even find common ground.” (civilizeit.org)
Being able to engage in civil dialogue is a skill that must be consciously developed. As part of our training for civil dialogue, the project urges us to engage in self-examination. What areas of public policy elicit strong negative reactions in me? What is at the root of that feeling or why do I feel the way I do? When have I allowed that strong feeling to cause me to say or think something unkind about another person in conversation or on social media? When have I made assumptions about or failed to give the benefit of the doubt to those with whom I disagree? When have I presumed others’ intentions or experiences before even hearing their stories or experiences? Have I valued my political affiliation or party more than my identity as a disciple of Christ who is called to model love and charity?
The Civilize It project makes the point that being committed to the truth is an important element of civil dialogue. Civil dialogue does not mean that we must consider all viewpoints equally valid. It does mean that we must take the time to form our consciences to reach well-reasoned judgments. Conscience formation involves acquiring facts and data from credible and reputable sources, studying sacred Scripture and the teachings of the church, seeking the advice and good example of trusted persons, and prayerful reflection. In forming our consciences about issues in the public square, a helpful resource is the U.S. bishops’ document “Faithful Citizenship.”
The Civilize It project has formulated a pledge which individuals and families may take. The pledge involves three commitments. The first commitment is to “civility.” It is a promise to recognize the human dignity of those with whom we disagree, to treat others with respect, and to rise above attacks when directed against oneself. The second commitment is to “clarity.” It is a promise to root one’s political viewpoints in the Gospel and a well formed conscience. Moreover, it is a promise to stand up for one’s convictions and to speak out when witnessing language that disparages someone’s dignity, while also listening and seeking to understand the experiences of other people. The final commitment is to “compassion.” This involves encountering others with a tone and posture affirming their dignity, presuming their best intentions, and listening to their stories with empathy. You are invited to sign this pledge here.
Resources regarding the moral obligation to participate in political life are available on the archdiocesan website here.