Blog Post

A Catholic Response to Uncivil Discourse in America

Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS

If there was ever a time for Catholics to take a stand against the uncivil discourse gripping the nation these days, it’s now. After a weekend that saw a member of the Trump administration refused dinner in a restaurant simply because of who she works for, and a member of the U.S. Congress openly calling for harassment of all members of the President’s Cabinet, we need to let our faith find a way to put the brakes on this rampant incivility before someone gets killed.

The Washington Times is reporting on the events of just the past few days that herald an increasingly violent era of civil discourse in America.

First, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and her family to leave the restaurant on Friday night because the staff detests the administration and refused to serve her.

Ms. Sanders left quietly, and later tweeted: “Her actions say far more about her than about me.”

This was just a few days after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson was publicly screamed at while she ate dinner in a Mexican restaurant in Washington, DC by people who oppose her position on immigration.

In the same week, Actor Peter Fonda called for the president’s son, Barron, 12, to be ripped from his mother’s arms and incarcerated with pedophiles.

Comedian Seth Rogen bragged about refusing to pose for a photo with Republican House Speaker Paul D. Ryan – an affront he committed in the presence of Ryan’s sons.

This public nastiness came to a head this weekend when Maxine Waters, (D-CA), called on supporters at a rally this weekend to openly confront all members of Trump’s cabinet.

“If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” Waters told a crowd in Los Angeles on Saturday.

It’s no wonder that syndicated radio show host Rush Limbaugh worried aloud about how this increasingly hostile rhetoric – which is being fueled by incendiary news coverage of the family separation issue at the border – is heading toward real violence.

“If the media keeps this up — if they keep up generating this hysteria — somebody’s going to get killed,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his show. “I think we’re pretty close to somebody getting killed already, and I’m not being hyperbolic, and I’m not trying to call attention to myself. I’m genuinely worried about the out-of-control aspect of this. The news media’s fanning the flames.”

In just one example of this “fanning the flames,” the cover of last week’s Time Magazine featured a two-year-old Honduran girl in tears while being stared down by an unflinching President Trump.

As it turns out, the only parent little Yanela was separated from was her father, Denis Valera. According to Valera, Yanela’s mother, Sandra Sanchez, left home without telling him or the couple’s other three children. He didn’t know exactly where she went until he saw the sensationalized photo which was taken when the two were detained at the border. According to Border Patrol agents involved in the case, mother and daughter were never separated.

One can only wonder why the press believes it needs to resort to this kind of disingenuous news coverage in order to promote its agenda. Doesn't it believe enough in its position to argue intelligently on its behalf? Or could it be that, as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich tweeted over the weekend, this irresponsible behavior is the result of realizing they are embracing a losing argument.

“Nastiness reflects desperation, not strength," the Speaker wrote. "They can’t win the argument, so they use nastiness. Sad and dangerous.”

This weekend proves that the time has come for people on both sides of the aisle to realize that this kind of behavior isn’t accomplishing anything except creating more problems.

From President Trump’s nasty tweets to lawmakers calling for violence against members of the administration, it’s time to ask ourselves if we really want to live in a United States where Republicans and Democrats have to live in separate neighborhoods, eat in separate restaurants, and educate their children in separate schools. If we don't get a grip very soon, this is where we're headed. Do any of us really want to go here?

As Catholics, we know there’s a better way and we need to be the first to give example to our neighbors about how to respectfully dialogue with one another.

As Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington wrote in this article: “We need to look at how we engage in discourse and how we live out our commitment to be a people of profound respect for the truth and our right to express our thoughts, opinions, positions -- always in love. We who follow Christ must not only speak the truth but must do so in love (Eph 4:15). It is not enough that we know or believe something to be true. We must express that truth in charity with respect for others so that the bonds between us can be strengthened in building up the body of Christ.”

This freedom of speech and respect for others should always be woven together, he says, and should be true of everyone whether they speak from a pulpit, a political platform, or through the electronic and print media and other means of social communications.

We all know how damaging gossip can be to the reputation of others, but irresponsible reporting is no different.

“Spin and extremist language should not be embraced as the best this country is capable of achieving,” the Cardinal writes. “Selecting only some facts, choosing inflammatory words, spinning the story, are activities that seem much more directed to achieving someone's political purpose rather than reporting events.”

When we see this kind of agenda-driven reporting going on, whether that be in our local media or on the nightly news, we need to speak up forcefully but charitably. Write letters to the editor and/or to the outlet’s advertisers and take it to social media.  Rather than resort to name-calling and innuendo, seize the opportunity to explain to the world why the teachings of Jesus Christ really are the answer to all the ills of mankind. We know that Jesus is the “way, the truth, and the life,” but no one else will unless we explain it to them.

Most of all, we need to keep Christ in our every day discourse because the best way to change the world is by first changing ourselves.

For this purpose, Cardinal Wuerl makes the following seven suggestions:

1. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak. 2. Share your personal experience, not someone else’s. 3. Listen carefully and respectfully. Speak carefully and respectfully. Do not play the role of know-it-all, convincer or corrector. Remember that a dialogue is not a debate. 4. Don’t interrupt unless for clarification or time keeping. 5. Accept that no group or viewpoint has a complete monopoly on the truth. 6. “Be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than condemn it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2478, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola). 7. Be cautious about assigning motives to another person.

We can make this world a better place if we let our faith lead the way!

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