Recent election cycles invariably exhaust everyone involved, leaving all of us breathing a sigh of relief when the excruciating and contentious process finally concludes.  When we emerge from these prolonged experiences of harshness and venom, most of us probably long for the ideals that our bishops express when they write: “In public life, it is important to practice the virtues of charity and justice that are at the core of our Tradition.”[1]

As far back as 2011, Cardinal Donald Wuerl named the problem quite perceptively: “Increasingly, there is a tendency to disparage the name and reputation, the character and life, of a person because he or she holds a different position.”[2]  The Cardinal enumerated some repeated defaming words: hate mongers, traitors, unpatriotic, anti-Catholic bigots, racists, and homophobic.  These words, he wrote, “speak more about political posturing than about reasoned discourse.”[3]

Wuerl asked, “Why is it so important that we respect both our constitutional right to free speech and our moral obligation that we not bear false witness against another?”  His simple but profound response is that “we do not live alone.”[4]  People live in community, and communities of all kinds—including nations—require mutual trust if they are to function smoothly.  The Eighth Commandment spells this out: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”[5]

Our freedom of speech is not about saying whatever we want about others, but “only what is true.”[6]  “Spin,” slanderous internet rumors, and snarky gossip are all forms of untruth that damage other human persons.  According to Wuerl: “Irresponsible blogs, electronic and print media stories, and pulpit and podium people-bashing rhetoric can be likened to many forms of anonymous violence.”

Changing the Discourse

Moral theologian James F. Keenan, SJ, authored essays on six “Virtues for Civil Society”[7] that he proposed as necessary to reform and improve our public discourse. Civility is about proportionality, about an “enduring sense of good or appropriate and measured responses” to others.  Tolerance calls us to be open to understanding, willing to listen and learn, trying to understand others’ opinions, and appreciating diversity and pluralism as ways “to promote a better society.”  Humility acknowledges the limits of what people do know and that “what they need to know, they could learn from others.”

The promotion of justice, Keenan continues, is the entire purpose of civil society.  Society’s future depends on civic discourse that promotes the ethical search to develop the common good of our society and fairness for all.  Mercy, defined as “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,” “de-centers” us in ways that change our understanding of the world, ourselves, and God.  Lastly, solidarity calls us to move from the sidelines of society into a stance of actively promoting the rights of all those who are excluded or oppressed; and, until we do so, they will need to break through our comfort, ease, innocence, and complacency. In the recent encyclical of Pope Francis Fratelli Tutti (“Brothers and Sisters All: On Fraternity and Social Friendship”), we find a strong endorsement of these six virtues and others that promote genuine dialogue, which of course requires civility as a precondition. The encyclical includes chapters titled “A Better Kind of Politics” and “Paths of Renewed Encounter” that call us to practice the civility upon which any social progress absolutely depends.

Church Discourse

The same virtues are needed within the Church, where disputes are sometimes even more heated.  It is well then to remember these words of Pope John XXIII:

Far from jeopardizing the Church’s unity, controversies, as a noted English author, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has remarked, can actually pave the way for its attainment.  For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark.[8]

Pope John continued, “But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”[9]

[1] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, November 2015, no. 60.

[2] Cardinal Donald Wuerl, “Civil Discourse: Speaking Truth in Love,” Archdiocese of Washington, 2011.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Exodus 20:16.

[6] Wuerl, op. cit. 

[7] Father James F. Keenan, SJ, offered six essays on these virtues between June 26, 2016 and July 23, 2016, cf.

[8] John XXIII, Ad Petri Cathedram, June 29, 1959, no. 71.

[9] Ibid., no. 72.  The saying, sometimes attributed to St. Augustine, appears to have originated in the 17th century.