Donald Wuerlba is the newly appointed Cardinal in Washington D.C. Working in the U.S. Capitol, he naturally has much to say on the subject of civil (and uncivil) discourse. A recent article he wrote has appeared in the Washington Post.
Here are some highlights.
The preacher’s pulpit, the politician’s podium and the print and electronic media all bear some responsibility to encourage a far more civil, responsible and respectful approach to national debate and the discussion of issues in our country today.
It should not be acceptable to denounce someone who favors immigration reform that includes the process to citizenship as a “traitor” and “unpatriotic.” The representatives in federal and state government who voted against the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program or against tax credits for Catholic schools educating minority children should not be labeled in the media as “anti-Catholic bigots” or “racists” since the majority of the children are African American. People and organizations should not be denounced disparagingly as “homophobic” simply because they support the traditional, worldwide, time-honored definition of marriage. The defaming words speak more about political posturing than about reasoned discourse.
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? A profoundly basic reason is that we do not live alone. While each of us can claim a unique identity, we are, nonetheless, called to live out our lives in relationship with others — in some form of community.
All human community is rooted in this deep stirring of God’s created plan within us that brings us into ever-widening circles of relationship: first with our parents, then our family, the Church and a variety of community experiences, educational, economic, cultural, social and, of course, political.
What does this have to do with toning down our rhetoric? Everything! No community, human or divine, political or religious, can exist without trust. At the very core of all human relations is the confidence that members speak the truth to each other. It is for this reason that God explicitly protected the bonds of community by prohibiting falsehood as a grave attack on the human spirit. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Ex 20:16). To tamper with the truth or, worse yet, to pervert it, is to undermine the foundations of human community and to begin to cut the threads that weave us into a coherent human family.
The call to truthfulness is far from being a denial of freedom of speech. Rather, it is a God-given obligation to respect the very function of human speech.
Irresponsible blogs, electronic and print media stories, and pulpit and podium people-bashing rhetoric can be likened to many forms of anonymous violence. Spin and extremist language should not be embraced as the best this country is capable of achieving.
Freedom of speech and respect for others, freedom of expression and regard for the truth, should always be woven together. This 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.
Notice how the Cardinal interweaves U.S. rights-speak with a traditionally Catholic account of virtue. Why is truthfulness important? Because it brings us in line with God’s goals for human life. Take God and the virtues out of the equation, and all we’re left with is the will-to-power.