Catholic Writers Discuss How to Disagree Without Being Disagreeable

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At a time when incivility dominates public discussion, people who disagree vigorously can still engage in a thoughtful argument without it devolving into a shouting match. Two prominent Catholic writers who often espouse opposing views sat down together to address “Civility in America, Religion” Dec. 13 at the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in lower Manhattan.

Father James Martin, S.J., editor at large of America magazine, and Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, explored areas of common ground as well as topics on which they hold completely different views during an event moderated by Father Matthew F. Malone, S.J., president and editor in chief of America media.

Father Malone moderated the first of three scheduled talks on civility and said the objective of the program is to demonstrate that civil, intelligent conversation is still possible, especially among those who hold the same presuppositions. In bringing together two widely respected, intelligent, faithful Catholics with different opinions, Father Malone said the Church might be an example to the broader culture.

If participants at the well-attended event expected sparks to fly between the two public intellectuals, they would have been disappointed by the civil, polite and friendly tone of the serious discussion.

Both speakers said they were conscious of being seen as representatives of the Catholic Church in the public square. Douthat said he feels an obligation to show readers, many of whom do not share his views, “that Christianity is something that manifests itself by how it behaves in public.” Although his ultimate goal might be to change people’s minds about issues, his tactics require some finesse. “I feel boxed into civility by necessity,” but that’s a good spiritual and intellectual discipline, he said.

Douthat said he tries to strike a balance between providing encouragement and good arguments for those who agree with him and may see him as their champion, and challenging those who disagree to consider his viewpoint.

Father Martin said he sees his writing as a ministry that flows from his Jesuit vocation, and encompasses both encouragement and challenge to his readers. Quoting Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement who is a candidate for sainthood, he said the duty of a Christian is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Douthat and Father Martin agreed that respect is the basis of a sound argument. It is necessary to presume good intentions on both sides, try to understand and engage the position of the other, take the opponent seriously and speak their language, Father Martin said. Douthat added it is important to recognize that some divisions are real and ultimately unbridgeable.

Father Martin said he tries to avoid overtly political topics and language but is happy to engage readers with a Gospel story or Scripture quote that has a political implication, such as the admonitions to welcome strangers or care for the poor. Rather than answer questions directly or debate, he prefers to use stories and parables to “tease the mind to active thought. My project is to invite people to encounter Jesus in a new way they haven’t before,” he said.

The speakers said discussion and feedback in the electronic world does not always rise to the level of intellectual discourse. “Theological tweeting is very dangerous,” Father Martin said. “I can say Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and I’ll get hate tweets asking why I don’t like the Holy Spirit.”

“Ad hominem attacks are almost always counterproductive,” Douthat said. What seems to be a constructive dialogue that helps to bring someone along to your way of thinking may be something quite different and “things that seem innocent and simple are not necessarily so,” he said.

The Church should engage the larger culture about its values, and there is a place for contemplation and prayer in the public square, the speakers said. “It’s not only possible but essential for Catholics to invite people into that space,” Father Martin said.

Within the Church, intellectual debates inevitably shape the way people think and pray, and a person’s view of Jesus informs the way he or she lives out the faith, Douthat said.

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