November 27, 2020

A Call to Civility

(En Espanol)

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ:

Archbishop Charles C. ThompsonAdvent, a season of preparation and hope, marks the beginning of a new liturgical year for the Church. It allows for a time of renewal that can bring about what Pope Francis has referred to as the warming of hearts and healing of wounds.

As we await with active anticipation to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, I offer this reflection as a means of underscoring the spirit of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter, “Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship,” as a reminder of our interconnectedness as a human family and the need for our witness to hope that lies at the heart of our capacity to attract believers and transform society.

The ability of any community or group to survive, even thrive, amid adversity is the measure of civility. This is especially true during times of chaos, division and transitioning of authority. Unfortunately, the misuse of today’s social media includes the proliferation of shaming, abusing and scapegoating that marks practically every sphere of our society.

Far from the ability of being able to agree to disagree, persons of differing opinions are quick to demonize one another. With little ground for compromise, there is little possibility for authentic dialogue. Relating to everything as “black and white,” one can only perceive another as “for me” or “against me.” Such are the effects of the extreme polarization that exists.

The lack of civility is probably no more palpable than what we have experienced in our country during these last few months with the pandemic, social unrest and the political election process. The freedom to protest, march, advocate, hold up signs and make one’s voice heard is a right that we all share. Such freedom gives none of us the right to violence, rioting, looting, abusing, slandering or defamation. It is in the absence of civility, of course, that the line between what is acceptable and unacceptable becomes blurred.

True justice is a matter of conviction, right judgment, rather than feelings. True justice is rooted in the rule of law, based on the notion of the common good within a just society.

While everyone has a right to an opinion, there are some who seem to be unaware that not every opinion needs to be spoken. Still others seem unable to distinguish between opinions that are based on knowledge and experience from those that are based on mere emotion or speculation. While conscience and intuition are to be respected, these should not be confused with pride and vanity.

Everyone in practically every phase of life—including the political, medical, scientific, religious and economic—has an opinion about the COVID-19 pandemic. Within each of these spheres, however, opinions vary. This would seem to indicate that we are still in the process of really understanding and fully appreciating the situation.

In such moments, the true character of an individual or group is realized. Let us not be drawn into one extreme or another, but find the proper balance of freedom and responsibility. My individual freedoms do not outweigh my responsibility to treat others with respect, caution and care. Safety precautions such as wearing a facial cover, social distancing and disinfecting are inconveniences for practically everyone. On the other hand, they are signs of our respect for the sacredness of life as well as our defense for the dignity of every human person.

Within any form of social unrest, there must be an ability to listen and learn from one another. This can be difficult, of course, especially when there is need for change. No one likes to think of themselves as causing hurt and pain any more than they like being the victims of hurt and pain. The demands of justice, however, involve the recognition of wrongdoing for the sake of both perpetrators and victims.

With regard to politics, it does not take a mental heavyweight to realize that the growing polarization taking place over the last several years has made it very difficult for a decent candidate to make it through either major political party’s process of endorsement and support for election. This is not to say that there are not good men and women in politics. How many of us, however, have found ourselves casting our vote against someone rather than really voting for a candidate of choice? Both major political parties seem to have been hijacked by the radicals within their respective groups. This is a mere symptom of the effects of radical individualism that has overtaken any real appreciation for the common good of society.

Three things, in particular, must be avoided if we are to preserve authentic dialogue: namely, name-calling, making threats and raising voices in hostility. Any one of these can readily erode the trust and openness needed to maintain mutual relationships.

Regardless of differences and disagreements, humanity cannot afford to lose sight of its own dignity. Failure to appreciate one’s own dignity often leads to the denial of another’s dignity. Without properly rooted conviction, we allow others to get the best of us.

Any authentic conviction of a true Christian is rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. Such conviction does not guarantee always being right, but it does provide the pathway to seeking what is right, just and true. Remaining Christ-centered, one is able to respond rather than to react to a perceived challenge, disagreement or even threat. Rather than seeking to win or gain against one another, we should be seeking what is best for humanity as a whole.

As Pope Francis has exhorted us time and again, the ability to accompany, dialogue and encounter one another is essential to the preservation of civility in any society or community. Apart from civility, human beings are apt to engage in behavior that is detrimental to healthy relationships and personal well-being, such as gossip and bullying.

Accompaniment, dialogue and encounter enable us to relate to one another in a way that honors and respects human dignity rather than speaking and acting in destructive ways. Contrary to the old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” words can be as destructive and divisive as actions or objects. What else might we call shaming, ridiculing and scapegoating if not the weaponizing of words or behavior?

To be Christ-centered is basically to draw a line in the sand and refuse to no longer perpetuate the hostility of man’s inhumanity toward man. The cross stands as a paradoxical symbol of Christian civility. In and through the cross, Jesus Christ took upon himself the weight of the world’s sins to be conquered by divine grace. As Jesus showed, it involves the courage to let down our guard of defensiveness, a willingness to be vulnerable and seeking reconciliation rather than vengeance.

The principles of our Catholic social teaching provide us with a wonderful blueprint to paving the way of civility; namely, through respect for the dignity of every person created in the image of God, option for the poor, defense of family and community, the dignity of work and the worker, the balance of rights and responsibilities, solidarity and care for creation. In essence, we must adhere to the so-called “golden rule” if we are to be beacons of hope: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” rather than do unto others before they do it to you.

Civility is not the absence of differences and disagreements, though it does involve a refusal to allow the radicals of polarization to divide and destroy the very soul of humanity. Rather than pulling away, civility demands that we pull together. Rather than succumb to despair, we must dare to trust in the Holy Spirit. It requires of us the capacity to seek forgiveness, understanding and justice tempered with the sweetness of mercy.

Let us not surrender to the darker side of judgment, ridicule, revenge, hostility and manipulation. By the grace of God, may our efforts to preserve civility enable our families, communities and nation to experience a renewed sense of peace, healing, trust and unity. We cannot allow pride, vanity, agendas, bitterness, resentment or selfishness to stand in our way.

May we rise above our differences and disagreements in order to restore hope for a new tomorrow in reaching new horizons of our humanity as both individuals and communities of peoples. With Jesus Christ as our cornerstone, all is possible.

With assurance of my continued prayers and best wishes, I remain, 

Sincerely yours in Christ, 

+Charles C. Thompson
Archbishop of Indianapolis

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