WASHINGTON (CNS) — If Catholics have a role in helping heal divisions after a turbulent presidential election year, they may need to start looking inward, according to some panelists at a Nov. 1 forum at The Catholic University of America on “Citizenship and Civility: The Role of Catholics in Rebuilding the American Political Culture.”
And in Stephen Schneck’s view, perhaps civility ought not be on the agenda.
“Conflict is a part of political life. It’s always been a part of political life,” said Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University and an associate professor of politics there.
Effigies of King George of England burned on “liberty trees” during the American Revolution were “an incivil, uncivil act,” Schneck said, but it brought about a necessary change of how those living in a fledgling United States were governed.
Chad Pecknold, a Catholic University associate professor of systematic theology, said he was reminded of the late educator and social critic Neil Postman, who 30 years ago wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” which Pecknold said gives an apt analogy for the presidential campaign. “It’s not about the state taking over, but the citizenry giving up and giving in to entertainment,” he added. “We’re all suffering from political exhaustion … yet we’re tuning in by the millions to inane debates.”
“In my working life, there’s never been this level of vitriol,” said Melinda Henneberger, a longtime political columnist who is on the board of contributors to USA Today who traces her career back to 1988. She also is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.
She called this the “‘unfriend me now’ election,” based on Facebook posts that warn readers to “unfriend me now” if they don’t support the writer’s candidate.
Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, suggested that self-righteousness has been at work throughout the election and that humility was needed. “We’ll never get to the bottom of our differences” if all that’s done is checking off policy positions, he said.
Henneberger resisted the attempt to put Pope Francis in a camp; she was one of three panelists who quoted from his speech last year to Congress during his 2015 U.S. visit. “He’s not on one side or the other. He’s Catholic,” she said. “That’s a model for us.”
Moderator Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor-at-large of National Review Online, as well as panelists Pecknold and Schneck acknowledged during the discussion that each had had the epithet “baby-killer” hurled at them — Schneck for having chaired Democrats for Obama in 2012, and Lopez and Pecknold for being part of the “Never Trump” movement this year.
“Sometimes, family fights are more bitter than fights on the outside,” said Reyes, who grew up outside of Detroit, adding the city is now seeing cooperation between Republicans and Democrats in the wake of the city’s emergency from its 2013 bankruptcy filing, “making things that don’t work, work.”
“We have to get our house in order. I include myself in that,” Reyes said. The way to connect with others is to make intentional friendships with people not like oneself, but even to do that, he said, “we have to unplug” from the continuously connected lifestyle.
Co-sponsoring the forum with Catholic University’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies was the National Review Institute, a nonprofit set up National Review magazine founder William Buckley to advance the conservative principles he championed, as well as the university’s College Republicans and College Democrats clubs.