The Catholic Thing
Civility and Morality Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Thursday, 02 April 2009

When The Catholic Thing published Ralph McInerny’s “Is Obama Worth a Mass?” the article received an unprecedented number of comments — each of which it was my responsibility as Senior Editor to approve. Most were thoughtful, temperate, and heartfelt, but a few lacked a kind of fundamental graciousness that made them either unpublishable or printable only with our reluctant sadness. It was my judgment at the time that the several hundred comments that attended Prof. McInerny’s article were, under the circumstance of the controversy swirling around Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to give the ’09 commencement address, important — if not in fact historic. Time will tell if this situation becomes a turning point in the history of Catholicism in the United States.

Before I proceed to deeper matters, a word about limits: comments at The Catholic Thing must be limited to 500 characters. Just above the space in which you write a comment, there is a ticker of sorts that conveniently counts down the characters remaining as you compose. This paragraph contains exactly 500 characters. Use it as a guide to the correct length. By the way, you may be interested to learn that the front-page columnists for The Catholic Thing adhere to an 800-word limit. This is the editor’s rule and it’s a good one. It’s part of the reason, I believe, for the success of our site.

We think each morning’s article ought to be just long enough to read, attentively and prayerfully of course, over a single cup of coffee. The Internet, as you have probably noted, is often a temptation to self-indulgence for both writers and readers.

Which is why I turn now to my main concern: civility and morality.

What makes people lose their cool and do things that, on reflection, they may wish they had not? In one way or another, it’s usually passion. Being passionate is mostly a good thing, but in conversation and especially in argument being dispassionate is mostly better. For instance, there was passion in Professor McInerny’s column about Notre Dame (having taught there for half a century he was stung by the university’s honoring of the “pro-choice” president), but Ralph’s presentation was temperate, which is what gave the text its power. The tone was firm but civil, because the author possesses urbanity.

Urbanity is a word that first began to be used in the sixteenth century, and it was the goal of education and the embodiment of the attitude of courteous people all the way through until at least the nineteenth century. It remains the goal of a remnant even today. In 1586 – to be exact — Angel Daye characterized urbanity (which he noted was not a word in common usage) as “ciuile [civil], courteous, gentle, modest or well ruled, as men commonly are in the cities and places of good gouernment.” In other words, an urbane man displays civility.

Civility, civilization, civic, civil — each word has its root in the Latin civis, citizen. The grandest of these, civilization, designates the collective refinements of a society and means, in essence, “life in the city.” The assumption from ancient times on was that in the city one found the best and most refined ideas, institutions, and individuals. Civilization and urbanity — which itself has the original meaning of city dwelling — are signal words of refinement, suggesting not only the sum of cultural knowledge but also of knowledge integrated: of sophistication, elegance, courtesy. In a city there are lots of different kinds of people, and to belong there you have to give latitude to diverse attitudes.

Am I suggesting that we Catholics must bite our tongues when we see others advocating injustices such as abortion? Of course not. We must not. And it is certainly the case that civil conversation is difficult between moral strangers, as between many Catholics and some secularists, and it probably should be so. The broadcast media love nothing quite so much as a good oral brawl, and many of us have grown weary of the spectacle of two people talking past one another, their passions overwhelming their arguments.

Mine is simply another kind of argument: that sweet reason and a low pulse rate almost always convince more people that an eyes-popping-veins-bulging-chest-pounding screed. Not to mention that our Lord has instructed us very particularly: “But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother, shall be in danger of the judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council. And whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” Raca, (from the Aramaic verb for “to spit”) means “empty-headed” or “good-for-nothing,” which is more-or-less what some secularists commenting at this site have called Catholics, and, sad to say, some Catholics have responded in kind.

Let’s not adopt the mores of the street fight – or even the common usage of the Internet. Manners and morals both express our deep Christian respect for the dignity of the human person, even the person who is profoundly uncivil and wrong.

Brad Miner is the author of five books, including The Compleat Gentleman, a new edition of which will be published on April 22 by Richard Vigilante Books.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
written by Liz, April 02, 2009
Amen. Several years ago my husband got into a rather heated argument with, of all things, a lawyer. The lawyer invited my husband outside to "settle the matter" at which point my husband said to him, "so you will settle with fists what you can't settle with words - no wonder you are a real estate lawyer and not a litigator." And in this case, the pen is mightier than the sword! Keep up the good work.
written by William H. Phelan, April 02, 2009
Thank you, Brad Miner, for a thoughtful piece. You must understand the tremendous pressure that the Catholic "man in the street" faces, as he feels he is entirely alone. I have been in an FSSP chapel for ten years-yes, eight years before Summorum Pontificum. I knew of the problems in the Legionaries of Christ (not about the child) 15 years ago. When I mentioned these items in conversation, I was considered a fool. Now? S.P. in 2007 and the Vatican is investigating the Legion. It matters?
written by debby, April 02, 2009
Don't you think this is because we don't really believe in
His crazy love 4 me alone?
The all too common lack of decorum & social graces in every cultural venue has denigrated us to ashes. At our core we as a people have lost our sense of sin, do not know who we are in our dignity as created in God's image, cant in truth love ourselves, our neighbor, let alone our enemy. we are bankrupt. But if today we began to believe HE IS MINE, HE WANTS ME, He will raise us up from ashes
To James the Least
written by Brad Miner, April 02, 2009
Dear Mr. Least: Where I live, here in the world into which I was born, in the place to which the Lord has led me, I have neighbors who are Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and some I-don’t-know-what-I-ams, and the civility in our little town is a joy. I’m not sure I’m exactly luxuriating in the City of Man, but I am sure urbanity is an end of education, although not the only end. –Brad Miner
written by James the Least, April 02, 2009
"In a city there are lots of different kinds of people, and to belong there you have to give latitude to diverse attitudes."

In the City of God, there is only one kind of people--Catholic, Christian people--and that is the city I wish to belong to. You may keep your City of Man, Mr. Miner, and luxuriate in all its supposed splendors to your heart's content. (Also, the notion that "urbanity" is the proper end of education for a Catholic simply boggles the mind. Whatever happened to "truth?")
Notre Dame and Values
written by Ron, April 02, 2009
A plea for civility and love of neighbor on an internet forum is certainly appropriate. But this Notre Dame controversy raises again the narrowness of view of these dissenters. Those who object to the President's presence might well ponder their adamant support of the last President who waged war over the Pope's objections and sent thousands if not hundreds of thousands to their deaths. This does seem selective devotion to truth (or I fear Republican base building).
written by debby, April 02, 2009
dear ron:
where do you find adamant support for pres. bush on this website? i think you are reading into comments. if you want to know who I voted for, between Kerry & Bush, Bush; bet Gore & Bush, Bush. NOT because i am a Republican. i am a CATHOLIC before i am an American. Each election, there was only one candidate who was anti-abortion. Kerry was another CINO who disgraces our beautiful Faith for political gain. Gore is a joke. i was never adamantly behind Bush. He was my only Choice.
written by Theo, April 03, 2009
To compare a controversial war with the war on innocent unborn children is completely fraudulent. Over 50 million children slaughtered on the altar of humanistic worship eclipeses the Iraq War significance.

Disagree with Bush if you wish, but this unmitigated slaughter of innocent unborn is unprecedented in human history. Notre Dame's president is in full revolve to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Father Jenkins Return to Christ. Be Obdedient.
written by neither of which should be min, April 03, 2009
The Iraqi War may have been controversial in America. The Pope's opposition to it should not have been for Catholics. Both abortion and the slaughter of innocent lives are evils.
written by Fiona Crowley, April 06, 2009
Dear Professor McInerney,

As an Irish Catholic, born and rasied in Ireland, I know only too well the power the church has held over the masses in the past. To me you represent this oppressive type of leader. I am bemused that a man of philosophy is so narrow minded and fearful of our new president simply giving a commencement speech! Where was all the outrage when the previous President authorised torture? How about the death penalty? Sincerley, disappointed, but not surprised!
written by Fiona Crowley, April 06, 2009
Personally, I pray for the day when there is NO religion and the first one to go should be Catholicism, (to which I was born into), but which has consistanlty been an oppressor of women since it's inception. That is not to say I support abortion, I do NOT, but I realise there are many evils in our society and we should give them all equal treatment and honest debate.

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