Civility and Morality

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 Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.