why civility doesn’t pay

E.J. Dionne describes a recent letter from Catholic professors to Speaker John Boehnher as “civil.” I think that’s right–in a specific and important sense. Note that the letter is deeply critical. For example:

Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it.

Those are harsh words. A practicing Catholic like Mr. Boehner should prefer to be called insulting names than to be told that his record is directly contrary to the ancient and consistent magisterium (teaching authority) of the one true Church.

In what sense, then, is the letter “civil”? I think civility’s core value is the attempt to maintain a conversation, to invite a reply from which one might learn and then reply in turn. A civil interlocutor acknowledges that the other person is worthy of engaging and might have something valuable to say. Not everyone is worthy of engaging; civility is not a transcendent virtue–but it has an important place in a democratic society.

So defined, civility is consistent with sharp criticism. It all depends on the context: sometimes you have to be polite or even nice to keep a conversation going; but sometimes a harsh accusation is more effective. The question is whether you are likely to shut down or open up a conversation.

The Catholic academics’ letter explicitly welcomes further dialogue with Mr. Boehner and gives him openings to respond. It begins:

We congratulate you on the occasion of your commencement address to The Catholic University of America. It is good for Catholic universities to host and engage the thoughts of powerful public figures, even Catholics such as yourself who fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching. We write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your Church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.

Not only does this letter acknowledge Mr. Boehner’s standing to speak at Catholic University, but it invites him to “dissent” and explain why his position on the federal budget does not contradict the Church “on matters of faith and morals.”

Dionne notes that the letter drew hardly any media attention, in contrast to the protests at Notre Dame against President Obama’s visit in 2009. There could be several reasons for this difference, including the higher profile of a president. But Mr. Boehner is the leader of the national Republican Party and a Catholic, which makes his argument with Catholic theologians arguably more interesting than anti-abortion protests at Notre Dame.

I agree with Dionne that the recent letter was ignored because of its civility. If you say, “John Boehner must not speak at our institution; we do not want to hear him,” that is news. (Attempting to block a scheduled campus speaker follows a well-known news script.) If you say, “John Boehner is welcome to speak at our campus, but his actions violate two thousand years of theological consensus,” the press yawns. Perhaps the substance is too hard for reporters to grasp, or it sounds like just another debate about abstract ideas. In any case, we must find ways to reward civility, or we won’t see much of it.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.