The rising temperature of the debate over President Barack Obama’s scheduled visit to Notre Dame has created some heated rhetoric on both sides. Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg criticized Notre Dame’s decision but was himself criticized for complaining about the “uncivil and venomous” comments made by those opposing the honor being bestowed on President Obama.
Bishop Lynch is exactly right in raising this concern. Here is what he says:
The rhetoric being employed is so uncivil and venomous that it weakens the case we place before our fellow citizens, alienates young college-age students who believe the older generation is behaving like an angry child, and they do not wish to be any part of that, and ill-serves the cause of life (emphasis added).
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Granted, some will label as uncivil any assertion about the truth of the Catholic Faith. These tactical accusations of incivility are exactly what they appear to be — an attempt to silence and discredit all who defend the Church. Putting that tactic aside, it does weaken our case for orthodoxy when it is couched in vicious name-calling, profanity, and unsupported generalizations.
Some say the coarseness of their rhetoric is justified by the truth they speak or by the crimes they decry, such as abortion. In my opinion, they either don’t care about persuading anyone who’s listening, or they don’t know they’re providing an excuse for people to ignore what they say. A good illustration of that approach is the effort of Randall Terry at Notre Dame. Terry has gone to such an extreme that Archbishop Raymond Burke had to dissociate himself from the use Terry was making of his comments.
The last thing orthodox Catholics need to do is bring discredit to a bishop who has the courage to speak his mind.
Archbishop Charles Chaput, another bishop who speaks his mind, recently spoke in an interview with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life about his experience with e-mail rudeness. He attributes the vitriol to the “immediacy” of Internet communication, “which means we immediately speak out of our emotions rather than write a letter.” Just as important is anonymity behind which most people hide when making comments or posting on Web sites.
Some of the most vicious e-mails Archbishop Chaput has received, he says, are from “Catholic conservatives” who want him to excommunicate pro-abortion Catholic politicians. But he has noticed an interesting difference between how conservatives and liberals are impolite.
“The Left mail I get will use terrible words but be less vitriolic. They use the F-word and things like that, call me names like that. The Right is meaner, but they’re not as foul.”
The Right is mean, and the Left is foul — that observation matches my experience in the virtual world. The Left often resorts to expletives to express their disapproval; whereas the Right, including Catholic conservatives, will indict your faith, your intelligence, and your love for your mother if you happen to disappoint them.
Rudeness has nearly become the rule, rather than the exception, on the Internet. Blogs, forums, e-mails, and comment sections are hothouses for the unedited savagery of the miscreant, the coward, and the Pharisee. Yet it is the place where we have chosen to speak with a Catholic voice. As Archbishop Chaput has said of his own reaction to hateful e-mails: “The Lord reminds us that we are sheep among wolves, but it’s important for us not to become wolves ourselves because of our experience.”
It’s a sore temptation to respond in kind to such attacks. InsideCatholic and other Catholic Web sites have achieved some level of politeness only by enforcing a posted civility policy. We agree with Bishop Lynch and Archbishop Chaput that our best chance for changing minds and being successful evangelists is speaking with a tone of voice that offers no excuse to turn away.