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What Happened to Civility?

How do we return civility to our society? It begins with personal virtue.

Archbishop Listecki


Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee
 

 

Yesterday, I was invited to address the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, North Shore. I would like to share with you a truncated version of the talk. The topic was one of my own choosing. Being with a group of different faith traditions, I wanted to choose a topic that might engage a common theme. As readers of the LOA, you know that I have a special affection for our first president, George Washington.
 
A work has been published called Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived. Much to my welcomed surprise was the statement that former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia considered Washington the greatest of the Founding Fathers.

Scalia states,“Washington is my favorite of the Founders – the one I would most like to meet. Not just because he was the indispensable man – the man without whom the American Revolution would not have succeeded. But, also because he is a puzzlement. He was not a great intellect; indeed, he was quite sensitive about his lack of formal education. (He was not even, to tell the truth, that skilled of a military tactician, as the New York campaign demonstrated.) And, he was surrounded by great intellects, who produced great writings … Yet, all those well-published, intellectual geniuses looked up to, deferred to, stood in awe of George Washington. What was there about the man that produced that result? It must have been character. Washington was a man of honor, of constancy and steady determination. A man who could be believed, trusted, counted on. A man who would step down as president after two terms, though he could have been re-elected for life, because that is what he believed a democratic republic required.” (Pages 64-65)
 
I wonder what this man of integrity would think of our modern political discourse. In this day and age, it seems to me that we have lost our “civility.” By civility, I mean our ability to respect and treat others with dignity, to understand the importance of human discourse in the arena of politics, presented for the common good.
 
What happened to civility? In today’s contentious and poisonous climate filled with ad hominems and circus-like grandstanding, the virtue of civility is lost in exchange for an attempt at notoriety.
 
How do we regain civility in our civil discourse? To answer this, I choose three areas: virtue, education and family.
 
Virtue: It is obvious to me that we have lost our moral compass. Power, wealth and self-indulgence have replaced the significance of virtue in our society. We no longer always say what we mean, or mean what we say. Words are sometimes used to manipulate. Many will “lie” in order to gain an advantage. The truth becomes trampled underfoot in order to gain that advantage. We hear positions shamelessly proclaimed without any sense of repercussion. The value of truth is lost, and part of that truth is seen in the loss of the religious underpinnings associated with the need for truth and faithfulness to words, since truth carries a transcendent. Inviting the various religious groups into the discussion for the common good can only be a plus. Instead of seeing religion as an interloper, recognize religion as a partner for the common good that both serve.
 
Education: I have heard it said that “urban, public education” today is broken, and one of the keys for a transformative social environment and return to civility must come from education. Education and economic stability are the keys for social movement and stability. A graduate from grammar school and high school is a contribution to the community. That person is more likely to acquire a job, avoid incarceration and participate in the community. Public schools need to practice patriotism, using the symbols necessary to instill the practice of public virtue, the pledge of allegiance, a responsibility to the community and vigorous studies in the history of our country. Our public schools must instill and celebrate the accomplishments of a country, which I believe is the hope of the world. At the same time, religious education should be supported, since it supports that connection to virtue necessary for free discourse.
 
Family: It is no secret that part of the chaos which exists in the social environment is the loss of the family – the examples set forth by a mother and a father who are no longer present in the home. I was part of the Governor’s Task Force on the family. There were many good ideas. We need to shine a light on the problems of the family, and should reinforce community organizations that offer opportunities for stability.
 
How do we return civility to our society? It begins with personal virtue. It begins through an education, especially in the appreciation of our history, and in reinforcing the family.
 
It won’t happen overnight, but it will never happen if we don’t commit ourselves to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.

Note: This blog originally appeared as the September 25, 2018 "Love One Another" email sent to Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee by Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. If you are interested in signing up for these email messages, please click here.

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