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home : opinion : perspectives

10/26/2017 9:00:00 AM
REFLECTION
Don't let considered public debate die
BY DEACON WALTER AYRES


On the first Sunday of October, the Gospel reading began with a simple question from Jesus, along the lines of, "What is your opinion?" It was addressed to His opponents at the time, the chief priests and the elders of the people.

Notice how engaging the question is. It invites them into a conversation. They are asked to view a matter from their own perspective and to offer a conclusion of their own making.

Now, consider a wall plaque that I recently saw in a local craft store. It read, "I would agree with you, but then we'd both be wrong."

Such a statement precludes any discussion. It does not engage anyone in conversation. Rather, it is the style preferred by some politicians and by "trolls" on social media, to make a point. It does not lead to enlightenment, but to self-satisfaction. It allows us to feel secure in our positions without having to face any challenge to their validity.

As Catholics, we are called to follow the example of Jesus, not that of internet trolls.

Many years ago, the Jesuit priest Rev. John Courtney Murray wrote, "Civilization is formed by men [and women] locked together in argument. From this dialogue, the community becomes a political community."

We are not locked together in argument these days, although it may appear that way. Instead, we are locked together in disdain: a disregard for the thoughts and opinions of others. That may be because we have no idea of how we arrived at our conclusions; we are only aware that we share them with our friends and we believe in them strongly.

Maybe we are afraid of being wrong, of having to admit before everyone who ever reads our social media posts that we once held a position that we could neither support nor, ultimately, believe.

As a result, we defend much, yet learn little. We boost our pride while diminishing our intellect. In the end, we cut off discussion, because so many who have something to share are afraid of the personal attacks addressed to anyone who speaks up. So, everyone suffers.

Another Jesuit priest -- Rev. Matt Malone, editor of America magazine -- recently wrote in that publication, "It is one thing to engage in spirited debate. It is another thing to seek to stymie such debate through fear, misinformation or blunt censorship."

Father Malone also wrote, "This crisis in the public discourse poses such a clear and present danger to the body politic that Catholics must fundamentally reassess our public engagement, asking how we have been complicit in the demise of the public discourse."

His statement is a call to action for all of us. Let us open ourselves to discussion with others. Let us consider what they have to say and try to understand how they came to accept their beliefs. Let us not be afraid of any challenges to our own thinking, but view questions as opportunities to reach a deeper understanding of our own position or, if necessary, as chances to correct our own mistaken thoughts.

In the end, our nation will be better for our self-reflection, and so will we.

(Deacon Ayres is director of the Commission on Peace and Justice through Catholic Charities of the Albany Diocese.)





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