The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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October 27, 2000 Issue
Eye on the Capitol

Maintaining republic requires engaging in open debate

The idea is to test ideas and their merits by talking, even with those who disagree

By John Huebscher

By one oft-quoted account, Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of government he and the other Founders had fashioned for the citizens as they completed work on the Constitution. We have given you a republic, Franklin replied. If you can keep it.

Franklin's response is a sober reminder that republican government, in which citizens elect their leaders, requires vigilance and commitment of its citizens.

In such a republic, citizens must be free to argue with each other, test each other's views and come to reasoned judgment. Doing so means we must encounter and reflect upon arguments, positions, values and ideas that may be diametrically opposed to our own.

That is especially important in election seasons when all citizens have the opportunity to focus on questions of values and policy and exchange often conflicting views as to how to resolve them. The process is designed to test ideas and their merit by exposing the ideas, and the citizens who hold them, to differing points of view.

That is no less true for Catholics than others. As we are free to offer our values to the public, so are they free to invite us to consider their own. Doing so may make us uncomfortable at times, but it is the price of debate that can persuade others to our point of view.

Catholic newspapers and other church agencies devoted to discussion of public issues play an indispensable role in this regard. Not only do news stories and candidate forums provide a context for Catholics who wish to approach issues from their faith perspective, they help us and others encounter and engage views contrary to our own, but which we must understand in order to effectively participate in a republic where we are a minority.

As one of my professors once said, You cannot effectively make your case until you have first made that of your opponent. That is why we, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference staff, fail in our jobs if we don't provide the bishops with those arguments and considerations that work in opposition to the positions the WCC takes.

Similarly, we are shortchanging Catholics interested in public affairs if we do not acquaint them with those arguments against our positions, and the candidates who hold them. Only such awareness can equip a citizen to reflect more fully on and advocate more effectively for, their own convictions.

Some may believe that reading, hearing or discussing opposing views implies approval of those views. That reflects, I believe, a lack of confidence in the capacity of Catholics to discern the difference between discussion and endorsement. Those with the facts and the light of reason on their side need never fear a light that shines on both sides of the question.

For such exposure can only work to our advantage.

At the same time, we cannot expect others to consider or give our views a hearing if we take the position that only voices in accord with our own deserve public airing. Nor can we persuade our fellow citizens to the wisdom of our views if we do not first respect them enough to listen to theirs.

The challenge of keeping our republic is no less imposing for us than it was for Bp. John Carroll and the Catholics who helped found our nation.

Then, as now, Catholics encountered moral evils and opinions at odds with their values. They faced them without fear. We could do worse than follow their example.

(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)

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