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
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
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.)