Three rules needed for civil debate
Issues on the ballot in November require us to argue properly
By John Huebscher
Like the voters in Wisconsin, citizens who go to the polls in South Dakota this year will do more than elect public officials. They will also have their say on a referendum with significant moral implications as they decide whether a new law that bans nearly all abortions in that state will take effect.
Debates of such magnitude are bound to be contentious. With this in mind, Bp. Blase Cupich of Rapid City, writing in a recent issue of the Jesuit publication, America, offered his insights as to how such debates should occur.
Given that Wisconsin voters will decide whether to amend the constitution to define marriage as union between one man and one woman (the Bishops urge a "YES" vote) and whether Wisconsin should restore the death penalty (the Bishops urge a "NO" vote), Bp. Cupich's insights are relevant for us.
The bishop sets forth three conditions for the debate: 1) That people recognize that such debates "are inevitably moral questions formed by moral values," 2) that such debates involve a call to understand the concerns of those on both sides, and 3) that "there must be a commitment to dialogue that is civil, interactive and substantial."
The bishop makes clear that many debates over public policy involve value judgments. By their nature they involve discussions of right and wrong, social good or social ill, wisdom or folly in how we live. He makes clear that we cannot escape the responsibility to choose.
Nor can we skirt moral issues by citing a lack of consensus. He notes that the end of slavery and advances in economic justice and civil rights would not have occurred if a consensus was necessary before we moved forward.
Regarding the second condition for debate, Bp. Cupich observes that understanding the concerns expressed on both sides of a debate helps in forming more convincing arguments. Within the context of the abortion debate, experience has taught him "the Catholic position favoring the protection of human life is greatly enhanced when it is constantly articulated with a full and compassionate recognition of dilemmas that pregnant women often face ..."
A similar effort to understand our opponents can serve to enhance our position as we debate other issues with moral implications, whether in election campaigns or policy debates in legislative bodies. Not only does such understanding make us more persuasive, it helps us meet the third condition identified by Bp. Cupich, that of civil debate.
The bishop notes that our nation has been "greatly impoverished by the bitterness, superficiality and attack-orientation of our political debates and campaigns." He calls us to do better than that.
He urges instead a debate "in which both sides consistently commit themselves to honesty, compassion and insight." The bishop also asks that both sides "expect and acknowledge those same qualities in their opponents."
Bp. Cupich concludes his column with the hope that the dialogue in his state will "be characterized by civility and depth" and a recognition that "in public discourse moral passion must walk hand in hand with mutual respect."
Good advice for citizens in South Dakota. Good advice for citizens in Wisconsin.
(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)