In response to my posting about civility , Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, has sent this response:

In a diatribe riddled with false claims and smug mischaracterizations, Robert T. Miller’s recent blog post attacking Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good exemplifies an ugly style of argument at odds with a journal that prides itself on intellectual fairness.

A professor of law, Mr. Miller sets aside judicious analysis to show his outright contempt for Catholics who insist—as our own Church does—that unjust war, torture and poverty are moral scandals. Challenging our president on these issues apparently shows our “ideological drift” and “far-left” agenda. By these measures, the positions of Catholic bishops and centuries of Catholic social teaching are also suspect.

The priests, religious sisters, theologians and lay Catholics from around the country that comprise Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good work to build a culture where immigrants are treated with justice, the voices of the poor are not forgotten in Washington, and peacemakers are heard in a world shattered by war. These men and women deserve our respect, not mockery or trite labels.

Mr. Miller takes particular delight in maligning a statement released last fall by prominent lay Catholics —including eleven former ambassadors and former chairmen of the Republican and Democratic National Committees—that called for greater civility in public life. Thomas P. Melady, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, and Timothy J. May, a trustee emeritus with the Catholic University of America, worked together as Catholics from different political persuasions to launch this effort. Like most Americans, those of us who signed their statement are tired of a toxic political environment that the U.S. Catholic bishops recently described as “a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype.” After decades of mean-spirited quagmire in Washington, the signers believe that open and civil discourse desperately needs to be restored for government to function and for fundamental policy needs to be addressed.

To read this civility statement as an effort to get Catholics to “shut up” about abortion is absurd. As Catholics, we believe in the sanctity of human life. The inviolable dignity of the human person is the foundation for justice. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good takes a back seat to no one in our opposition to abortion and in our support for building a culture that values life in all stages. The U.S bishops have now twice explained—in Catholics in Political Life (2004) and most recently in Faithful Citizenship (2007)—that our sacraments are blessed signs of God’s life among us to be canonically administered (including 915) with pastoral care and love. To involve the sacraments in electoral politics is shameful.

Mr. Miller mocks Catholics who call for civility as sensitive types not tough enough to take an intellectual punch. This is condescending. We welcome the challenge from those who are eager for a robust debate about the common good. These are serious matters that deserve thoughtful and mature reflection. How we as Catholics should conduct ourselves in the public square during these times of grave moral and political challenge is a profound question. Our bishops, in Faithful Citizenship, have responded with welcome courage. So, too, have the signers of the Call for Civility. Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good endorse both. We encourage the editors of First Things to a take up these questions with respect, seriousness, and—yes—civility.

Reading Ms. Kelley’s letter, you may have forgotten what this dispute is actually about, so I’ll remind you. Last year CACG issued a statement that said in effect that pro-life Catholics are engaged in uncivil discourse when they question whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be denied communion. In responding to this statement, I first pointed out that CACG is a leftwing organization that generally agrees with pro-choice Catholics like John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi, including with respect to their opposition to outlawing abortion, and I then argued that, although CACG’s statement purports to be about civility, its true purpose is to disable some very effective criticism of politicians friendly to its cause by branding such criticism “uncivil.”

I was thus making a kind of argument we often hear in the public square: I was showing that someone had an ulterior motive for taking a certain position. Such arguments are clearly legitimate, for information about the possible ulterior motives of a speaker in the public square is obviously relevant to people who are listening to the speaker’s arguments and trying to evaluate them.

This was the context in which Ms. Kelley responded to my blog. If she was to say anything responsive to my argument, she would have to argue either that, in fact, CACG does not have the ulterior motive I attributed to it, or else that, even if it does have such a motive, its position is nonetheless correct on the merits. In fact, she does neither.

As to the first, Ms. Kelley does not dispute the key point that CACG does not seek to outlaw abortion. Its position is thus almost certainly inconsistent with Catholic doctrine as set forth in no. 2273 of the Catechism and is largely indistinguishable from the position set forth in the Democratic Party’s platform that abortion be safe, legal, and rare .

Such a coincidence of views between CACG and the Democratic Party is not surprising given that, before she founded the CACG, Ms. Kelley was the Director of Religious Outreach for the Democratic National Committee—a fact she omits to state in her biography on the CACG site . Ms. Kelley says that CACG “takes a backseat to no one in [its] opposition to abortion,” but the reality is that CACG is sitting in the back of the pro-life bus, right next to Hillary Clinton.

As to showing that questioning a politician’s fitness to receive communion is indeed a breach of civility, Ms. Kelley says nothing at all except that “to involve the sacraments in electoral politics is shameful.” This, however, is not always true. For, suppose a Catholic like John Kerry is running for president, and it turns out that because of his public views or actions related to abortion, he ought to be denied communion under Canon 915. Then, as Cardinal Ratzinger explained to Cardinal McCarrick, this is a matter not of the individual’s subjective guilt but of his public unworthiness to receive communion. The matter is thus one of public concern within the Church, and Canon 211 provides that Catholics have a right, and sometimes even a duty, to manifest to their pastors their views on matters that concern the good of the Church. Exercising this right is not a breach of civility, and it is certainly not shameful.

So, apparently because she has no genuinely responsive answer to make, Ms. Kelley provides us instead with an excellent example of how not to argue in the public square. For, most of what she says has two salient characteristics: It is irrelevant to the point under discussion, and it sentimentalizes issues of policy.

Usually, these two characteristics work in conjunction. For instance, we’re told that members of CACG are noble sorts, that they’re priests and religious and lay people from around the country, and that they care about immigrants and the poor. All of this may well be true, but it’s not remotely relevant to the issue at hand. It does, however, form the basis for a sentimental appeal— We’re nice people. Agree with us, not that nasty old law professor! Or again, we’re told that the organizers of the statement on civility care about the quality of our public discourse, that they have the finest intentions, and that they have spent their lives in public service. Again, this is not remotely relevant, but it does form the basis of another sentimental appeal— We’re good people trying to do good. Disagreeing with us is just plain MEAN!

I could go on like this, but you get the idea. I have just one final thought. Ms. Kelley says that I’m condescending towards CACG because I said that it can’t take an intellectual punch. I’m sorry, Ms. Kelley, but with a response like this, you’ve proved my point better than I could ever have done on my own. Rather than answering my arguments, you just complain that I’m a mean guy—a sure sign that you have nothing of substance to say on the issue. Thanks for the assist.

Articles by Robert T. Miller

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