Civility and the presidential race


Barb Arland-Fye, Editor
We’re entering the final three months of the presidential race, a perfect point at which to take a time-out. The need for civility and respectful dialogue about


issues couldn’t be greater. We’ve also got to call for a moratorium on mindless slamming of candidates. The mud-slinging obscures any sort of vision for our country and, more importantly, for the least among us who struggle mightily. We’re seeing a void in virtuous behavior that facilitates healthy dialogue. Where is the humility, the wisdom, the time to reflect on anything? Where is the practice of mercy being shown in the public square in this Year of Mercy?
Guidance is on the way. Early August marks the official launch of the Iowa Catholic Conference’s (ICC) quadrennial Faithful Citizenship for Iowa Catholics, a project that aims to “help parishioners learn and take to heart the moral and social teachings of the church.” The ICC is the public policy voice of the bishops of Iowa and is quite certain that the faithful have already begun the decision-making process. Look for the Faithful Citizenship flier in your parishes in the coming weeks and take time to read it. The insights are invaluable and the document provides a link to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (, which expands on the material presented in the Iowa document.
One aspect that Faithful Citizenship addresses is civility in the public square. If you’ve watched campaign coverage, you’ve seen examples of what civility is not: aides bullying opposing spectators, candidates calling each other names and disparaging family members, and everyone distorting their opponents’ viewpoints. “Party and candidate talking points are often mere sound bites designed to excite the ‘base’ and drive people to one side of an issue,” the ICC Faithful Citizenship document notes.
“Both parties would be better off from this point on going totally positive,” suggests Dan Ebener, who teaches leadership classes at St. Ambrose University. “Why do we need to hear three more months of all the reasons why we should dislike Hillary and Donald? Which candidate is going to be daring enough, courageous enough, to go positive first? That would be taking a risk. All the marketing people would say you’re more likely to win the election if you pound your opponent. Which candidate is going to stop honing in on their opponent’s weaknesses and tell us in a positive way what they’re going to do?”
We can help the candidates by expressing our positions on issues based on principles of Catholic social teaching: dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, solidarity, freedom, participation, the common good, and care for the poor and most vulnerable among us. Those principles are described on the U.S. bishops’ website. At the same time, we ought to examine our biases and recognize our tendency to seek overnight solutions to challenges. What does it mean to be part of a civil society? How do we build a trust relationship?
Suggested ground rules for civil dialogue from the USCCB offer a good start (
1. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak.
2. Share your personal experience, not someone else’s.
3. Listen carefully and respectfully. Speak carefully and respectfully. Do not play the role of know-it-all, convincer or corrector. Remember that a dialogue is not a debate.
4. Don’t interrupt unless for clarification or time keeping.
5. Accept that no group or viewpoint has a complete monopoly on the truth.
6. “Be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than condemn it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2478, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola).
7. Be cautious about assigning motives to another person.
The lack of civility in the public square means that the voices of informed Catholics are needed more than ever. How we express our voices is worth taking a time-out to reflect on.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor

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1 thought on “Civility and the presidential race

  1. I agree with my old racket ball buddy, Dan Ebener – why indeed do we need to listen to more negative reinforcement? This year has been like no other I’ve seen. Civil discourse has never been more needed. I don’t know if the anonymity of social media has any role, but we could all stand to listen carefully and respectfully and to think before responding.

    Visceral responses are the norm today, especially in the Twitter world it seems. I live in Texas now and have sometimes believed that the rough, bare knuckles brand of Texas politics was to blame, but it’s gone national and it’s sad, especially in my home state of Iowa. I always believed that Midwesterners, following their better instincts, possessed a proclivity toward civil discourse. Perhaps Iowans can lead the country back to sanity again.

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