Olympia Snowe, explaining her decision last month to retire from the Senate, cited political “polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies” as prominent reasons for her departure. After 33 years in Washington, Snowe, a Republican from Maine, found herself one of the few moderates left in Congress. Her laudable pragmatic streak had been frustrated far too often by the hyper-partisanship that glows white hot these days, from the halls of Congress to church life.
Something inside me envies Senator Snowe. Her retirement affords her an honorable exit strategy to escape an overheated situation. The Catholic community in the United States enjoys no such luxury. The controversy stemming from new regulations that mandate contraception coverage for employees even of religiously affiliated institutions appears bottomless. You need not have scrolled through blogs, trolled Web sites and digested media coverage as much as I have in recent weeks to know the bitter landscape. Tempers have flared and angry words have been exchanged, targeted at those with variant opinions, questioning their good will, their prudence, even their intelligence.
I have no novel opinion or particular expertise to share on the divisive topic of whether Catholic institutions should accept the Obama administration’s compromise on conscience clause provisions. I wish simply to relate my fear that we as a religious community are choosing to walk the wrong path. I am addressing not the outcome of the policy debate, but the regrettable style of our recent engagement of this issue.
One option would be to keep ratcheting up the inflammatory rhetoric. Portray those with divergent opinions as insolent enemies who must be defeated in a pitched battle. Take no prisoners; make no concessions. We were on this path already before Rush Limbaugh used his broadcast on Feb. 29 to attack Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student and vocal supporter of broader contraception coverage, in the most scurrilous of ways. By then, the echo chamber of vituperation was in full operation. Bloviating media pundits are the most obvious offenders, but my unscientific sampling of Web posts reveals lamentable excess coming from all points of the political compass and all segments of the Catholic community.
A superior option would be to trade the culture warrior agenda for one of diplomacy. Turn away from invectives, jeremiads, hyperbole and hurtful name-calling. De-escalate the overblown rhetoric that paints opponents with the brush of idiocy, poor judgment or willful deception. Exercise the kind of magnanimity that refuses to demonize anyone. Invite others into civil conversations that emphasize mutual respect and a willingness to listen, even when that proves uncomfortable.
Why is the path of civility and fair-minded patience better? Why is it imperative that we tone down the harsh rhetoric? Because members of our religious community who might seem like fierce opponents today are going to be with us long after the flame of today’s controversy eventually settles down. Whatever policy outcomes unfold this year or next or further down the line, those of us lucky enough to be given a longer span of life by our Creator will find ourselves sharing the Eucharist (and much else) with thousands of those with whom we are not currently seeing eye to eye. Should our future sharing of the bread of salvation be compromised by our current failure to share a modicum of civility? Let us not give such power to present disagreements that it will be impossible to forge a decent modus vivendi afterward.
This advice may strike some as indulging in an overly milquetoast approach to important issues that resist compromise. There are many matters of conscience for which a hard struggle is justified. But to advocate civility in discourse is not to urge capitulation.
Regrettably, election years like this one have usually shed more heat than light on complex church-state issues. The 2012 campaign trail is proving once again to be a crucible of inflammatory rhetoric and repeated appeals to our fears about religion in public life, not of nuanced analysis. When religion becomes a wedge issue, we have all lost. Maybe Senator Snow was wise to look for the nearest exit. I hope that Catholics still have a chance to cool down the rhetoric.