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Cathleen Kaveny and Jon Stewart Prove that Civil Debate is Possible

March 6, 2012

Awhile back, I read a collection of essays called “Intractable Disputes About the Natural Law: Alasdair MacIntyre and Critics,” which really is much more interesting and compelling than the title lets on. The essays were written in response to a request by then Cardinal Ratzinger that the University of Notre Dame, along with two other Catholic universities, hold symposia to address the difficulty of finding common moral ground in contemporary society.

I was reminded of the Intractable Disputes collection when Cathleen Kaveny, a Notre Dame professor of theology and law who contributed an essay, appeared on the Daily Show last week to discuss the HHS ruling. Early in the interview, Kaveny brings up natural law, pointing out that Catholics can no longer rely on appeals to moral consensus, but must find a way to stay true to our commitments while respecting the commitments of others. Kaveny also addresses an issue that is the subject of her essay in Intractable Disputes (“Prophetic Rhetoric and Moral Disagreement”): namely, the role rhetorical choices play in either fostering civil debate, on the one hand, or poisoning it, on the other. According to Kaveny, the Catholic Church in America has appropriated Protestant modes of discourse — particularly the “jeremiad” — to its detriment.

Here is what she says in her essay about the jeremiad:

Named in honor of the prophet Jeremiah, whose passion it both imitates and channels, the jeremiad is defined . . . as a “lament over the ways of the world. It decried the sins of ‘the people’ – a community, a nation, a civilization, mankind in general – and warned of God’s wrath to follow” (135).

The jeremiad apparently has its roots in Puritanism but over time became a common feature of political rhetoric, both secular and religious, as well.

Just as Catholics have framed their case against the HHS ruling in libertarian terms alien to Catholic tradition, so too have we borrowed from the Protestant tradition in denouncing the HHS ruling and, more generally, the “culture of death.” To be clear, the language about the “culture of death” and “culture of life” comes from John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae and is quintessentially Catholic. What is not quintessentially Catholic is its current manner of presentation. Kaveny explains that

. . . the dominant tone of the “culture of life” / “culture of death” language in the American political context owes more to this country’s strong tradition of Protestant prophetic political rhetoric than it does to Evangelium Vitae. More specifically, the focus on a few sharply defined practices (abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research), the tendency to reduce the moral significance of these issues to securing legal prohibitions against the practices they define, and the tendency to divide the “righteous” and the “wicked” into clearly defined and opposing camps reflect the way in which prophetic indictments frequently operate in American political discourse (137).

Kaveny characterizes this type of rhetoric that is occasionally necessary, but often corrosive, since it leaves no room the give-and-take characteristic of civil discussion. So when is the jeremiad appropriate? Kaveny provides a list of criteria, the last item of which seems particularly salient:

. . . would-be prophets need to consider whether the deployment of prophetic indictments is likely to be successful. Given the particular people involved in the conversation, are the prophetic indictments likely to touch the minds and hearts of their opponents, or merely to harden their opposition? Is hardened opposition likely to preclude all possibility of gradual growth, and to darken a dawning recognition of moral truth (145-146)?

Obviously, the initially ruling was a serious threat to religious liberty and needed to be firmly opposed. At this point, however, I think, Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek essay is starting to ring true: religious conservatives — Archbishop Nolan and Fr. Barron come to mind — are harming their own cause by overshooting the mark with apocalyptic rhetoric. (Fr. Barron, generally known for his moderation and tact, went so far as to use the term “totalitarian left.”) Far better to stand by the Church and its right to abide by its teachings, but to do so in a civil, respectful, cordial manner that earns the respect of those who may not agree. In this respect, I think Kaveny’s appearance on the Daily Show was exemplary.

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