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Best of 2021: Making space for conversation



Anyone interested in the United States Catholic world will have noticed the sharp differences of opinion among Catholics and Catholic publications about many areas of church and national life. Some commentators claim that it amounts to a schism. In Australia there is similar polarisation, but no talk of schism — Australians don’t do disaster movies. In both nations the exchanges within churches echo trends in national life that heighten disagreements, lessen respect, and tend to confine conversation circles to people of similar views. People become annoyed if those opposing their views gatecrash their forums. This trend creates problems for Church sponsored publications.

Main image: Steeple of church (Akira Hojo/Unsplash)

Participants in Catholic conversations often accuse their opponents of politicising faith. Sometimes the charge is true. It is easy to seek support for political allegiance by appealing to faith. One blatant example was of Donald Trump conspicuously holding a Bible when photographed outside a Washington church. Such practices, of course, are not confined to one side of politics.

In contemporary public conversation, however, something more than politicisation is involved. It has three characteristics. First, it is partisan. It represents a particular kind of politics in which opinions are stated and positions framed in opposition to one’s enemies. Participants are less concerned to commend their own beliefs than to discredit those of their opponents. They appeal to listeners to barrack for their opinions, not to reflect on them. In such a world to be undecided is a sign of weakness.

Second, much contemporary public conversation is programmatic. Participants come to it with a package of convictions that are seen to belong together. As a result when observers see one position taken they can be reasonably certain of a range of other views that will be held. If speakers are enthusiastic about Pope Francis, for example, we conclude that they are also likely to see climate change as a religious issue and to be unfazed about the legalisation of same sex marriage. The corollary of this expectation that if someone is unpredictable, as for example, by strongly endorsing both the Black Lives Matter and the Right to Life movements, listeners will be puzzled or even feel a sense of betrayal.

Third, as a consequence of its partisan and programmatic character, public conversation is characteristically simplified. It focuses on only a few of the multitude of complex relationships that are involved in any human affair. Freedom of speech is defined narrowly as the right of individual speakers to speak, omitting the relationships created by speech with other persons and the groups and society from which they are part. Issues are reduced to simple sets of relationships that determine them, with the complexity of human relationships lost sight of. In any serious conversation within society these subtle and diverse relationships bear respectful conversation. When conversation is narrowed, the space for understanding is also narrowed.

This narrowing has made it difficult for any publication sponsored by a faith-based organisation to sustain conversation that encourages public reflection on all salient relationships involved in public issues. On the one hand it must move outside the specific language and conceptuality of the tribe to engage its participants in a public language. On the other hand it must work from the moral centre that lies at the heart of its faith tradition.

In the Catholic tradition, that centre is the claim that each human being has an inalienable dignity that forbids anyone to be treated as a means to other goals, whether of profit, security or unity. Furthermore no human being is an isolated individual, but each must be seen in relationship to other people and to the larger world. As a consequence, every human action, whether by individuals, by social groups or by governments has a social license.


'It is about exploring the myriad of relationships that are interlocked in any of the ethical decisions that we face as human beings. This means that no subject can be taken off the table.'


The difficulty facing Catholic sponsored magazines in the public conversation arises from the fact that some conclusions Catholics have drawn from the dignity of each human being are widely seen as incompatible with one another. The inalienable dignity of each human being underlies not only the received Catholic accounts of inequality, respect for the environment, warfare, slavery and racial discrimination. It also underlies the accounts of gender relationships, abortion and euthanasia. In public conversation these are seen to belong to different and opposed packages.

The challenge that this polarisation poses lies in the pressure that its exerts on magazines to yield to a programmatic, oversimplified and partisan understanding of conversation. Under the pressure of readers who, in the name of the magazine’s moral centre, expect the magazines to endorse their raft of positions and to condemn that of their opponents, they will be tempted to exclude arguments favouring one side in contested issues, or to leave the issues untouched on the grounds that the conflicting opinions are too firmly locked in.

That is understandable in a magazine directed to a church audience. But it would be regrettable in a magazine that hopes to encourage broad and civil public conversation. Its task is to commend the human values enshrined in its moral centre while challenging narrow human judgments. It is about exploring the myriad of relationships that are interlocked in any of the ethical decisions that we face as human beings. This means that no subject can be taken off the table. It also means recognising that people who come to contradictory conclusions can help one another to come to a deeper understanding of the rich complexity of the world. The acknowledgment of the dignity of each human being demands no less.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Steeple of church (Akira Hojo/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, A Secret Australia, freedom of speech



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Existing comments

"This means that no subject can be taken off the table"...
Humility is the key but will we bend our knee.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it”

So, narrow is His is Way. –Literally, pressed, or hemmed in between walls or rocks, like the pathway in a mountain gorge as in The Inviolate Word (Will) of God “Not One Iota”
So, His ‘Way’ “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”
So yes, humility is the key, for it takes an honest heart to truly see the full fallen reality of oneself as in “One Iota” before Him, for if we do so it will induce humility (St Bernard, Humility; a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself)
We find self-knowledge (Reality of ourselves) as we reflect in faith on the living Word/Will of God within the Gospels while The Holy Spirit prompts/enlightens our understand of our own brokenness which leads to humility as a humble heart is His known dwelling place.

‘When we look at ourselves it is often a mirror image that greets us, a light reflection on the bathroom wall, a quick recognition of form whilst the true me remains hidden’

Our Lord Himself in this present time has given His Church a true spiritual mirror (The True Divine Mercy Image that is one of Broken Man) to look into from where we can see the reality of our fallen self and if we are honest, it will induce us to embrace humility, the forerunner to the commencement of the ‘mystical’ Way (spiritual life) accompanied by the Holy Spirit.
“The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In past times a Quickening (The first known movement of the fetus within the uterus) was an acceptance of a new life (Creation). Those born anew of the Holy Spirit do not fully understand the time and place (Whereof) of that birth as initially He enlightens our minds with the ‘sound’ of His living Word given within the Gospels (True knowledge God) while quickening/moving our hearts into obedient, truthful tender compassionate ones as we are gradually been transformed into a New Creation.#
So, in humility venerate the true divine mercy Image a reflection of ourselves before God mankind and each other, then from this base one of humility the church can open her doors wide to embrace suffering humanity which includes all those Catholics who are entangled in sinful situations and cannot receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation the means to partake of His table dressed in wedding bonding garment of humility and grow spiritually.
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kevin your brother
In Christ

Kevin Walters | 31 December 2021  

I remember like it was yesterday (The year was 1966) the Senior Lecturer giving us Political Science students the following advice. Leave your moral baggage outside in the corridor. International Relations is not concerned with Ethics. Ethics is a subject in the Philosophy Department. So too is Political Philosophy, as its name indicates. Political Scientists deal with the real world of what happens between nation-states. We have empirical rather than normative interests. We endeavour to describe things as they are, rather than how people think they ought to be. We describe what happens between nation-states as a plethoric multiplicity of interacting variables. There's enough material to keep you enthralled for the next nine months. He was right.
I was reminded of this introduction to Realpolitik when I read Andrew's words "It's about exploring the myriad of relationships that are interlocked in any of the ethical decisions that we face as human beings."
I regret to say that in this 21st century world of 24/7 news coverage a Trumpian Tweet of 140 characters has more destructive impact than any good a Papal Encyclical on caring for the planet might achieve.
What's a magazine directed at a chuch audience to do?

Joseph Quigley | 04 January 2022  
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Great Post, Joseph! Following your advice, I humbly suggest that one thing Kevin could do is to cut out the piety and then people would read him.

Michael Furtado | 09 January 2022  

This brings to mind an apocryphal story (as in made up five minutes ago) about the fellow at the front of the synagogue who oh so humbly thanked God his posts were not as pious as those of the publican, for some reason called Kevin, at the back of the hall beating his breast and saying he was not humble enough. That is, posts that always seem to attach a pious ‘+’ before ‘Francis’ or ‘Picachy’ or ‘Coleridge’ even though we all know who they are.

By the way, now that we're no longer in December (XII) but in January, do we cite the date of a post as (day/I) or will ( day/1) do to keep things, if not less pious, at least less florid?

roy chen yee | 14 January 2022  

Even for reasons of standard abbreviation, Roy; or do your stern remarks extend, yet again, to repeating the false allegations I have earlier shown them to be?

If you don't accept them, surely its better to say that, so we can move on rather than fret over irresolvable difference?

And as for ormulu stylisation, far from constituting a quibble as well as a paradox - products of both our identities, I suspect, as well as peripheral to explanations that are ignored - for one so resolutely heterosexual, what about a straight answer?

Could it be invoked from the Holy Spirit that your repeated resort to the firing of very ancient cracked cannons (canons?) triggers, at long last, a change of strategy for the year ahead?

And for my part, I promise to cut out the purple prose if you desist from pouring the results of your apoplexy all over this page.

'Pipe of peacey', Roy, or, having played dirty once again by smacking me on the gob, 'piece of pipey'? ;)

Michael Furtado | 10 February 2022  

Might the editors of magazines that reflect different constituencies get together and agree not to be echo chambers, and lead by example, editorialising in a way that models best practice in dialogue? This might require editors spending quite a lot of time talking to one another before they begin to infuse their publications with the fruit of their mutually respectful scrutiny of their own and others' programs.

Paul Smith | 04 January 2022  

You start the ES year off with a rallying cry for tolerance that leaves me appropriately humbled, both by the challenge it constitutes to support the conversations you endorse but also by the awareness it engenders in me of the stridency with which I have often participated. Thank You, Andy, not only for not excluding anyone or any topic of discussion, but for also reminding me that, for such conversations to be sustained, and as our shared Catholic impulse commands, I must always place the other person and their dignity, whether instinctively opposed to my view or not, above my own. A Grateful, Humble & Happy New Year to You and ES!

Michael Furtado | 04 January 2022  

Just one quick example of the hypocrisy surrounding free speech. The mainstream media continuously refer to the 'climate change debate'. Well I witnessed my first debate at high school, when 14 years of age. It was conducted according to the rules of debate. Equal time for both sides, no personal insults, and 'facts' referenced when challenged. As a result it was fair to the contrary points of view. So I know that there is no debate, via the media, about climate.
It is so one-sided it almost amounts to indoctrination.

Malcolm Harris | 04 January 2022  
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Well; yes and no, Malcolm. It depends, not just on politeness and respect for the rules of debating but on a variety of other factors, unless what you are saying is that your mind is fixed on this question and that you don't want it to be open to persuasion.

Could it then be that some of the most un/disturbed minds on this hotly-contested matter have shut down and are impervious to being changed by the evidence?

Might it alternatively (or additionally) be that those with a fixed mindset have lessened exposure to the range to views ordinarily unavailable to others?

Could it further be that they have other priorities and do not wish to be additionally troubled or burdened (which is understandable)?

And might they have attended the kind of school (in Andy's mind hardly a Jesuit one ;) in which the only tools of exposure were attainable through a willingness and capacity to debate: in other words, an education in which the skills of critical thinking were not taught, let alone practiced?

Finally, while Andy is assiduously clear about the role that respect plays in debate, the debating forum itself promotes a 'winner-takes-all' result over a problem-solving one.

Michael Furtado | 20 February 2022  

‘….publication sponsored by a faith-based organisation….must move outside the specific language and conceptuality of the tribe….must work from the moral centre that lies at the heart of its faith tradition.’

The small matter of not knowing what the moral centre of the faith-based organisation is when its international leader does not believe in the canonical existence of the Devil can be fixed by a statement that main articles are not necessarily nihil obstat, that the ‘letters page’ are for contributors of any or no religious persuasion to test each other’s ideas on bases that may not be founded on Scripture and Tradition, and that it is up to each reader to seek his or her own advice as to whether anything s/he has read in the journal conforms to Catholic teaching.

The upside is that public issues raised by the main articles are generally, of the traditional four sin-sectors which cry to Heaven for vengeance, those where the reasoning on how to deal with the evils is prudential, as opposed to where, the evils having been defined as intrinsic, the prohibitive response is simply, if the infallibility of the Holy Spirit is taken seriously, merely a matter of course.

roy chen yee | 14 January 2022  
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It depends on what kind of faith, Roy.

If a doomsayer comes to this well-schooled in sacrificial atonement, no amount of metanoic spiritual counsel will beat the attraction of the bitter pill on offer. Sin and guilt, showed Steinbeck, easily overpower metanoia. ('Grapes of Wrath', 1939).

If, indeed, the pill is dispensed by an evangelist so zealous and guilt-inducing as to demonstrate the fairground flair of a faith-healer, self-hatred will kick in in expectation of punishment and metanoia will dissipate.

While rejecting the empty allure of the June Dally-Watkins Charm School of Evangelisation that some charismatic pentacostals have on offer, pastoral theology shows the vulnerable will willingly submit to the threat of pain and suffering as the route to redemption. This path is familiar to Satan.

Incessant reminders of guilt send off the precise signals likely to appeal to the vulnerabilities of those already disheartened enough to see no hope except in expiation: such was the guilt-inducing artistry of that diabolically gifted artiste extraordinaire, Hieronymus Bosch.

That kind of self-hatred places Satan at a huge market advantage over a loving Christ by offering no hope for a future of Love and Justice. Scratch THAT Christian and out pops Satan, undisguised!

Michael Furtado | 20 February 2022  

Andrew has spotlighted the high wire balancing act which engages a faith based publication that eschews the safety of narrowed conversations in favour of engagements which accept discussion which will often ' move outside the specific language and conceptuality of the tribe.'

However, taking this option is doing today what Christians have done since Paul walked into the Aeropagas - Paul found a starting point congenial to the Athenians to begin to explain his message. No less a tome than the pages of Denzinger testify to two millenia of attempts to espouse and explicate central and sometimes peripheral elements of the Christian narrative - in language and concepts appropriate to the times.

Bill Burke | 23 January 2022  

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