- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2021

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wants the nation’s 70 million Roman Catholics to “lower the temperature” when the subject of politics comes up at church and elsewhere, said the head of the new “Civilize It: A Better Kind of Politics” initiative.

Speaking to The Washington Times on Friday, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, chairman of the group’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said the past five years in the U.S. and around the world have demonstrated a need to change the manner of political discourse.

“I think it would be no surprise to anyone to realize that the tone of dialogue or the tone of the conversation has gotten a bit heated,” Archbishop Coakley, leader of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said. “This is very much behind what is motivating the bishops to adopt this ‘Civilize It’ initiative to remind us that we need to always be respectful of one another.”

The bishops’ group said the campaign is based on a 2020 encyclical, or teaching document, issued by Pope Francis called “Fratelli tutti,” which the pontiff released at the height of the global COVID-19 pandemic, with an aim in part toward “a better kind of politics, one truly at the service of the common good.”

The effort, based online at CivilizeIt.org, seeks to offer “a better kind of politics” through a pledge of charity, clarity and creativity.

Archbishop Coakley explained the reasoning behind the program.

“We’ve just been through a very, very divisive election cycle,” Archbishop Coakley said. “In the aftermath of that election, I think the divisions haven’t gone away. It’s very clear the tone of the political rhetoric and the way it’s portrayed in the media, especially social media is very harsh and disrespectful.”

He said the Catholic Church was not isolated from the hostility engendered by the controversies of recent years.

“We live in this world and in this society,” Archbishop Coakley said. “And in the conversations that we might have among ourselves, we don’t share all of the same opinions on many key matters,” he added.

“We ourselves need to lead the way, in modeling a kind of respectful conversation and dialogue with one another and the way we agree to disagree sometimes, but always, first by listening rather than reacting,” the archbishop said.

Noting that the gospel of Jesus Christ “is always going to be countercultural,” Archbishop Coakley said there was no requirement for Catholics to align with either major party — or to be conservatives or liberals — in order to be “good” members of the faith, asserting that neither Republicans nor Democrats “can define us or our agenda.”

“Our faith and its teachings defy political categorization,” he noted. “On some issues, we Catholics might be considered on the progressive side of things when it comes to immigration or capital punishment. But on other issues, particularly about life issues, or about marriage, or gender or those sorts of things, we might align more with some who are on the conservative side.”

The cleric said there was no actual conflict between the goals of the “Civilize It” campaign and the USCCB’s June 168-55 vote to draft a document outlining the American church’s position on the Eucharist. Initially, reports indicated the bishops wanted to include guidelines on when a Catholic politician could be refused the Sacrament, such as when they advocate for abortion rights. Such a restriction, if enacted, would likely hit President Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, among others.

Without specifying any one political figure, Archbishop Coakley suggested all Catholics, in one manner or another, can find themselves unaligned with church doctrine.

“We as priests, as bishops, all hear confessions,” he said. “We all sin, but when somebody sins in a very public way, then I think there needs to be a dialogue between the local pastor, generally the bishop, and that person if it’s a public official or public person.”

Archbishop Coakley said a Sept. 8 statement by District Archbishop Cardinal Wilton Gregory — who said the president was “not demonstrating Catholic teaching” on abortion — was not in opposition to the effort at tempering political discussions.

“I think sometimes we have to tell the truth,” Archbishop Coakley said of Cardinal Gregory’s statement. “I don’t see that as necessarily being in conflict with what we’re trying to do.”

He said further discussion on the topic would have to be between Mr. Biden “and his local pastors, whether it be his local parish priest or the local Archbishop.” He added that those private discussions “generally will not find their way into the news.”

Cardinal Gregory is on record as saying Mr. Biden is welcome to present himself for the Eucharist in the Washington, D.C., Archdiocese.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.