Effort in Tompkins County promotes civilized discourse - Catholic Courier
People sit at tables and listen to a speaker during a workshop to bridge partisan divides.

A public workshop took place Oct. 20 at All Saints Parish in Lansing with the intention of bridging the partisan divide. (Photo courtesy of Christine Montague)

Effort in Tompkins County promotes civilized discourse

Christine Montague has often seen fellow members of Lansing’s All Saints Parish working side by side to stage spiritual and social events.

“We know we can get along,” she said.

That proven ability, she added, can ideally translate into peaceful dialogue when political viewpoints surface, especially as Election Day (Nov. 8) approaches. On the other hand, Montague asserted that tolerance for differing opinions regarding politics and other social issues is at a low ebb in present-day American culture. For instance, she noted that “I don’t put bumper stickers on my car anymore” for fear of vandalism.

Montague is striving to do her part to tone down the vitriol. She’s cochair for Braver Angels of Tompkins County, a national movement founded in 2016 that endeavors to bridge the partisan divide. The local group led a public workshop, “How to Civilize It: Skills for Bridging the Divide,” Oct. 20 at All Saints. It was co-organized by Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga.

Braver Angels teaches people skills so they can engage in peaceful dialogue

Montague noted that Braver Angels strives to employ techniques often used in marriage counseling, so that people can engage in civil dialogue with others who hold different ideas and beliefs. For instance, she said it’s important to emphasize any common ground and to refrain from stereotyping or jumping to conclusions.

“What we’re trying to do is teach people how to have the skills to be respectful, listen, ask questions, and try to understand what someone’s background is and why they might have come to their point of view,” Montague explained.

Montague serves as Braver Angels cochair along with Tompkins County Legislator Mike Sigler. She said she felt compelled to establish a local movement in the wake of heated local reactions to the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, an African-American who died from excessive police force while being arrested in Minneapolis; and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald J. Trump in an effort to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joseph Biden.

“I just thought we needed to cool the dialogue,” Montague said.

Laurie Konwinski, justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga, said she was pleased to learn about Braver Angels, since it meshes with a current educational priority of the Diocesan Public Policy Committee — of which she is a member — promoting civilized discourse.

Konwinski noted that the committee seeks to promote the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Civilize It” initiative, which in turn is based upon Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” (“All Brothers”). In the document, the pope implores fellow Catholics to counter polarization and division in our society and church, using the good Samaritan as an example of how we can become “neighbors to all” (No. 80).

Pope Francis expresses concerns in his 2020 ‘Fratelli Tutti’ encyclical

However, the pontiff’s encyclical also states that in today’s world, “Dialogue is often confused with something quite different: the feverish exchange of opinions on social networks, frequently based on media information that is not always reliable” (No. 200). This tendency, he writes, “lets everyone cling stubbornly to his or her own ideas, interests and choices, with the excuse that everyone else is wrong. It becomes easier to discredit and insult opponents from the outset than to open a respectful dialogue aimed at achieving agreement on a deeper level” (No. 201).

The pope instead calls for “authentic social dialogue” that “involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns” (No. 203).

“We need to be able to have some skills, engaging with each other when we disagree and not going into our own corners,” Konwinski agreed.

Konwinski noted that Catholic Church teaching calls us to take part in political life, “but to engage in it in a way that reflects the Gospels” in seeking common ground and the common good. She added that the church can serve as a model for all of society along these lines.

“What better place than among people who do hold common values, who worship together, who serve their community side by side?” Konwinski remarked. “But we have to want it. If we can just get more people to come to their senses, and recognize the damage we’re doing to each other.”

Tags: Catholic Charities, Election News, Tompkins County News
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