ADAMS: Helping youth enter into civilized debate

September 8, 2020

Political debate has always been an important part of our democracy. We can all agree that political debate has turned into political hate with the old rules of decency and mutual respect for dialogue and opinion being thrown out over the past few years. Some blame the media, while others point out social media’s ability to proclaim instant false facts, accusations, and hateful rhetoric that can lead to distrust, division, and, in some cases, violence.

In 2007, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released the document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” and throughout the years, they have released periodical updates.

This teaching document provides guidance from the bishops to assist us in our political responsibility as Catholics to active participation in our government as citizens. This trend of people no longer discussing or debating issues with civility, empathy and respect for the human dignity of others who have opposing views has not gone unnoticed by the bishops. In this election year, they have made a commitment to launch a new campaign to assist Catholics and all people, with the ability to engage in debate in the public square with dignity and respect for one another. This new intuitive is called “Civilize It: Dignity Beyond the Debate.”

Civilize It focuses on the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10, with Jesus asking us, “Who is our Neighbor” and what it means to “love our neighbor.” The campaign provides us with information, activities and tips to help ourselves and our families have a meaningful discussion in our home, school and the public square. Discussions that include not just the issues but the inflammatory and hateful rhetoric that is resulting in social media, work, church and school regarding the election. As parents, young people look to you and your own behavior on how to react and respond in these situations. It is important to model civil behavior toward opposing opinions and enter into debates based on truth and not personal attacks against those with whom we may disagree. In the words of the document, “This means that we must treat everyone as worthy of being at the table, worthy of our respect, and worthy of being heard.” (Civilize It).

As Catholics, we have a long tradition and a mission to active participation in building God’s kingdom in our communities while respecting the dignity of the human person. In “Rejoice and Be Glad [Gaudete et Exsultate],” Pope Francis writes, “Your identification with Christ and His will involves a commitment to build with Him that kingdom of love, justice and universal peace... You cannot grow in holiness without committing yourself, body and soul, to giving your best to this endeavor.”

It is important to help our young people realize this and help them explore how their actions and response can make a difference in promoting dialogue based on compassion, understanding and respect for others.

The first step is prayer. Seek God’s guidance and counsel! I always rely on the Prayer of St. Francis in these instances and ask for Christ to make me a channel of His Peace.
The next step is to help your youth to seek the facts about all the issues. Knowledge can be one of the best tools for active and informative debate.

In this era of “fake news,” celebrities, Internet gossip, YouTube influencers, audio/video alterations and photoshopped images, it is important to check the facts from reliable sources before you engage in the debate. “An important ingredient to civil dialogue is commitment to the truth. While respecting the dignity of all, we acknowledge that not all viewpoints are equally valid.” By sitting down and discussing together, you can ensure that you and your young person know the facts.

As we near the election, here are five important tips/tools provided in Civilize It to assist parents and youth in engaging in civil dialogue.

These tools include:

1. Listen first and seek to understand the whole picture.
2. Ask questions for clarification.
3. Use ‘I’ statements; pay attention to body language.
4. Listen to what feelings are present and pay attention to how you respond.
5. Summarize what you’ve heard and ask for feedback.

Taking the time to engage in civil dialogue doesn’t mean that we leave the arena and stay silent. When we listen, check for understanding and clarify with the truth of our faith and teachings while respecting others’ rights and dignity. When we do this in the name of Jesus Christ, we help shape our families, communities, state and country.

For more information and resources go to

Randy Adams is the executive director at Camp Kappe and an associate director with the Office of Adolescent Catechesis and Evangelization.