Louisville, Ky. — “Religious freedom is not simply freedom of thought or private worship. It is the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly.”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops quoted Pope Francis from earlier this month in reacting to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision this week. On Saturday, in Louisville for the National Right to Life convention, I visited him at his home in the rectory of Assumption Cathedral there. We spoke for about a half hour about religious freedom, the Church in America, Pope Francis, the family, and, of course, the Christian life — and what he considers life’s greatest adventure. We began talking about social media and specifically Twitter, which he uses frequently to share his travels around his archdiocese, the country, and even the world, believing that tweeting and retweeting (which he also does) are good ways of “multiplying” the message of the Good News of Christ. — KJLKATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ:
I think Twitter can be a great way to show the body of the Church — each of us in our different roles . . .
ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH E. KURTZ: I do, too. As I mentioned in the talk I gave to the Catholic Press [the previous week in Charlotte, North Carolina], the challenge really is finding ways to move from diatribe to dialogue. The digital media — I still call it a frontier, and maybe other people will say “Well, my gosh, we’ve been using it for a long time,” but I almost have a sense that we’re still at the very early stages of knowing how to use it well. And I compare it with, as I said in my talk, the satisfaction and the fruitful input that I get when I sit down with people. And yet, I don’t seem to have yet that ability in the digital frontier to be able to go out there and get that kind of feedback. I know it will come, and I know that there will be creative ways for that to happen.
LOPEZ: What kind of feedback do you get from what you put online?
ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Well, it’s actually very positive feedback, but I wouldn’t call it a dialogue. In fact, I guess there’s a fearfulness on my part that if 50 people start a dialogue with me, then how in the world can I be polite and civil and loving in a way that keeps up the conversation?
LOPEZ: You see those challenges, too, when you look at, say, the pope’s twitter account, where there are just people sending some terrible things @pontifex’s way . . .
ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: As I mentioned in the talk, the combination of perceived anonymity and the impulsiveness of giving your first reaction seems to go with the new media. And yet it’s a medium where perhaps all of us need to be able to understand civility and to understand how to use it well. In reality, we are not anonymous and certainly we have no requirement to be impulsive — we can take all the time we need to respond well to people in the digital frontier.
LOPEZ: We hear a lot about “civility.” What is it and how can Catholics particularly contribute to civil leadership?
ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Well it’s very, very basic. I’m just reading the very beginning of the Instrumentum Laboris [the preparation document for the upcoming synod on the family] — I’ve read it online quickly and now I’m doing my hard-copy review. And I noticed that at the very beginning Cardinal Baldisseri includes the very thoughtful messages of Pope Francis when he says, addressing parents and married couples: Don’t forget to say “thank you;” don’t forget to say “please;” and say “I forgive you,” and “I’m sorry” before you go to bed.
That sounds so basic, and yet that’s really the makings of civility. When we approach people in that way, there’s that sense of [Christian charity] — approaching with the courage of our own convictions, but also with an openness to making sure I understand what the other person is saying. That level of civility is very important.
LOPEZ: And particularly in the public square, that can seem to be nonexistent, right?
ARCHBISHOP KURTZ: Well yes. I remember reading a little book on George Washington’s rules for civility. It had rules that he had learned growing up that he put in a book, probably as a reminder for himself, and then people asked him to share it with them. That reminds us that the call for civility and treating people with dignity, seeking to listen before we speak — all the things that our parents taught us — is not a new one. In the hectic, fast-paced life in which we live that Pope Francis just referenced in his World Day of Communication message, perhaps we need to be more intentional and cultivating.