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 CNS Story:

POLITICS-CIVILITY Nov-6-2007 (660 words) xxxn

Lay Catholics call for greater civility in American political debate

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Charging that the debate leading up to the 2008 elections "is increasingly filled with attacks on private conduct and recriminations," a group of prominent lay Catholics called for a "spirit of civility" in all political discussions and said the church must be protected "from being stained by the appearance of partisan political involvement."

Signers of the "Catholic Call to Observe Civility in Political Debate," released on Election Day 2007, include 11 former U.S. ambassadors, former chairmen of both the Democratic and Republican national committees, a retired undersecretary-general of the United Nations, past and current university presidents, business executives, attorneys and former officeholders.

Thomas P. Melady, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and president emeritus of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said at a Nov. 6 news conference in Washington that a conscious decision was made not to solicit signers from among current Catholic officeholders.

"That might change," he said. "But it has to be a carefully thought-out thing."

Melady, a lifelong Republican, organized the effort with Timothy J. May, a senior partner of the Washington-based international law firm Patton Boggs, trustee emeritus at The Catholic University of America in Washington and a lifelong Democrat.

The statement directly confronts an issue that arose in the 2004 presidential election campaign, when some U.S. bishops said they would deny Communion to Catholic politicians who voted in opposition to church teachings on such issues as abortion or embryonic stem-cell research.

"As lay Catholics we should not exhort the church to condemn our political opponents by publicly denying them holy Communion based on public dissent from church teachings," it said. "An individual's fitness to receive Communion is his or her personal responsibility. And it is a bishop's responsibility to set for his diocese the guidelines for administering Communion."

But the statement also urged restraint by Catholic politicians and said those who "advertise their Catholicism as part of their political appeal, but ignore the church's moral teachings in their political life confuse non-Catholics by giving the appearance of hypocrisy."

"As lay Catholics we should not pass judgment and should avoid public statements that undermine the authority of the church's leaders," it added. "American Catholics know who their church leaders are: their bishops, archbishops and cardinals."

Melady said the idea for the statement arose from a homily delivered by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, at the 2006 Red Mass in Washington, calling for "greater civility in public discourse."

"He spoke of the great right and tradition of the American people to speak frankly, but urged civility in doing so," Melady said. "This statement is faithful to what the cardinal said."

Dennis M. Lucey, past national chairman of Support Our Aging Religious, said signers of the statement represented "a diverse and bipartisan cross section of lay Catholics."

"The strong emphasis on the common good in the Catholic tradition ... calls us to work together in a spirit of civility and mutual respect," he added. "American Catholics can offer a powerful voice for civility."

Melady, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Uganda and Burundi, said he thought many of his fellow former ambassadors had been interested in signing the statement because they knew firsthand how much the citizens of other countries looked to the United States for guidance on how to conduct elections.

"People in all the other countries see how we act," he said.

In addition to the ambassadors, signers of the statement included Frank J. Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican National Committee; Charles T. Manatt and Terry McAuliffe, former chairmen of the Democratic National Committee; former U.S. Rep. Lawrence DeNardis of Connecticut; former U.S. Sen. Lawrence L. Pressler of South Dakota; Peter G. Kelly, former Democratic national finance chairman; Alexia K. Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good; and Jacques Paul Klein, retired undersecretary-general of the United Nations.


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