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In his visit to Hillsdale’s chapter of the Thomistic Institute, Rev. Aquinas Guilbeau argued that the task of the Christian today is to “produce the better answers to the ques­tions that press on our public life.”

Guilbeau used David French and Sohrab Ahmari’s debates on civility to explain his own position on the Christian’s place in public matters. Ahmari and French’s initial inter­ac­tions on social media in par­ticular, Gulibeau said, demon­strate the tension between defending the truth and acting with civility towards others.

As Guilbeau explained, French’s initial article argued that civility is always an affordable expense. French’s leading example of this was the pro-life movement. Guilbeau quoted French’s article, which said:

“The pro-life movement advanced through love — love for mother and child. And while no one should shrink from telling hard truths, the movement does not advance through scorn. Violent or scornful men and women are the movement’s greatest lia­bility. Lives are at stake, reach out to people with your whole heart.”

Ahmari’s response, Guilbeau said, claimed that French’s civility and politeness are not good for this day and age.

“Ahmari argues that the current max­i­mization of indi­vidual liberty that we are now seeing in the culture, a max­i­mization that he claims French sup­ports, is bad for the family, is bad for the church, and is bad for tra­dition,” Guilbeau said. 

Ulti­mately, Guilbeau said, Ahmari’s frus­tration with French is rooted in the problem of max­i­mized autonomy, which chases civility beyond the public square.

While French seeks to use civility to defend a neutral public square, Ahmari argues that the political realm can never be neutral. While French argues that civil per­suasion always wins the day, Ahmari asks why one should be civil if those people who oppose him are not civil them­selves.

Guilbeau con­cluded that both men get ele­ments of the argument right but miss a kind of Aris­totelian mean between their two points.

“What Amari gets right is this: the public square is not neutral, because the human being is not neutral,” Guilbeau said. “Man is, by virtue of his cre­ation in the likeness of God, ori­ented to the good. To choose the good leads to hap­piness, and flour­ishing. To choose evil leads to sorrow, and dimin­ishing.”

Guilbeau added that he believes it’s pos­sible to deal neu­trally on com­pa­rable things, such as dif­ferent denom­i­na­tions of Chris­tianity, but not on non-com­pa­rable things such as pencils and cig­a­rettes.

“What French gets right in the debate is this: civility remains of primary impor­tance in civic life,” Guilbeau said. 

Guilbeau made ref­erence to Thomas Aquinas’s claim that “a fellow citizen doesn’t become an enemy until he takes direct action against the common good.”

Bringing both Ahmari and French’s points together, Guilbeau developed a course of action which he said is “to promote the good vig­or­ously in civic exchange.” 

“This is not just a defense of the good, but real pro­motion,” Guilbeau said. “To go on Ahmari’s offense with French’s civility.”

Sophomore Nick Schaffield said he had been working through the ideas of Guilbeau’s dis­cussion on his own and was glad to hear someone address them. 

“I had been thinking about a lot of the ideas here before, so it’s really nice to have someone artic­ulate them,” Schaffield said.

The Thomistic Institute is a national orga­ni­zation run by the Dominicans of the Easter Province out of Wash­ington, D.C. The institute presents talks at various col­leges and uni­ver­sities that have student-run chapters.

The Hillsdale chapter of the institute does many joint events with campus’ Catholic Society.

Catholic Society Pres­ident and junior Patrick Mitchell said he was excited that Guilbeau’s talk brought up the ten­sions between a Christian identity and a political identity. 

“I was really excited that Father Guilbeau was able to use the Ahmari-French debates to address how we should stand by our values as Chris­tians while under­standing that things like freedom of religion and freedom of speech are so essential to active democracy,” Mitchell said. “I think these ques­tions are in the mind of a lot of Hillsdale stu­dents.”