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.”