"We’re noticing that the culture is really lacking a sense of respect and civility; and we see it played out in family dynamics, in business and in politics," he said April 22 at Albertus Magnus College. He discussed some of the "signs of the times" that reveal a "more alarming and deep-seated crisis of meaning in our time" in the United States.
For example, he observed that people get tired of political advertising because of all the "mudslinging."
"We shoot for the lowest common denominator," he stated. "But what we should be doing is looking for what we all share in common; and that’s the fact that we’re all made in the image and likeness of God.
"The goal is truth," he said, "but always recognizing the dignity of the human person."
Father Caron, who chose the daunting title "Choosing Civility and Respect: A Catholic and Dominican Perspective" for his talk, suggested that the resource of the Dominican and Catholic tradition provides a formative countercultural structure.
He explained that there is a framework within the Dominican tradition for disputation, or disputatio. In it, two people with opposing viewpoints try to persuade the other to come to their point of view – or to come to a third point.
The first posture, he explained, is to acknowledge that "you’re not the enemy because you disagree with me … you’re not the devil. Rather it’s to realize that "you’re a child of God, but you have a different perspective," he said "That’s a different starting point."
The Dominican priest observed that the pervasiveness of rudeness has gotten worse over the past 10 years, and he attributes it to stress, terrorism and violence and the economic downturn.
"It’s no surprise that people are on edge," he said, noting that social commentators have dubbed the times the "age of rage."
"There are layers of issues that come into play," he explained, one of which is an underlying basis of fear. For example, "if you’re different from me, and … if I see you as being less than human because you’re different from me, then we begin the slippery slope" of rationalizing behaviors, violence, abuse, apartheid. "What’s that all about?" he asked. "It’s all about the fact that [I see you as being] less than human."
"But our Scripture and our tradition and our teaching in the Church says that’s not true," he stated.
"There are better ways of responding to the challenges that life throws our way by choosing to be civil, courteous and polite," said Father Carron. "Tolerance, charity and respect are not weasel words," he said.
The solution for change, he offered, is for every person to take an inventory of their attitudes and cultural biases. "What has your family taught you that is either true or myth? What prejudices get passed on?" he probed.
"We have to do some self-reflection, bring the tradition to that and say, ‘How am I going to be different?" he said. "It’s one of reflection and self-examination."
Father Caron delivered the last of three talks in the 2012-13 St. Thomas Aquinas Lecture Series at Albertus Magnus College. He also serves as a liturgical consultant for parishes and dioceses, teaching classes and conducting workshops on liturgical renewal.
"What an appropriate topic for the times we are in right now," said Dominian Sister Anne Kilbride, mission officer at Albertus Magnus, "given the barrage of negative communications that we hear every day, the terrible tragedies that we are surrounded with," and the violence that comes when people are not civil and respectful of one another.
Founded in 1925, Albertus Magnus is a Catholic College in the Dominican tradition.