Posts Tagged ‘Catholics and Politics’

The Politics of Principle

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

(This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last five years.  This post was written in memory of Jack Swan, a great warrior of faith and politics, who entered eternal life on February 2, 1998.  God sent Jack into my life to teach me these lessons about politics, and I’m just a pygmy standing on the shoulders of a giant.  As time goes by, I see more and more a need for us to recapture the politics of principle.  Jack, please pray for me, that I get the lessons right.)

In the mind of most people, “politics” is the struggle of candidates, political parties, and their supporters to gain power and influence in the government. That is certainly true up to a point, and it makes for interesting entertainment.

I write a good deal about politics on this blog and elsewhere, and I’m frequently perceived as being “political” in that sense — of being”partisan”. That completely misses the point.

There is a deeper, more significant nature of politics. It is the way we order our society together, so that we can live according to our vocations and be happy, and ultimately attain eternal life. In this understanding of politics, the partisan theater is an important reality, but it is not the main focus. What really matters is principle.

Without principles, politics becomes mere pragmatism, where the question is whether something “works”, or, in the less elevated version of the game, what’s in it for me. Now, don’t get me wrong. Pragmatism is important — we want our government to be effective. But again, principle is more important.

I received much of my tutelage in the real world of politics from a man who devoted his life to being a practitioner of the politics of principle. I learned that it was fine to be keenly interested in the partisan scrum, but only to the extent that it advanced the principles we hold dear — defense of human life, protection of marriage, family and children, and religious liberty. The promotion of those principles is more important than party label, and the idea is to support — or oppose — politicians based on their fidelity to those principles, not based on what party label they happened to be wearing this week.

That’s how I try to practice politics, in my small and limited way. I have opinions and judgments about many pragmatic issues, and what kinds of national security, economic and other policies would “work” better than others. But none of those pragmatic issues matter at all, compared to the core principles.

Here’s how it works for me. If a politician doesn’t protect human life, I don’t care what his position is on other issues. If he can’t understand that human life is sacred and must be protected at all stages, I have no reason to trust his judgment about any other issue. And, very frankly, anyone who does not understand that basic principle is not, in my opinion, fit to hold public office.

The same holds for the other core issues. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you don’t respect human life, don’t see the need to preserve marriage as one man and one woman, and won’t defend religious liberty, they you just have to look elsewhere to get your fifty percent plus one.

This means that I am perpetually dissatisfied with our political process and our politicians. But that’s fine with me. They are all temporary office holders anyway, here today and gone tomorrow, and their platforms are passing fancies that nobody will remember in a short time. The principles, however, remain perpetually valid.

Listen, Our Lord made a very simple request of us. He said, “Follow me”. He didn’t say, be a Republican or a Democrat, a Socialist or a Whig. He demands that I be his follower. So I need to look to the Lord for my principles, and in this age that means I have to listen to the Church. That’s what Our Lord wants me to do — after all, he said to his apostles “he who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). We happen to have in our midst the successors of those apostles — the Holy Father, our bishops, and my bishop in particular. As a Catholic I must listen to them, and get my political principles from them, not from Fox News, CNN, talking heads of the left or the right, the editorial page of the Times, or either the Democratic or Republican Parties.

This, to me, is the way to live as a disciple of Christ in this crazy political process. I realize that this will be considered odd by many, and even dangerous by some.

But we hardly need more party loyalists at this, or any other, time. And we certainly need more practitioners of the politics of principle.

It’s Up to the Church — To Us

Friday, August 20th, 2010

A poll came out the other day that got a great deal of attention in the popular media, mainly because it surveyed people’s odd views on the President’s religion.  But that’s not the reason I found the poll to be of such interest.  After all, only one person’s opinion really matters about our religious beliefs and practices, and we’ll find that out at our particular judgment.

What I found interesting is a result that was deeper in the poll result, past the sensational headlines.  If you read deeper into the report, you’ll find a disturbing result when people were asked if churches should express views on political matters or keep silent.  52% of Americans said churches should not speak up about such matters, and only 37% of Catholics think the Church should be speaking out. Church attendance matters here — 54% of Americans who attend weekly approve of churches speaking out, while only 31% of those who seldom or never attend church approve.

I sent this poll result around in my daily e-mailing, and a friend sent back an interesting comment that I thought was worthy of further reflection:

I think if one equates “church” with “clergy,” what you are seeing reflected is a very traditional American distaste for “political ministers.” The Catholic Church teaches that it is the laity who are to take the initiative in the political arena, but the hierarchy does not always trust in and rely on the laity to do so. If the bishops put more energy into molding an informed and articulate body of lay leaders, they may find that these people are more persuasive than they can be simply because lay people are talking to lay people.

There are several things about this comment that are very important.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to a parish to give a talk about public policy matters, especially in places with active pro-life committees of diligent laypeople, only to hear some variation on this:  “Why doesn’t the Church/the bishops/our pastor/the Pope say more about this?”

My answer to that usually is to note several things.  As Catholics, we are bound to accept the teachings of our Church as given to us by our Holy Father, bishops and priests.  We don’t live in the “Church of What’s Happening Now”, in which we make up dogma as we go along, to suit our passing fancies.

But at the same time, we laypeople have got to stop looking over our shoulder at Father and expecting him to do all the heavy lifting.  The leadership of the Church hierarchy is indispensable, but it’s our special role in life to be the principal advocates and architects for a just society.  Here’s what Pope Benedict has said about that:

The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew….  The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity… The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility. (Deus Caritas Est 28-29).

Having said that, another point from my friend’s comment should also be emphasized.  If our Church leaders want laypeople to take on their role as leaders in establishing and creating a just society, they have to empower and trust us to do so.  We can’t do anything unless our Church leaders — our bishops and priests — support structures like local parish pro-life committees, social justice committees or Knights of Columbus councils, which are are crucial in this regard.  We need them to promote initiatives like our state-wide Catholic Advocacy Network, as well as other efforts to educate and mobilize the laity.  Our Family Life/Respect Life Office has lots of resources for people to use in their advocacy, as do the various offices of the U.S. Bishops Conference.  Thank God, so many of our clergy are doing this, but there’s always more that can be done — if they let us.

Building a just society is an increasing challenge in our time.  The multitude of threats to human life, to families, and to social justice keep on accumulating.  It’s us to the Church — primarily us, the laity — to rise to this challenge.