Posts Tagged ‘Catholics and Politics’

Pathological Politics

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Politics is a dirty business and anyone who is involved in it, even just as a spectator, has to have a thick skin and a high tolerance for invective and hyperbole. Even by the standards of ordinary politics, though, the current Presidential campaign has certainly hit a number of new low points in the behavior of the major party candidates — including juvenile name calling, deranged conspiracy theories, unfounded accusations of bigotry and hatred, and the dismissal of a large percentage of the population as being “deplorable”.

The level of discourse among the general public has also been lamentably awful, as any reader of a Comments Box or Facebook feed can attest. On the whole, this year has not presented an edifying display of democracy at its best.

All of this might easily be dismissed as “politics as usual”. But things are certainly getting worse, and it is a very dangerous trend. This was brought home to me the other day when I received a troubling email from a very respectable Catholic gentleman. In the email, he said that the Democratic presidential nominee “is pure evil and very powerful because of her allegence [sic] to Satan”.

When uncharitable and unjust things like this are being said by Christian people, we should be seriously alarmed. If we as Christians cannot engage in strong political discourse without resorting to calling people “pure evil” or alleging that someone is a servant of the Evil One, then there is something sick about our political climate.

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised. A recent study by the Pew Center on “Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016″ found that Americans are not just divided by politics, but that the divisions have reached the level of fear and loathing. For example, the study found that “A majority of Democrats (55%) say the GOP makes them feel afraid, while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. And nearly half of Democrats (47%) and Republicans (46%) say the other party makes them feel angry”.

Things have clearly gone beyond robust disagreement about policy proposals. This personal animosity is the fruit of a political culture that cares little for policy discussions, but is instead infected by ideological media like “comedy” talk radio shows that show contempt for opposing viewpoints and politicians, and thrive on stirring up feelings of anger and indignation against the perceived enemy.

I understand that many people firmly believe that imminent disaster is at hand if one or the other of the major party candidates is elected. I certainly share the concern about the intensification of the Culture of Death and attacks on religious liberty. I also am disturbed by the prospect of immoral, unstable and untrustworthy people being elected to high office.

But as Catholic laypeople, we cannot be satisfied with this state of things. We are called by our faith to enter into temporal affairs, including politics, in order to bring to others the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must advance our positions while still remaining disciples of the Lord. As our Bishops say in their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “We are committed to clarity about our moral teaching and to civility. In public life, it is important to practice the virtues of charity and justice that are at the core of our Tradition” (FC 60).

Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, DC, has said it very well:

We need to look at how we engage in discourse and how we live out our commitment to be a people of profound respect for the truth and our right to express our thoughts, opinions, positions — always in love. We who follow Christ must not only speak the truth but must do so in love (Eph 4:15). It is not enough that we know or believe something to be true. We must express that truth in charity with respect for others so that the bonds between us can be strengthened in building up the body of Christ.

As Christians, we cannot participate in pathological politics. Our society is indeed sick, and desperately in need of healing. But the solution is the message of mercy and love of the Gospel, emphasizing the dignity of every human person — including those with whom we disagree about politics.

The Need for Political Morality

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

Recently, I read a journalist’s account of the Watergate scandal. It was actually a bundle of inter-related illegal acts and conspiracies that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. One of the things that struck me was the astonishing and complete lack of morality among “All the President’s Men”. These were the most powerful men in the country, most were lawyers, and all considered themselves to be religious in one way or another. Yet they acted in total disregard for the law and for basic morals. They committed a series of crimes with no compunction — burglary, theft, bribery, illegal wiretapping, violations of campaign finance laws, and obstruction of justice. The amount of lying was breathtaking — a systematic campaign of perjury and knowingly false public statements. They never asked themselves “is this right?” but only cared about “will this work”.

I was a teenager when all this happened, and I remember following the stories with great interest. But I didn’t appreciate the sheer scope of all of it until I read this book. And, naturally, it led me to reflect on the current political climate, and on the desperate need for “political morality”.

There are two components to political morality. One is the personal morals of those who hold public office — are they people of integrity who can be counted on to obey essential principles of honesty, financial responsibility, lack of self-interest, fairness, seriousness, humility, etc. I utterly reject the notion, which is usually attributed to Macchiavelli, that rulers are not bound by ordinary moral laws, but are free to do things that would be illegal or immoral if done by ordinary citizens. No matter what public office one holds, the Ten Commandments still apply, and personal virtue will lead to good government.

The other component is constitutional morality — do they respect the rule of law, the process of law-making and governance, the rights of citizens, the notion that nobody is above or outside of the law, etc. I’m not as cynical as most people think, and I actually believe that a sound legal process will lead on the whole to sound results. I believe that the principles embodied in our Constitution — separation of powers, limits on the authority of the government, checks and balances, protection of fundamental rights, and federalism — provide a rich and fertile soil for living a peaceful and just life.

These elements of political morality were utterly lacking in the Nixon Administration. The Watergate scandals and their threat to the constitutional order were the direct result. The similar lack of political morality in the current climate fills me with dread for the future of our Republic.

At all levels of politics, we are repeatedly presented with — and we routinely elect — candidates who have a propensity for falsehood, whose financial affairs are deeply suspect, who treat people as instruments to be used and then discarded, and who seem obsessed with personal power rather than selfless public service. It has become unremarkable for candidates to affirm that they will use their power to commit gross moral evils, like abortion on demand, torture, aggressive war on civilians, and racial and religious discrimination. Candidates openly show disdain for the proper Constitutional process and promise to rule unilaterally by decree. And candidates and political advocates make crystal clear that they will use the levers of power to punish their enemies, and all those who disagree with their ideology.

The men who built and established our Republic understood very well the need for political morality. George Washington, who was an exemplar of this, said, “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” John Adams, who was no stranger to the rough and tumble of partisan politics, said “Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.”

The current state of affairs in our political system would horrify the Founding Fathers. They should equally horrify us.

Political Incoherence on Abortion

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

Although I’m a political junkie, I never watch those television events that are billed as “political debates”. They are nothing of the sort, of course, but instead are merely opportunities for candidates to parrot their talking points, show how strong they think they are by rudely interrupting each other, and doing little if anything to inform and enlighten the electorate.

And so, I didn’t watch the Vice-Presidential “debate” the other night, opting instead to watch a very exciting baseball game. But I was keenly interested in reading the reports of what the candidates said about abortion.

Now, we have to take anything said by a Vice-Presidential candidate with a healthy grain of salt. The purpose of a VP candidate is to robotically repeat the Presidential candidate’s talking points, pretend that the person at the top of the ticket has no faults or flaws and has never erred, and, aside from that, do nothing to mess up the campaign. That makes sense, since the role of a Vice President is essentially to serve as a constitutional spare tire.

But there was a comment at the most recent VP “debate” that is certainly worthy of notice, because it was on the issue of abortion and it demonstrated the incoherence of the Democratic position on this crucial issue, and how much in thrall that party is to the ideology of the Culture of Death.

Senator Tim Kaine is the Democratic VP candidate. As such, he is the right-hand-man to a presidential candidate whose position is utterly reprehensible on abortion — she has never heard of an abortion she disapproves of, and she is completely beholden to the abortion industry. Sen. Kaine, who is reportedly a practicing Catholic, has an appalling record in the Senate of support for abortion on demand at all times and for any reason. In this Senate session alone, he has voted to continue funding for Planned Parenthood, which kills over 300,000 unborn children a year, and opposed a measure that would prohibit late-term abortions at a time when the child can feel pain while they are being dismembered. He has also publicly stated that he will support a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which would mean that he thinks it’s a good idea for abortions on demand to be paid for by taxpayers.

Hardly a stellar example of a Catholic public servant. But it’s even worse. Sen. Kaine had this to say when asked a question about the role of his religion in forming his position on abortion:

I try to practice my religion in a very devout way and follow the teachings of my church in my own personal life. But I don’t believe in this nation, a First Amendment nation, where we don’t raise any religion over the other, and we allow people to worship as they please, that the doctrines of any one religion should be mandated for everyone… I think it is really, really important that those of us who have deep faith lives don’t feel that we could just substitute our own views for everybody else in society, regardless of their views. … we really feel like you should live fully and with enthusiasm the commands of your faith. But it is not the role of the public servant to mandate that for everybody else. So let’s talk about abortion and choice. Let’s talk about them. We support Roe v. Wade. We support the constitutional right of American women to consult their own conscience, their own supportive partner, their own minister, but then make their own decision about pregnancy. That’s something we trust American women to do that.

It would be difficult to find a better example of the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the “pro-choice Catholic” mindset. I could quote all day long from statements by the Church on the absolute moral duty of Catholic public officials to oppose the depraved injustice of abortion on demand. But leave that aside for a moment, because Sen. Kaine already seems to be utterly impervious to the actual beliefs of the faith he professes to be devoted to.

Instead, since faith always accords with reason, let’s just look at this from a strictly rational perspective, because it will be crystal clear that his comments make no sense, either for a Catholic or for anyone else.

All laws reflect moral judgments of right and wrong – that’s the nature of law itself. No system of law anywhere in the world or in history is based on the idea that a person can act however they want. Human conduct is always subject to moral rules that are written into civil law. So if a public official rules out the influence of their religious faith in making such judgments, on what moral principle will he act? Are his opinions completely swayed by public opinion polls, or party platforms? Then what kind of a person is he? Why would anyone vote for a politician who was so devoid of principle or courage that he ignores his religious faith and decides his position by sticking his finger in the air and checking the direction of the wind, or by just “following orders”?  How could you trust such a person to do anything according to any kind of coherent moral principle?

The prohibition against killing an innocent human being is not a Catholic doctrine, but a moral principle based on science and reason that can be seen by anyone, regardless of their religious faith. It’s not wrong because the Catholic Church says so, the Church teaches that because it’s a self-evident truth. It is Science 101 that every human life – including that of a VP candidate – begins at the moment of conception. The inhabitant of a mother’s womb is always a human being, the genetic offspring of a father and a mother, and he/she is never anything less. To take that helpless child’s life for any reason – much less to serve the convenience of the mother or father, or because the child has a physical handicap – is contrary to the inherent natural impulse of humans to protect and nurture their young. It is also patently evil to treat any living being with the cruelty of abortion – which involves poisoning a child with caustic chemicals or dismembering her while she is still alive.

A political candidate doesn’t need any religious faith to see that abortion is a moral evil and should be prohibited by law. All it takes is rational thought, and openness to the scientific evidence that is right before one’s eyes. Even a Vice President should be able to understand that.

Looking for Voting Choices

Monday, September 19th, 2016

How many of us have heard or uttered this statement: “I don’t know how I’m going to vote this year”. Many Catholics are struggling to decide how to vote. That should mean that they’re trying to form their consciences in a correct and Catholic way. And they should be looking for choices that allow them to “see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city” ( Gaudium et Spes 43).

Unfortunately, we have the prospect this year of having some of the most deeply problematic major party candidates for president in American history (which is quite a statement, considering that Aaron Burr, Richard Nixon, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace are on that list). Several of them have significant character problems and all support some kind of intrinsic moral evil (i.e., laws and policies that are always wrong, like permitting abortion on demand, legalizing assisted suicide, or the deliberate killing of civilians in wartime).

I’m not a member of any of the major parties, so loyalty is not an issue for me — candidates don’t have a right to my vote, they have to earn it. To me, casting a vote is a moral act, a statement that I wish this candidate to serve in a particular office. It means that I believe the person is qualified for the office, and that I want them to fulfill their campaign promises and positions. If I know that this candidate will support intrinsically evil policies, I am giving my permission for those evil acts and I am therefore complicit (however remotely) in them.

This is a very troubling moral dilemma. Our Bishops have advised us that we can vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsically evil act, but that can only be for truly grave moral reasons — which does not include party loyalty. The Bishops have also advised that we can “take the extraordinary step” of not voting for any candidate, or we can vote for the candidate who is likely to do the least harm. This is also a hard decision to make — how could there possibly be a sufficiently grave reason to vote for a candidate who favors abortion on demand, the killing of civilians in war, torture of captives, the redefinition of marriage, or proposals that are openly racist. Given the Law of Unintended Consequences, and the impossibility of predicting the future, it is also extremely hard to make a determination as to who would cause the least damage to our vulnerable republic and world.

Many people are considering to cast their vote for one candidate as a statement against one of the other candidates. But we don’t have an electoral system where we can “Like” or “Unlike” candidates. To vote against one, we have to vote to put the other one in office — which is a problem if we know that they will support evil policies.

But there are alternatives to voting for any of the major party candidates. One could leave the line blank — a vote of “none of the above” — but still vote for candidates in other key races. But that’s not satisfactory to those who want their vote not just to express dissatisfaction with the candidates that have been offered, but to support a positive agenda.

Another option is to look at some of the “minor parties” that have proposed candidates. I find one of these minor parties, the American Solidarity Party, to be very intriguing. It seems to be building its platform on Catholic Social Teaching. The party is not strictly Catholic, but falls in the tradition of “Christian Democratic” parties, which have been so influential in Europe and Latin America but which have never gained a foothold in the binary party system here in the United States.  On the issues I consider most important, the ASP is right on point: they are consistently pro-life, defend religious liberty and the authentic definition of marriage, oppose the use of torture and the killing of civilians in war, and support the right of parents to control the education of their children and the duty of the state to support them. I don’t agree with all of their platform, and I am not endorsing them or any other candidate for office. But I am interested in any political party or movement, however small they may be, that tries to advance the Church’s positions on policy issues.

Obviously, these kind of parties have no chance of winning this election. Most probably won’t even be on the ballot in New York, given our notoriously byzantine ballot access laws, so a write-in vote would be necessary.

But for voters who are looking for options, a minor party vote may allow them to vote according to their conscience. And that is not a “wasted vote”. As John Quincy Adams once said, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

No Worldly Honor is Worth a Soul

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

And so we have yet again the sad spectacle of a Catholic public official running for high office who attends Mass regularly, presents himself for Holy Communion, and claims to be faithful to the Church — while at the same time he hides behind the disingenuous “personally opposed” imposture while staunchly supporting intrinsically evil laws and policies permitting the wholesale destruction of unborn human beings.

The hollowness and hypocrisy of this political stance are well-known, and hardly worth spending much time rebutting. The obligation of public officials — especially Catholics — to oppose laws that authorize abortion has been explained in crystal clear terms by the Church on many, many occasions. Anyone who is fooled –or who fools himself– with the “personally opposed” sham has to accept responsibility for wilful self-delusion.

But what really concerns me about this situation is not the political or public policy aspects. It’s really the moral and spiritual side that I am most troubled by. It should be a cautionary tale to all of us.

I have been fortunate to teach in the formation program for the Diaconate here in the Archdiocese, and also in the leadership program for Directors and Coordinators of Religious Eduation. One of the subjects that I always cover is the Church’s teaching on human destiny, what traditionally has been called “the four last things” — death, judgment, heaven and hell.

There really is no ambiguity in this teaching, and it is of the utmost importance to all of us in our daily lives. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself was perfectly clear that our conduct in this life will determine our fate in the next, and that there are two paths available to us — the one of life, and the one of destruction.

The path of destruction is the one that we should shun in horror. It leads to everlasting separation from God — to Hell. “Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.” (CCC 1033) The suffering of souls who choose this path is unimaginable, even through the eyes of a creative genius like Dante.

The temptation of worldly power and honor is very strong, and very compelling. There is a reason that the Evil One chose to tempt Our Lord with the lure of authority over the nations. I know this temptation well, because it is one that I have struggled with my whole life, and it has led me to sin many times. But nothing in this world — nothing — is worth risking the loss of eternal life with God, whether it be pleasure, power, riches, tactical political advantages, or whatever. Certainly not the Vice-Presidency. “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:36)

Let me be perfectly clear. I cannot look into the heart of any other person and judge whether they are on the path to life or death. That is for God alone, and I hope that he will be merciful to us all. But I am a sinful man. Although I try to reject temptation, I regularly need the healing of God’s grace in the Sacrament of Confession. I dread the thought that I might die with a mortal sin on my soul, and I equally dread the thought that anyone else might do so.

No worldly honor is worth one human soul. We should dedicate ourselves to pray and sacrifice for those who are at risk of choosing the wrong path.

The Politics of Principle

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

(This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last seven 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 — this year, perhaps more than ever, as we see a man running for President who is the most unprincipled candidate since Aaron Burr.  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, then 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.

The Politics of Principle

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

(This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last six 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.

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.