In this series, Bishop Robert McElroy addresses the importance of forming a Catholic political imagination in an age of division. Three authors—John T. McGreevy, Cathleen Kaveny, and Matthew Sitman—respond.
Robert W. McElroy
The contrast between the beautiful vision of politics that Pope Francis presented while speaking to a joint session of Congress in 2015 and the political state of our nation today is heartbreaking. Francis began his address by comparing the fundamental responsibilities of America’s political leaders to the role of Moses, emphasizing that the first call of public service is “to protect by means of the law the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
Recalling the martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln, Francis pointed to the foundational role that freedom plays in American society and politics, and noted that “building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.” Citing Dorothy Day and her thirst for justice in the world, the pope demanded that the economic genius of the American nation be complemented by an enduring recognition that all economies must serve justice comprehensively, with special care for the poor. Invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., he urged political leaders to deepen America’s heritage as a land of dreams: “dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.” Finally, he cited the life of Thomas Merton and his conviction that only in genuine dialogue and encounter can a world conformed to the Gospel be pursued on this earth.
In Francis’s message, the core of the vocation of public service, and of all politics, is to promote the integral development of every human person and of society as a whole. That vocation requires special and self-sacrificial concern for the poor, the unborn, the vulnerable, and the marginalized. It’s a commitment to pursue the common good over that of interest groups or parties or self-aggrandizement. It is a profoundly spiritual and moral undertaking.
There is at this moment a profound sickness of the soul in American political life. This sickness tears at the fabric of the nation’s unity, undermining the core democratic consensus that is the foundation of our identity as Americans. For us to confront and eradicate this sickness, there must be a series of substantial conversions within our political life that cannot be merely the work of elites, but an undertaking of the whole citizenry.
A central element of our sickness is the partisan divide that has characterized our political life for the past two decades. The disintegration of bipartisan relationships in our political leadership; the creation of a culture where political campaigning never ends and authentic governance never begins; the transformation of our news and information landscape from a broad perspective-supporting consensus to a culture of politically determined and determining media silos that have their own alternative facts—these have bred a culture that is bitter and increasingly divided.
Party has become a shorthand for worldview. One’s party identity is interpreted as a revelation of a wide constellation of attitudes about culture, religion, class, work, patriotism, compassion, and sacrifice. Moreover, we use this shorthand to discern which people to talk with about important topics, which people to socialize with, and which people are likely to share our goals. Most distressingly, this partisan cleft distorts our own conception of our obligations as Americans to reach out to those in need.
Such an environment creates enormous obstacles to the mission of the church in fostering a political culture that seeks and sustains the common good. As a result, the church in the United States must fundamentally reassess the way in which we as Catholics, and especially those of us who are leaders in the church, carry out the mission of evangelizing the political culture of the United States. Catholic teaching has been hijacked by those who break down the breadth of our social doctrine, reducing it to the warped partisan categories of our age and selecting those teachings for acceptance that promote their partisan worldview. Nowhere is cafeteria Catholicism more in evidence than in the facility with which many Catholics speak about what church teaching demands in our political life.