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.

How can the church effectively evangelize in such a politicized culture? Not by continuing on its present path.

Current discussions of the concept of the “seamless garment of life,” introduced by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, are a prime example of this assault on Catholic social doctrine. In his new apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete in exultate, Pope Francis has made clear the dual and inseparable demands of Catholic faith in the public order:

Our defense of the unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.

But today these complementary claims of the Gospel are placed in political opposition. Worse, both sides deploy skewed distillations of Catholic moral teaching to explain why one set of these issues automatically enjoys a higher claim on the consciences of believers.

How can the church effectively evangelize in such a politicized culture? Not by continuing on its present path. In 2015, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a new edition of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. It was meant to be a source of guidance for Catholic women and men in helping them prepare for the 2016 election. I wrote a pastoral letter with the same purpose, giving less emphasis to the element of intrinsic evil and more emphasis to the notion of the seamless garment. In retrospect, I believe both the conference document and my own pastoral letter suffered from the same defect.

As bishops, we tend to teach from principles and moral norms. Our approach is cognitive and exhortational, not affective and inspiring. There are, of course, moments and purposes for which cognitive and exhortational treatments are essential in expressing the church’s legacy of teaching that springs from Revelation and the tradition of reason. But breaking through the hyperpartisan divide of American political culture in the present day is not such a purpose.

San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy is seen at the Vatican in this April 17, 2012, file photo. (CNS/Paul Haring)

For this reason, it’s worth returning to Pope Francis’s address to Congress. He was faced with a divided legislative body and was expected to speak substantively about the Catholic vision of the common good. But he did not frame his address in a cognitive construct. Rather, he engaged in deep-level conscience formation. He was proposing that the common good is best served when leaders and citizens operate from a political-virtue ethic that is prior to individual policy issues.

Francis was suggesting that the core part of conscience formation for faithful citizenship lies not in the moral casuistry of political choice or public-policy analysis, but in the evangelization of the heart and soul and spirit of Americans to help them grow in the fundamental virtues that can orient their choices toward the common good. It’s the development of these virtues that must constitute the major outreach of the church in our desperately divided culture. We must seek to form within our faith community a Catholic political imagination, rooted in the virtues of the Gospel, so that disciples of the Lord naturally gravitate toward bringing the Gospel message in its fullness to their lives as citizens of our nation.

What are some of the political virtues that can bridge the country’s political division?

Cardinal Blase Cupich spoke of one last year in his Bernardin lecture: the orientation of soul that flows from the solidarity that John Paul II outlined as a fundamental anchor of Catholic political life. This orientation reminds us that in society we must always understand ourselves to be bound in God’s grace and committed, in the words of Solicitudo rei socialis, “to the good of one’s neighbor, with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to lose oneself for the sake of the other rather than exploiting him.”

The virtue of solidarity, in Catholic social teaching, “requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become a part. They are debtors because of those conditions that make human existence livable, and because of the indivisible and indispensable legacy constituted by culture, science and technical knowledge, material and immaterial goods, and by all that the human condition has produced.” It is in this fundamental recognition of profound indebtedness to society that the most central bonds of cultural and societal union can be born.

A spiritual conversion to solidarity is not alien to the American political tradition. The founders called it “civic virtue,” and they believed that it was essential for the success of the new experiment in democracy they were launching. The founders generally believed that religious belief was one of the few foundations in the hearts of men and women that could produce enduring civic virtue and the self-sacrifice it at times demands. It was their hope that a culture of civic virtue would lead to a politics of the common good.

A second and equally important facet of a Catholic political imagination lies in heartfelt compassion for all those who are suffering in society. The “hardness of heart” that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel has seized hold of much of our political life, distorting compassion into a compartmentalized virtue reserved for those who live within our region, our class, our race, our faith. A truly Catholic political imagination would break through these barriers in the clear conviction that the compassion of a disciple of Jesus Christ cannot be compartmentalized. It finds expression in the face of every form of human suffering. The reality that young black men fear for their security when facing law enforcement; the sense of dispossession felt by young white men without a college education; the specter of deportation for mothers and fathers and children in the millions; the utter desolation of parents who have lost their children to gun violence; rampant patterns of sexual harassment and assault directed against women; the fear that police face every day trying to protect society—these are wounds that tear at our social fabric and constitute immense human suffering. In our overly politicized culture we have permitted the core unity of human compassion to become fragmented into separate partisan categories, and even worse, we have allowed our own sense of the moral imperatives that flow from true Christian compassion to be distorted by a partisan lens.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must understand that this spectrum of human suffering in our nation calls upon us all, and calls upon us to act jointly. Such suffering must not be the basis for social division or political identity, but rather, first and foremost, a demand for Christ-like compassion and action. The plaintive call of Black Lives Matter and the populist impulse reflected in the support for Donald Trump are both signs of woundedness in our nation. The victims of globalization include both the undocumented and the displaced blue-collar workers of the Midwest. The central challenge is whether we can meet our woundedness with care and action that are not filtered through a partisan lens. Only if a truly comprehensive sense of compassion takes hold in our nation in a profound way will we be able to do so.

A third essential virtue is the call to integrity. One of the greatest temptations of the Christian moral life is to want to invite Jesus into the great majority of our moral and spiritual lives, but to exclude Him from components of our lives we’ve come to feel peaceful with, even though we recognize at some deep level that these compartments are contrary to the Gospel. I fear that too many of us exclude the light of the Gospel from our political lives, and replace it with anger, divisiveness, scorn, and animosity. We prefer to rage against political enemies, to embrace the hypocrisy that characterizes our political leadership in excusing today the very same behaviors by political allies that we condemned yesterday when committed by political opponents. There is tremendous visceral reward in engaging in fierce partisan political battle, and in the excitement and stimulation it brings. But there is also a tremendous cultural and political cost. And there is a wider corrosion to our individual soul and spirit. A Catholic political imagination for our day must include a recommitment to integrity, to inviting God and the Gospel even into this most resistant element of our lives.

A fourth political virtue is enduring hope. Movingly quoting from Martin Luther King Jr., Francis in his speech to Congress reminded us that we have always been a nation of dreams. On many levels our current political crisis is a result not of dreaming too grandly, but of failing to dream, of losing hope. The native optimism of our nation has been swallowed by a coarsening pessimism rooted in the conviction that a better future can come for our nation only if some Americans lose out, are excluded, forgotten, or denied. The danger is that the people of the United States will come to accept the current political division, nihilism, hypocrisy, and anger as normal.

But a Catholic political imagination that truly embraces hope will refuse to accept a new normal that is deeply destructive. There is no more important contribution that the Catholic community can make to the United States than an unrelenting commitment to rejuvenate our cultural and political life, precisely in the face of the enormous obstacles that stand in the way of such renewal.

Finally, and most importantly, a Catholic political imagination must include the virtues of dialogue and encounter. In his speech to Congress, Pope Francis pointed to the words of Thomas Merton: “free by nature in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, an image of the world into which I was born.” It was Merton’s graced spiritual journey to escape that prison by bringing a sacred sense of dialogue and encounter, ultimately the only instrument that could change that world.

A Catholic political imagination that truly embraces hope will refuse to accept a new normal that is deeply destructive.

We live in a political culture in which substantive dialogue across ideological and partisan divides is dying. And we live in an ecclesial culture in which many of those most committed to the work of transforming our nation through the realization of Catholic social teaching are also deeply factionalized, torn in two by the fissure that separates the life and dignity imperatives that flow from the Gospel.

A Catholic political virtue ethic for this moment must recognize that the need for dialogue, encounter, and unity is more important than any single policy issue we face today. Such a stance of encounter and dialogue is itself the foundation for any genuine pursuit of the common good. We must undertake with renewed conviction our vocation as genuine peacebuilders, creating opportunities and momentum for the creation of a new public consensus to guide the republic. And within the church, we must create spaces for dialogue, healing, and shared action, in the full recognition that the passionate, substantive commitments that often divide us within the church arise from a common dedication to making the Gospel truly present in the world.

In Gaudete et exsultate, Pope Francis acknowledges that genuine peacemaking is difficult. “It calls for great openness of mind and heart, since it is not about creating a ‘consensus on paper’ or a transient peace for a contented minority.... Nor can it attempt to ignore or disregard conflict; instead it must ‘face conflict head on, resolve it and make it a link in the chain of a new process.’ We need to be artisans of peace, for building peace is a craft that demands serenity, creativity, sensitivity, and skill.”

The central mission of the church in the political order is to evangelize the culture of politics through the witness of believers. At the present moment, this task is not primarily a didactic one. It is most profoundly an affective mission designed to foster within the church a truly Catholic political imagination that addresses directly the most corrosive elements of our political crisis.

This Catholic political imagination must embrace the virtues of solidarity, compassion, integrity, hope, and peacebuilding. Each of these dispositions of heart and soul relies primarily not on political argument and analysis but on a fundamental virtue of the human spirit. Each is by its very nature a bridging force in the divided political culture that we must evangelize, because solidarity, compassion, integrity, hope, and encounter simply cannot be broken down into one party or ideological faction. The primary method of the church’s evangelization of our political culture must proceed not from norms or principles, but from just such dispositions of the soul. In short, the church’s leadership in the United States must seek to foster a political virtue ethic for our time to guide Catholics in their roles as citizens and believers.

In Evangelii nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI described the action of Christian witness in the world:

Above all, the Gospel must be proclaimed by witnesses. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond the current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine.

The church in the United States needs just such witnesses in the political order. We need witnesses who radiate the solidarity that binds nations together rather than tears them apart. We need witnesses who display the comprehensive sense of compassion the Lord himself both preached and practiced. We need witnesses who profoundly treasure God’s gift of human life at every moment when it is under attack. We need witnesses who have incorporated authentic Christian integrity into their political lives and actions. And ultimately we need witnesses who will dream the dreams capable of dispelling the pessimism and resignation that suffuse our current political culture in the false belief that nothing can be changed.

Robert W. McElroy is the sixth bishop of the Diocese of San Diego. This essay has been adapted from the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Common Cause Address delivered by Bishop McElroy on April 18, 2018, at Loyola University, Chicago.

John T. McGreevy

Exiled in the United States after the German army roared through his native France, feverishly working to rally anti-fascist Catholics in North and South America, philosopher Jacques Maritain insisted in a 1941 letter to his close friend, Yves Simon, also an exiled French philosopher and then teaching at Notre Dame, that democracy must now be understood as an “inspiration of the Gospel.” Indeed, he emphasized, “the Gospel works in history in a democratic direction.”

Maritain’s status as one of the most influential Catholics of the twentieth century—with influence on Catholic politicians in Europe, such as Konrad Adenauer of Germany; in South America, such as Eduardo Frei Montalva in Chile; and even in Africa, such as Léopold Senghor of Senegal—gives this claim of a connection between democracy and the Gospel unusual weight.

It was not the conventional view. Church leaders, as Maritain well understood, had not typically been proponents of democracy. In some countries, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, Catholics had created their own successful political parties in the nineteenth century. In other countries, including Britain, Australia, and the United States, Catholics played significant roles in existing parties.

But successful democratic practice did not mean successful democratic theory. Scarred by the anticlerical attacks made by many nineteenth-century politicians and innately sympathetic to hierarchy, Catholic social thought developed with astonishingly little to say about the nature of the political community. Support for just wages certainly; support for democratic institutions, optional. As democracies collapsed in the 1920s and ’30s, church officials and Catholic intellectuals were often agnostic, even complacent. Famously, the Vatican negotiated defensive concordats with Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany. More disturbingly, church officials endorsed authoritarian governments in Portugal, Spain, Austria, parts of South America, and Vichy France.   

Only the cataclysm of World War II and the new relationship between Catholicism and politics sketched at the Second Vatican Council—again, inspired in part by Maritain—transformed Catholicism into a consistent ally of democratic governments. And in Chile during the Pinochet era, Spain during the dismantling of the Franco regime, Poland during the Solidarity movement, and the Philippines during the protests against Ferdinand Marcos, Catholic leaders advanced both human rights and democratic principles.

Now the United States endures a democratic crisis of its own. And so Bishop McElroy’s superb address is welcome. He invokes the “vocation of public service” at a moment when good politicians are derided and good people hesitate to enter politics. He notes the growing partisan divide in the United States: a remarkable 40 percent of Americans admit they would be “upset” if their child married someone from another political party. He stresses how Catholic teaching is often “hijacked” by the partisan agendas of activists in both parties.

Reaching across political divides must begin with a realistic acknowledgment of where political parties stand.

McElroy proposes a “Catholic political imagination.” The concept is necessary given the uneven quality of reflection on Catholicism and politics over the past century. A primary virtue of this imagination would be solidarity with the marginalized, and somewhere Joseph Bernardin is smiling, as McElroy determinedly invokes the cardinal’s image of the seamless garment, rejected in recent memory by some episcopal leaders in the United States but now in sync with the vision proposed by Pope Francis.

Could a renewed Catholic political imagination cross current divides? It’s hard to say. Positive indicators include a growing environmental consciousness, evident especially among Americans under forty and likely to accelerate with the effects of global climate change. Concern about economic inequality too is not neatly located within one party, as suggested by the more than 8 million voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and then for Donald Trump in 2016. Immigration reform no longer seems possible, but there is widespread recognition of the vulnerability of immigrant families. And on all these issues, remarkably, Pope Francis has emerged one of the world’s most important leaders.

More challenging to overcome is the long shadow of Roe v. Wade, a decidedly undemocratic Supreme Court decision, and the polarization of the two major political parties on the issue. Nothing has more powerfully distorted the relationship between Catholicism and politics in the United States. Too many Catholic Democrats mute discontent with an increased intolerance for prolife views within their own party. Too many Catholic Republicans, formed by a generation of self-interested exhortations to identify abortion as the single nonnegotiable issue, are willing to endure anything from their president in exchange for, well, a second Neil Gorsuch.

Only here does Bishop McElroy falter. The political book of the moment is How Democracies Die by Harvard’s Steven Libitzsky and Daniel Ziblatt. After studying Europe in the 1920s and ’30s and South America in the 1960s and ’70s—eras when democracies crumbled—they conclude that democracies die less frequently by coup than by a diminished respect for  political opponents. This absence of respect fuels phenomena ranging from strictly partisan media to the corruption of public institutions, notably the intelligence and security arms of the state.

McElroy touches on the demonization of political rivals, but he does not name the most notable current political fact: the reluctance of most Republican leaders to challenge their own president’s erratic and dangerous behavior in sufficiently stringent terms. That a once distinguished American institution—the Republican Party—proved incapable of marshaling its own best traditions to defeat an intruder far more destructive than anything that could be associated with a Hillary Clinton presidency should give concerned citizens pause. The wan exit of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan from the political stage, an able Catholic politician seemingly unwilling to confront the crisis faced by his party, is yet another destabilizing sign. It is hard to envision a party led by President Trump—who during the campaign relished mocking a reporter with a physical disability and then denied doing so—fostering the capacity to alleviate, in McElroy’s words, “every form of human suffering.” Or a president who led crowds chanting “lock her up” developing respectful bipartisan proposals. Reaching across political divides, then, must begin with a realistic acknowledgment of where political parties stand. But McElroy is exactly right that our most pressing need is not more manifestoes. Instead it is for what he terms “witnesses who radiate the solidarity that binds nations together rather than tears them apart.” 

John T. McGreevy is dean of the College of Arts and Letters and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

Cathleen Kaveny

Bishop Robert McElroy laments the “profound sickness of the soul in American political life,” a sickness whose defining symptom is our nation’s ongoing and increasingly bitter partisan divide. Especially painful to McElroy is the way in which some American Catholics have used their faith to spread the plague of political divisiveness: “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.” In so doing, McElroy contends, they harm not only the nation, but also the church, by setting member against member and teaching against teaching.

How can American Catholics begin to heal the wounds of partisanship? McElroy offers an intriguing two-pronged proposal: Catholic leaders should shift their rhetorical tactics and broaden their emphasis. Rather than continuing the present approach, which prioritizes didactic, even catechetical, reinforcement of selected elements of Catholic doctrine, McElroy urges bishops to awaken the Catholic imagination, inspiring their listeners to identify affectively with vulnerable people whose lives are very different from theirs. Second, McElroy urges bishops to expand their focus. Instead of concentrating on the articulation and defense of particular Catholic positions on discrete political issues, he calls for the inculcation of five broad political virtues: solidarity, compassion, integrity, hope, and dialogical encounter. McElroy prioritizes dialogical encounter because “it is the foundation for any genuine pursuit of the common good” within the communities of both the nation and the church.

Will this strategy work? I appreciate McElroy’s boldness and creativity and applaud his insights. Nonetheless, I think healing the damage done by political partisanship will also require critical scrutiny of the way in which the church’s doctrinal teaching has been deployed in the fiercest years of the culture wars. The dominant language has been that of prophetic denunciation, which has been a strong force in American rhetoric from the time of the Puritans. Unless that language is muted, the likelihood of dialogue is vanishingly small. But I think the temptation to broaden its scope will be very strong, even and perhaps especially as Pope Francis shifts the political balance of power in the church.

Consider the fate of the Common Ground Initiative, founded by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to bridge gaps between liberal and conservative Catholics. Prominent conservatives effectively torpedoed it by emphasizing elements of Catholic teaching congenial to Republicans (on abortion and marriage) while minimizing elements congenial to Democrats (on economic justice). In recent years, some have attempted to resurrect the project by demanding adherence to the entirety of Catholic teaching. They are attempting to restore balance, not by rehabilitating political liberals but by castigating political conservatives for their failure to embrace the entirety of the consistent ethic of life.

I doubt these efforts will result in a broadly dialogical and pluralistic Common Ground movement. It will more likely generate a tiny group of true believers who define themselves by their total conformity to official Catholic teaching. Furthermore, if they employ the method of prophetic denunciation against everyone who disagrees with them, they will end up alienating an even larger group of Catholics who remain in the church despite various conscientious disagreements with its teaching.

So how do we then facilitate dialogical encounter? I have three suggestions.

We need to restore the virtue of prudence to its rightful place alongside justice as an element of political-moral decision making.

First, we need to retrieve an important insight from St. Augustine: no one wills evil per se; everyone acts in the belief that they are pursuing some aspect of something good (sub specie boni). This is the key to interpreting our interlocutors charitably—even those with whom we have profound moral and political disagreements. If we ask ourselves, for example, what political good those who voted for Clinton (or Trump) were pursuing, and what evils they sought to avoid, we can begin to find common moral ground. If we find common moral ground, we are less likely to demonize our political opponents as a “basket of deplorables” or dismiss them as part of the “47 percent” dependent on government handouts. Consistently asking ourselves why and how others see their actions as promoting the good is one way to break out of the culture-war habit of undisciplined prophetic denunciation, which consistently assumes the worst about the motives of political opponents.

Second, we need to restore the virtue of prudence to its rightful place alongside justice as an element of political-moral decision making. We must begin by critiquing the truncated and distorted meaning of prudence proffered by conservative Catholic culture warriors who reduce it to a technical and instrumental virtue unrelated to moral decision making. On one hand, they argue that abortion and same-sex marriage are “intrinsic evils” that must be completely illegal—no prudential judgment is permitted. On the other, they contend that differences of opinion on tax reform and climate policy are purely differences of prudential judgment—no moral assessment is required.

In the Catholic tradition, however, prudence is not understood as cramped calculation in a value-free zone. As McElroy himself has repeatedly emphasized, it is a cardinal virtue that applies moral norms to the exigencies of particular situations. Another name for prudence is practical wisdom; it straddles and integrates the fruit of the moral virtues and the intellectual. So all decisions in the public realm involve prudence, and all prudential decisions involve judgments of both fact and value. Abortion may be an intrinsic evil, but prudence must illuminate our debate about its legal status in our highly divided society almost fifty years after Roe v. Wade declared it a constitutional right. Tax reform may involve calculations and economic predictions, but prudence would also have us cast a skeptical eye on approaches that disproportionately benefit the rich, such as “trickle-down” economics.

Finally, we need to find a way to rehabilitate prophetic discourse itself—to learn to condemn wrongdoing without manifesting self-righteous contempt for those we believe are doing the wrong thing. As Bishop McElroy emphasizes, the four great Americans Pope Francis invoked in his address to Congress show us the way forward. Abraham Lincoln condemned the South’s institution of slavery without excusing the North of its own complicity. Confident of God’s mercy, Dorothy Day was unblinking in her recognition of her own moral failings. Martin Luther King rejected racism while holding out hope of a reconciled and reformed beloved community. And Thomas Merton’s rich life of prayer taught him the most important lesson of all: that God cannot be conscripted and constrained by our own categories and political objectives. As the Book of Jonah teaches us, God wants a relationship not only with the Israelites, but also with the Ninevites—their enemies.

Cathleen Kaveny, a Commonweal columnist, teaches law and theology at Boston College. Her most recent book is Ethics at the Edges of Law: Christian Moralists and American Legal Thought (Oxford University Press).


Matthew Sitman

The name Donald Trump appears just once in Bishop Robert McElroy’s “Common Cause” address—and even then, it is an indirect reference, a nod to the “populist impulse” supposedly reflected in support for him. Despite this, Trump’s election seemed to loom over McElroy’s remarks, surely the most striking symptom, though certainly not the only one, of the “profound sickness of the soul” in American political life that he describes. And it was Trump that the audience wanted to talk about when McElroy finished his prepared remarks and took questions.

Different political regimes “produce” different kinds of people.

By an accident of timing, I was in Chicago in April and able to attend McElroy’s lecture. He clearly wanted to step back from the daily churn of political outrage, to speak not just about the “partisan divide” and polarization that mark the United States, but to a church that itself is deeply fractured. Despite these efforts, when those who heard his remarks got the chance to press him, what Trump is doing couldn’t be ignored. How can we heal our wounds when, seemingly every day, new ones are opened? Doesn’t any appeal to the “seamless garment” of Catholic teaching—which rightly claims that neither political party fully embodies “the dual and inseparable demands of Catholic faith” to care for the unborn and the poor and marginalized—amount to a form of both-sides-ism, one that ignores just how radical and dangerous the Republican Party has become?

These questions admittedly have some force. But they also amount to asking McElroy to have given a different talk, to be a partisan “resistance” fighter more than a bishop. Surely, even now, it’s worth taking a longer view, to think about the world we want to build as much as the exigencies of the moment.

And it is on that front, as I’ve thought about McElroy’s lecture, that there is room to question—or at least supplement—it. His call for a “political-virtue ethic that is prior to individual policy issues” is a welcome one, as is his emphasis on forming consciences and imaginations through an approach that is not just “cognitive and exhortational,” but “affective and inspiring.” In this, McElroy follows Pope Francis’s address to Congress when he visited the United States in 2015. The specific virtues he points to are also, at least in my judgment, ones we desperately need: solidarity, compassion, integrity, enduring hope, and dialogue and encounter.

But there is one point in McElroy’s address that strikes me as perhaps misguided. For him, properly forming the political imaginations of Catholics, imaginations “rooted in the virtues of the Gospel,” would mean people who “naturally gravitate toward bringing the Gospel message in its fullness” to their decisions as citizens. Only after crafting our consciences and political imaginations can we make decisions about specific policies and programs. Thus, in this account, personal formation takes priority over practical deliberation.

He’s not wrong, in one sense: we all really do bring a broader formation with us to any particular political decision, and our positions on, say, taxes or immigration, or whom to support in this or that election, follow from a range of assumptions, instincts, experiences, and background values. But what this ignores is how much our consciences and imaginations are formed by the political order in which we live—that is, by the institutions and policies that govern and structure our lives. Different political regimes “produce” different kinds of people. This is not determinism or a denial of our capacity to resist the powers and principalities of the present age, but a recognition that none of us float above the times in which we live. Statecraft really is soulcraft. There is even a fleeting, oblique acknowledgement of this in McElroy’s address, and it comes from a line of Thomas Merton’s that he cites: “Free by nature in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, an image of the world into which I was born” (emphasis mine).

The world into which all of us in the United States have been born is one that elevates efficiency and the logic of “the market” above solidarity and compassion. We talk of “human capital” rather than the dignity and worth of every human being. The powerful and rich exploit the vulnerable and the poor. As people struggle to feed their families or pay medical bills, it becomes increasingly difficult to look upon the “other” with generosity and empathy. Instead of viewing those around us as neighbors created in the image of God, we increasingly see them as “competition” for scarce resources. And it is those resources for which we send young men and women into battle, fighting forever wars that feed resentment and violence, and displace millions at every turn.

In such conditions, it is not impossible to form consciences and imaginations in the ways that McElroy suggests. But surely it is exceedingly difficult. If we desperately need the political virtues he describes, we also need much more than that. 

Matthew Sitman is Associate Editor at Commonweal.

Robert W. McElroy is the sixth bishop of the Diocese of San Diego. This essay has been adapted from the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Common Cause Address delivered by Bishop McElroy on April 18, 2018, at Loyola University, Chicago.

John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at Boston College.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Published in the June 1, 2018 issue: View Contents
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