There’s a genocide of Christians going on in the world today, with ISIS rallying to “take down the cross,” according to its English-language magazine. There’s heightened anger and hostility and deadly violence — including the political manipulation of young men who need more integration not isolation, and outright slaughter of police — in urban streets. And there’s Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. When you question Trump supporters, they’ll tell you they love him because he’ll blow the whole political process up, so deep is their cynicism and frustration and distrust of government. And even though he’s made a career in Washington, socialist Bernie Sanders gave Clinton a run for her money in the primaries for similar reasons.
These are unsettling times with some bad choices — certainly when it comes to the leading presidential candidates. I hear not only the anger and frustration, but bewilderment, sadness and despair unlike the usual disgust people have been known to have with politics.
About eight years ago, in a book called “Patriotic Grace,” Peggy Noonan noted similar sentiments.
“Is anyone really in charge?” and “Is there a grown-up in the house?” were becoming what could be unifying questions, so common they were on the minds of many Americans. In the face of existential upheaval, these questions — and her observations and advice about leadership — ought to be considered without further delay.
For a long time, for lack of any easy opt-outs, most of us went along with the political motions, tuning in and out as people stuck to talking points in what pretended to be political debate and even news, in many cases.
Remember Hurricane Katrina? Noonan saw it as a gravely clarifying moment in our nation, where veils were lifted. “Our leaders, our mayors and governors and presidents, are pretty good at talking on TV and saying inspirational words, and at being charming in the Green Room, their real psychic home,” Noonan wrote.
“And yet,” she continued, “when the floodwaters rise and people take to the roofs and the looting begins, they’re … no more competent than you or me. Less, actually. That was the demoralizing thing: less. Even though this is what we have them for, the baseline responsibility we give them: to maintain the public safety, to defend the nation.”
And to think, that was then.
Today there is an increasing feeling of dread among many. There is a mourning or acting out in anger. Some are indifferent and distracted. But that may largely be because they otherwise feel powerless to do anything constructive about it. They feel convinced things are beyond our control, that our processes and policies cannot be relied on. And no words would console at this point. Certainly not from a politician. We’re at the point of such cynicism that the politician wouldn’t be believed anyway. Also, there would be little buy-in as such a display probably wouldn’t be as interesting as another candidate’s hugely entertaining one.
People ask me all the time what a Catholic’s to do in this election. Pray, fast and get on with the work of voting with a well-informed conscience, is what I tell them, reminding myself as much as anyone to make sure none of it is neglected — and that it’s a constant for citizens whose civic participation neither begins nor ends on an Election Day. That means remembering who we are and what we can and cannot support. That means paying attention to the candidates and not being cheap dates — that is, insisting candidates do more than pay lip service to human dignity and how that plays out in policy. (It is not enough for a man to say he is pro-life while otherwise fueling coarseness and bring on pro-life cover in a vice-presidential candidate, any more than it’s enough for a woman to be celebrated by Planned Parenthood and present Catholic cover in a veep choice.)
Vulgarity is not new to politics, but this is a particularly ugly moment. Here again, Noonan seems prophetic. Eight years ago, as President George W. Bush concluded his presidency, she suggested that “we can approach things in a new way, see in a new way, speak in a new way. We can fight honorably and in good faith, whole — and this is the hard one — both summoning and assuming good faith on the other side.”
She considered that her proposal was not only about rising above partisanship, but “remembering our responsibilities and reaffirming what it is to be an American.” It’s hard to take a passionate, compelling stand for a person or principle when we don’t quite remember what is fundamental and key to any hope of a fruitful future.
And yet, our politics have remained the same old. People mostly stuck to party sides as two Catholic vice presidential candidates operated with two sets of facts — reflecting our widespread partisan buy-in over rising to the challenges of conscience.
Reading it years later, I hear some of Pope Francis in the book. We can’t be lukewarm, we can’t be half-in, we can’t be box-checkers on this issue or that person. We Christians have to be all-in people of the Beatitudes.
This isn’t merely about civility, though that would be reason enough. It’s about human decency and dignity.
Noonan also diagnosed the growing epidemic of Americans treating politics as a religion. “It has become a faith. People find their meaning in it. They define themselves by their stands.” She wrote: “When politics becomes a religion, then simple disagreements become apostasies, heresies. And you know what we do with heretics.”
We see this, don’t we, play out when some of us consider ourselves pro-life and others for social justice? If we Catholics — in union with other Christians and people of good will — took our faith seriously when it comes to our civic lives, this wouldn’t have ever become our mode of operation. We would be rigorous in defending human dignity wherever it is threatened, compromised and violated. We couldn’t tolerate anything less. The demands of Christian love mandate it.
Noonan observed that this reality we’ve long settled has made us “partisans. And partisans can be bitter indeed.”
Bitter sure does sound like this election cycle. That is why it is long past the time for Catholics to do something about it.
This, in fact, should be the most liberating election of our lifetimes. It should be the election when we say “enough” to what Mary Ann Glendon, the former ambassador to the Holy See and Harvard University professor, describes as the primary way Catholics have operated in the United States: as turtles or chameleons. The history of Catholics in America in the public square has often fluctuated between hiding in our shells or surrendering to the culture instead of to Jesus Christ and his Gospel.
Pope Francis warns against ideological colonization. And we in the United States are often nothing but ideological colonies, blockaded in by noise and distraction that suppresses and exacerbates anger.
As New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan has called for, we need a national examination of conscience — on every issue, across-the-board, where the human person is involved. Is it any wonder that, after tolerating the ending of life in the womb for four decades, we’d be getting so many other issues wrong? We are a throwaway society, as Pope Francis has said. We tolerate something less than the best for our neighbors — and whether it’s indifference or insistence, it’s deadly for the soul of a nation. And that’s what we’re looking at in American politics today.
If you take a listen to Pope Francis on any given day — instead of what’s picked up by partisans to dismiss or manipulate — he’s giving us the tools to transform the culture. To not allow ourselves to be lukewarm in our faith. To pray. To go out way beyond our comfort zones and to never be indifferent to another. To live the Beatitudes. To give the world what it needs. To be who we were made to be and be who we say we are by virtue of our baptism.
While he was still cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio said: “The loss of credibility in the political arena must be reversed because politics is a very elevated form of social charity. Social love is expressed in political activity for the common good.”
That’s sure a different approach than we’ve been taking lately.
The cardinal’s advice is much in keeping with what the Second Vatican Council said about politics: “Great care must be taken about civic and political formation, which is of the utmost necessity today for the population as a whole, and especially for youth, so that all citizens can play their part in the life of the political community.”
The Council Fathers referred to “the very noble art of politics,” and rather than swearing it off cynically, that those called to it “should seek to practice this art without regard for their own interests or for material advantages.” It’s “difficult” work that requires “integrity and wisdom” to “take action against any form of injustice and tyranny, against arbitrary domination by an individual or a political party and any intolerance.” Political life, they said, demands “charity and fortitude” in “the service of all with sincerity and fairness.”
Courage. I find it hard to believe it is a coincidence that as both political conventions were going on this summer, 2.5 million young people were gathering as pilgrims in Poland to pray with the Holy Father. And, that it happened in Krakow, a city where St. John Paul II seems ever-present, still.
Remember John Paul II’s inaugural words as pope in 1978?
“Do not be afraid,” he urged. He observed a reality as timely today as ever: “So often today man does not know what is within him, in the depths of his mind and heart. So often he is uncertain about the meaning of his life on this earth. He is assailed by doubt, a doubt which turns into despair. We ask you therefore, we beg you with humility and trust, let Christ speak to man. He alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”
You may remember he said:
“Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it.”
Don’t those sound like marching orders for today? We need to hear the cry as critical today, as if he is saying it to us today for the first time. Just take another look at the news of violence in the streets, or refugees being disregarded and dehumanized, people being valued only for their convenience — and the fear that fuels so much anger.
The U.S. bishops, in their document on faithful citizenship, talk about prayer and fasting. That ought to be our starting point right now, as most are quite certain that things are going to get worse before they get better. It’s a power we neglect at our own risk, as we see. It’s a power our nation needs us to get serious about.
Noonan also happened to write a book on John Paul II, calling him “the Great.” She appreciated him as spiritual father, seeing the prophetic about him. Consider the saint the intercessor we need right about now as we go about the work we’ve been slow to get to, transforming our politics by being leaven and leaders true to who we claim to be as Christians.