It’s interesting to see Roman Catholics appropriating Luther’s doctrine of vocation. Traditionally, Catholics have used the term to refer only to the calling to be a priest, a monk, or a nun. Matthew Cantirino here discusses a prominent Catholic thinker who says that we have a “baptismal vocation” to participate in the political process. It’s not quite as clear as Luther’s point that we have a vocation as citizens. Still, at a time when many Christians are giving up on civic engagement and many others are misinterpreting what that means (NOT to take over so as to Christianize the government), the doctrine of vocation can help sort out our responsibilities, namely, to love and serve our neighbors in our civic life and political duties.
Harvard Law professor (and longtime First Things contributor and supporter) Mary Ann Glendon offers advice to young Christians inclined to politics in a recent interview with the National Catholic Register. Her main point is one especially worth noting in an election year: that while an obsession with the contemporary political scene can often distract us from more enduring truths, it still must be taken seriously and engaged thoughtfully. Glendon even goes as far as asserting that:
“Nearly everyone who takes his or her baptismal vocation seriously has some form of calling to participate in that process [ie, politics broadly understood], as he or she is able. If we Christians truly believe we are called to be a transformative presence in the world — to be salt, light and leaven — we have to do our best to improve the conditions under which we live, work and raise our children. Even our cloistered contemplatives are not merely meditating on the mystery of the universe — they are praying for the world.”
This is helpful advice for Christians in the public square today, where a sense of defeat can become overwhelming. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a movement among some on the ‘religious right’ towards shunning—even disdaining—politics altogether. This attitude has enjoyed a resurgence as something of a reaction to the previous decades of alliance between Christian leaders and partisan figures, especially in more fundamentalist circles. And, and Glendon notes with concern, many of today’s brightest and most devout students scarcely consider a political career at all, often believing it to be a certain path to corruption.
Ultimately, however, as Glendon points out, this retreat impulse is misguided, overwrought, and even dangerous, as it allows others very hostile to religious faith to step in and have free reign. It is, as the ironic title of her lecture and interview alludes to, an implicit agreement with Max Weber’s thesis that “he who lets himself in for politics … contracts with diabolical powers.” So, she concedes, while “culture” may indeed more important than “politics” narrowly construed, there is a larger sense in which the latter is a constitutive element in the former. Referencing the example of Vaclav Havel, she calls the two part of a “two-way street” and notes that the two are, to a significant extent, inseparable. Especially in today’s America, where (national) politics occupies an admittedly bloated position, Christians really don’t have much of a choice in the matter.
The conventional approach to politics is that everyone should follow his or her own rational self-interests. The vocational approach says that we must deny our selves in love and service to our neighbor. How might that latter emphasis manifest itself in a Christian’s political engagement?