Recovering from the Election Season

Recovering from the Election Season November 9, 2012

After being repeatedly warned by partisans on both sides that the fate of the universe hung on this election (a slight exaggeration perhaps, but only a slight one), I was surprised and relieved at how quickly the mood seemed to change on Tuesday evening – even before many of the returns were in – from the apocalypticism that had been building all year to something approaching a more business-as-usual perspective.  Obama supporters have had their moment to cheer, but without the messianic expectations of four years ago.  And among Romney supporters I’ve seen a remarkable change in tone from gloom-and-doom predictions should Obama be reelected to comments like, “Oh well, my guy lost.  Time to move on.”  If you don’t believe me, take a look at the appreciative comments from both sides on how the candidates handled the election results, which have earned popularity under this news item on Yahoo, of all places.

I’ll leave the endless election dissection to the pundits and analysts.  The real test now is whether our elected leaders will finally manage to work together – and just as importantly, whether we all will finally seek healing from the toxic political atmosphere we’ve been breathing for too long.  On this question, American Catholics have some serious soul-searching to do.

Our friends over at Catholic Moral Theology have offered some helpful insights.  Jana Bennett raises the crucial question of how Catholics divided along party lines can find a common voice – “not a Republican or Democratic voice – but a fully Catholic voice, one capable of witnessing the Gospel.”  The five points she puts forth to address this question are brilliant and balanced:

1. To be baptized is to be Catholic enough.   In this election, we lined up and chose sides, based on American ideologies and not Catholic doctrine.  In public discourse, it seemed we were either FOR the “Nuns on the Bus” or FOR the “bishops”.  We began election arguments by deciding that “those” people are not the truly pure Catholics, and therefore we don’t have to listen to their arguments.  But an inextricable part of Catholic doctrine is this: if we are baptized we are part of Christ.  We may still be mistaken, we may still sin, but we cannot simply dismiss each other.  And at the least, the virtue of humility would suggest that we ought to wonder if some part of what my brother or sister in Christ is telling me is an appropriate chastisement of my own soul.  Listen up!  We don’t want to go down the Donatist road of thinking that there are groups of pure Christians.

2. Libertarianism looms as the new Communism of the twenty-first century.  It is the new great ideological opponent of Christianity, alongside the closely related cousin of moral relativism.  I see trends in both the major parties that suggest a wholesale focus on individual autonomy and freedom of choice from both the government and society in general.  These libertarian impulses take on different foci (abortion, economic policy, etc).  But no matter where the focus begins, the architecture of the argument itself makes it very, very easy to capitulate to all kinds of evils – even coming from “the other side”.   Individual choice and conscience are important – but taken to extreme, a focus on individual choice means that I can always dismiss my neighbors’ concerns because “they made their own choices and have to deal with the consequences”.

3.  Don’t  underestimate the concern for the “least of these” in teachings against abortion.  Abortion is a litmus test precisely because it is concern for the smallest among us, for the “least among” us, who have the least power.  The teaching against abortion comes, in no small part, from the same teaching that guides Catholic thought about economics and politics.  Which is to say: the case against abortion cannot be made in isolation of the fullness of Catholic teaching, including social teaching.  I think that when we treat abortion as an isolated issue, we’re only hurting ourselves.

4.  But likewise, don’t underestimate the power of “the option for the poor.”  One of the most appealing and yet difficult Gospel texts is where Jesus baldly says: “Go and sell all you have, and give it to the poor; then come and follow me.”  But it has been so central to Christian witness in the past 2000 years and it remains one of the key aspects of Church teaching that Catholics hold dearly (it’s a close second to the resurrection according a 2011 NCR survey).  In an era where income disparity is high and the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 patently did NOT lead to a rise in middle class incomes, and in an era where unemployment is still high and people often have neighbors who are on the brink, if they themselves are not, Jesus’ discussion of poverty especially comes to the forefront.

I think Right and Left have much to say to each other on how best to care for the poor… but I also think that the Right’s argument very much got submerged by abortion and religious freedom – without also showing how all of those are intertwined.  And the Catholic Left often treated poverty as a standalone issue, which means it functioned like abortion as a galvanizing issue.  The result is that we Catholics were too willing to separate pieces of Catholic teaching and those teachings got snapped up as soundbites for political parties.  But it didn’t do the Church any bit of good.

5.  Don’t underestimate the power of evil.  I am very worried about the ways that (from both the left and the right), we have often carelessly thrown around terms from Catholic tradition like “conscience” and “intrinsic evil” and “prudential judgement” and “solidarity” and “subsidiarity”.   Our uses of these terms have enabled each “side” to give themselves carte blanche on supporting political parties that hold explicit and implicit positions that are gravely (if not intrinsically) evil – things like torture and acts of aggression  and abortion and racist policies.

Not to get too maudlin, but we are the Church.  Do we believe enough in Christ, our Head, to come together – or will we continue to be disparate voices blowing with the political winds of American culture?

David Cloutier adds some similar and complementary observations about the pervasive temptation of becoming beholden to ideologies, which relates to a loss of meaningful Catholic identity in the public square.  A few key points:

Our site and others certainly had a busy time debating the finer points of phrases like subsidiarity, prudential judgment, intrinsic evil, and option for the poor. Unfortunately, the pattern of misuse seems to be similar in all cases: a temptation to take the language and make it conform to policy programs from one party or another…. Bishops and theologians both have primary responsibility to the integrity of the Catholic moral tradition, not to partisanship.

“The Catholic vote” gets a lot of play, but for the second election in a row, Catholic voters virtually mirrored the national outcome. We have Catholics (very different) as vice-presidential candidates on both tickets. We have Catholics (very different) in charge of both parties in the House. We have a Catholic majority (not a united one) on the Supreme Court. Does identification as “Catholic” mean anything in terms of public philosophy?? Or does it just happen to be the case that we are a massive, diverse religious body, where self-identification sometimes continues even in the absence of much practice?

We have the resources for this public philosophy: it is called “solidarity,” and the last thirty years of social encyclicals – especially Caritas in Veritate, with its desire to bring together sexual,  economic, environmental, and technological issues – have given us plenty of things to do. “Solidarity,” of course, could easily become language on holiday. But it promises something else, too: an approach to public life that genuinely, and for deep philosophical and theological reasons, resists the fragmentation that is becoming endemic in our society.

Cloutier’s final “lesson” is reminiscent of what a number of us here on Vox Nova (most frequently Mark Gordon) have been saying about the mirror-image liberalisms of the left and the right:

The Democratic Party has a problem on sex, and the Republican Party has a problem on corporations (and the other party isn’t much better). “Solidarity” is really the uplifting center of a Catholic public philosophy. Its edge has to be its ability to be prophetic: to point out crucial issues that no one is willing to speak of, especially within a particular party. I think it is obvious what these problems are, because each party plays a bit of “pretend” in their rhetoric. On the Republican side, there is a rose-colored vision of free enterprise that seems not the least bit interested in challenging corporate power. John McCain, in his “maverick” mode, saw that corporate money was a huge problem. Dwight Eisenhower was unafraid to warn us about “the military-industrial complex.” Richard Nixon founded the EPA. If their vision of subsidiarity is to be a real one in any way, it has to call into question corporate power. On the Democratic side, the issue that will not speak its name is sex – because at the end of the day, abortion is an issue about sexual freedom, and the ongoing challenge of same-sex marriage is likely to be how to understand a legal relationship whose definition is now more or less entirely privatized. But the inability to speak about sex (and its extension, the family) goes much further. Familial breakdown is real, and it is a large-scale social problem, and it is much more of a scourge now in lower-income brackets. Sexual discipline and fidelity is a difficult, demanding task, but one that makes a huge difference in outcomes of education, psychological health, and economic success. Now, of course, the trick here is that the “other party” is not much better on these issues! Democrats have hardly been real tough on “the military-industrial complex” in the last few years. And Republicans, when they do talk about sex… well, they ought to stop talking, if yesterday’s outcomes in Indiana and Missouri are any indication. Catholics are in a fine position to bring up these really important, pervasive issues that too often seem to come down to consensual sex or consensual markets.

As we begin to recover at the end of a tense election year that has taken its toll on all of us, it is also time to begin asking ourselves: where do we, as a church, go from here?  A robust Catholic moral vision, outlined by committed theologians such as Bennett and Cloutier, is a good place to start.  I’m for taking Cloutier’s suggestion: “A politics of Catholic solidarity, well-thought-out, sufficiently provocative, full of conviction, yet notably non-partisan: how about we try THAT out to witness and to sow seeds of peace amidst this discord?”

Probably the most powerful starting point we have as Catholics is the Eucharist.  This year’s Election Day Communion movement, though predominantly Protestant, has reminded us of this.  Ben Irwin recently wrote, “We can’t go back to the status quo of polarization. We can’t return to our political idols. The bread and wine of communion have so much more to offer.  Our prayer is that we’ll always remember we are knit together in Christ, and no division can sever that bond.”

Our unity in the Body and Blood of Christ is and must always be much deeper than mere niceness.  It is a radical transformation: first of the Eucharistic species, then by extension of ourselves, and by further extension of our world.  Let us remember, and let us be Eucharist in the world – even in our politics.

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