Remarks by the Most Rev. Robert McElroy
University of San Diego
Center for Catholic Thought and Culture
Nov. 1, 2016
THE HEALING OF A NATION
The contrast between the beautiful vision of politics that Pope Francis presented while speaking to a joint session of Congress last year and the political campaigns that have unfolded in recent months could not be more heartbreaking.
In his address to Congress, Pope Francis began 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 the figure of Dorothy Day and her thirst for justice in the world, the Pope emphatically demanded that the economic genius of the American nation must be complemented by an enduring recognition that all economies must serve justice comprehensively, with special care for the poor.
Finally, invoking the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Pope Francis urged the nation’s 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.”
In Francis’ 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. It is a vocation that requires special and self-sacrificial concern for the poor, the unborn, the vulnerable and the marginalized. It is 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.
This same spiritual and moral identity is also emblazoned upon the most foundational act of citizenship in our society, that of voting for candidates for office. Thus, ultimately it is to the citizens of our nation as a whole that the challenge of Pope Francis is directed. Catholic teaching proclaims that voting is inherently an act of discipleship for the believer. But American political life increasingly frames voting choices in destructive categories that rob them of their spiritual character and content.
It is for this reason that the foundation for an ethic of discipleship in voting for the Catholic community in the United States today lies not in the embrace of any one issue or set of issues, but rather in a process of spiritual and moral conversion about the very nature of politics itself.
I speak to you tonight as a bishop who is part of a long tradition in Catholic episcopal leadership in the United States which holds that both the Church and society are best served when bishops refrain from publicly endorsing or favoring, either directly or indirectly, specific candidates in partisan elections. This tradition stretches back to John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States. It is reflected in the consistent practice of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops which issues its moral principles for guidance in presidential elections a full year before the elections itself, so as to ensure that the bishops will not be seen as tailoring their teachings to favor particular candidates.
It is sometimes said that this tradition of neutrality in partisan elections springs from the tax status of the Church, or from a desire to avoid divisiveness within Catholic communities. But in reality its foundation is far deeper.
It is a core teaching of Catholic ecclesiology that the sanctification of the world falls primarily to lay women and men. And it is a core teaching of Catholic moral theology that it is deeply within the conscience of the individual believer that key moral decisions must be made. The foundational assertion of democracy is that the average citizen is best equipped to guide society through electoral choice. The corollary within Catholic teaching which supports the democratic impulse is the proposition that in discerning which candidate will best advance the common good, the prudential decision of each citizen remains paramount. Thus while bishops must teach on principles of moral judgment, and outline key elements of the common good which are at stake in a particular historical moment, they should refrain from favoring particular candidates.
The Major Elements of the Political Common Good in Contemporary America
During his address to the bishops of the United States last year, Pope Francis outlined the major issues which constitute the political common good in the United States at the present moment: “I encourage you, then, my brothers, to confront the challenging issues of our time. Ever present within them is life as gift and responsibility. The future freedom and dignity of our societies depend on how we face these challenges. The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, war, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature,…. the family.”
These elements form the central moral claims that voters must weigh as they seek to approach their political responsibilities through a framework of discipleship. Hauntingly, Pope Francis advances these claims not as abstractions, but with the human faces of the victims who suffer concretely from the failure of our society to advance specific dimensions of the common good. As voters seeking to be disciples, we must maintain a focus on these very human faces, so as to inoculate ourselves from the powerful tendency in our culture to selectively minimize the power of any of these moral claims out of self-interest or partisanship, class or race.
Moral conversion to the common good requires an ever deeper affective understanding of how committing to the dignity of the human person radically embraces each of the issues that Pope Francis identified as constitutive of the common good of the United States at this moment in our history. It requires, in a very real sense, the development of “a Catholic political imagination” which sees the connections between poverty and the disintegration of families; war and the global refugee crisis; the economic burdens of the aging and legalized physician-assisted suicide.
Five Pillars of Life
As Pope Francis said to the bishops of the United States: “I encourage you, then, my brothers, to confront the challenging issues of our time. Ever present within them is life as gift and responsibility.”
At this moment there are five preeminent political issues facing the United States which are integrally related to the idea of life as both gift and responsibility.
The first of these is abortion. The direct destruction of more than one million human lives every year constitutes a grievous wound upon our national soul and the common good. It touches upon the very core of our understanding of life as gift and responsibility. As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si, “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is unwanted and creates difficulties? If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.’”
The second preeminent issue facing the United States today is poverty. In a world of vast wealth, more than five million children die every year from hunger, poor sanitation and the lack of potable water. Millions more die from a lack of basic medical care. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote: “just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” The United States is the most powerful economic actor in the world today, and an ethic of solidarity demands that America take dramatic steps to reform the international systems of trade, finance and development assistance in order to save millions of lives. Moreover, inside the United States, the realities of exclusion and inequality created by poverty are growing, menacingly sapping the solidarity which is the foundation for our national identity and accentuating the fault lines of race and class. In the richest nation in human history homeless live on our streets, the seriously mentally ill are all too often left without effective care, and our prisons overflow with young men who are disproportionately poor and of color.
A third preeminent issue centering upon life as gift and responsibility is the care for the earth, our common home. The progressive degradation of the global environment has created increased poverty and death among many of the poorest peoples on earth. Each year thousands of species are destroyed, lost forever to our children and to the earth’s future. Most chillingly of all, science has established the existence of anthropogenic climate change. Pope Francis underscored the urgency of global action saying: “Every year the problems are getting worse. We are at the limits. If I may use a strong word, I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.”
Another preeminent question at stake in the political common good of the United States today is assisted suicide. For at its core, assisted suicide is the bridgehead of a movement to reject the foundational understanding of life as gift and responsibility when confronting end-of-life issues. As with abortion, this movement corrodes society’s responsibility to secure the health of its members as an integral component of the common good. It obscures the real pathway to guaranteeing authentic death with dignity for all which lies in providing for every member of society a comprehensive continuum of care which includes skilled medical care, companionship, spiritual support and palliative care.
The final preeminent political issue facing us in this national election is that of immigration. As bishop of this border diocese I weep at the human suffering, destruction of families, degradation of children and teen-agers, and division within our society which comes from our national inability to find a just and comprehensive solution to our broken immigration system. Solutions which combine border enforcement, pathways to legalization and citizenship, and controls on future illegal immigration through reliable job security mechanisms have repeatedly come close to enactment during the past 15 years, only to be buried in partisan rancor. Our political leadership must solve this eminently soluble issue before it further corrodes family life and the cohesion of our nation.
Next Tuesday will be a test for our nation, a test about our ability to set aside the partisan rancor which divides us, and instead focus upon those central issues of the common good that confront us as a people. This test is deepened by our increasing recognition that voting is also a profound judgment about the character of the candidates, not only about their willingness and ability to enact what they have promised, but also because political leadership in our nation helps to forge and deepen, or to degrade and weaken the moral fabric of our society. The responsibility to vote stands as the primary call of citizenship in all democratic societies, and stands so particularly at this troubled moment in our national history.
A Deeper Responsibility
I have come to believe that in this particular presidential election year, while the responsibility to vote in the national election remains a first responsibility for our citizenry, it is not the most important one that we as Americans must perform for our democracy at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history. I am convinced that the greatest challenge to our democratic tradition will take place after the election, in the first months of 2017. There is a profound sickness of the soul in American political life. This sickness tears at the fabric of our nation’s unity, undermining the core democratic consensus that is the foundation for our identity as Americans. For us to confront and eradicate this sickness of the soul, it is necessary that there be four substantial conversions within our political life which cannot be merely the work of elites, but an undertaking of the whole citizenry.
- We must turn from warfare to governance.
The long tradition of an American political culture which valued coherent and effective governance has largely been evacuated in recent decades. The “war-room” mentality of the perpetual campaign is deeply corrosive to our society and to our national well-being.While partisanship will be forever intertwined with the action of governance, a dedication to governance over partisan gain must be restored in the coming months if our nation is to flourish, address its many deep problems and reconstruct a sense of authentic unity.
It is certain that some elements of shared governance will emerge in the configuration of Executive and Congressional power that will result from the election of 2016. The leadership of both parties must work together on practical issues which can command a majority and move to reform aimed at the common good. The ultimate trajectory of American democracy cannot be toward a partisanship which renders unity impossible and politics which turn the ethic of governance into a quaint anachronism.
For this to happen, we must demand governing patterns which do not involve continuing brinkmanship that destroy our unity, our credit, and our global reputation. We must forge anew a bipartisan foreign policy which uses the vast economic and military power of the United States to enhance the international common good. And the social media silos which make partisan animus the center of news coverage must be rejected as the enemies of American democracy and our nation, rather than their servants.
- We must turn from a culture of grievance to a culture of solidarity.
The principle 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.”It is in this fundamental recognition that the most central bonds of cultural and societal union can be born. Pope John Paul II, the major architect of this social doctrine, pointed unceasingly to the reality that all of us as citizens are bound together in God’s grace and committee “to the good of one’s neighbor, with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to lose one self for the sake of the other rather than exploiting him.”
Such a conversion within the United States will require deep self-scrutiny and reflection. It will demand a rejection of the tribal element of politics which sees voting as the opportunity to advance the well-being of our race, our class, our religious community at the expense of others.It will entail a purging of the inherent human tendency to allow anger and wedge issues to infect our voting choices. A spiritual conversion to solidarity among voters demands that we reject the increasing habit in our political culture of attributing all differences of opinion to ignorance or malice. And such a spiritual conversion prohibits us from framing political choice in the United States as essentially a competition between two partisan teams, one good and one bad, with all of the visceral enjoyment that such a competition brings.
Such a spiritual conversion to solidarity is not alien to the American political tradition.The Founders of the United States called it “civic virtue,” and they believed that it was absolutely essential for the success of the new experiment in democracy which 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 which at times it demands. It was their hope that a culture of civic virtue would lead to a politics of the common good.
- We must turn from selective outrage to tending the wounds among us.
If solidarity is the pathway to unity in our nation, it is equally true that compassion for those who are hurting in every sector of our nation must be combined with care, analysis and action. 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, rampant patterns of sexual harassment and assault directed against women, the fear that police face every day trying to protect society-- these are wounds in our society which tear at our social fabric and constitute immense human suffering that must be addressed. Yet in our overly politicized culture we place these elements of human suffering into different partisan boxes, sympathizing for those suffering if that suffering happens to fall into our partisan box.
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 is not the basis for social division or political identity, but rather first and foremost a demand for Christlike compassion.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, in solidarity meet our woundedness with care and action which are not filtered through a partisan lens.
- We must cease destroying the institutions which are necessary for our political life.
The corrosive nature of our contemporary politics is accentuated by the overpowering trajectory in American political life which subjects virtually every governmental and private institution in society to partisan scrutiny and judgment. There are governmental institutions in American public life for which it is essential to maintain a deeply non-partisan identity so that our democracy can function well, yet these very institutions are under attack. The Supreme Court has, from the time of the Bork nomination onward, been subjected to an increasingly partisan prism of judgment which has reached a point where leading members of the Senate ponder embracing a strategy of continually rejecting a priori the nominees of even a newly elected president. The F.B.I., which is central to the notion of fairness in the American system of judgment, is beset by conflicting partisan vortices which make it impossible to proceed on highly charged cases in a non-partisan manner. And the scientific and medical agencies of government, which are the envy of the world, are debased by partisan decisions not based upon science but partisan agendas.
Most chillingly of all, we are in these days embarking upon a presidential election in which 40 percent of the American people believe that the election may be stolen.
The sickness in the political soul of our nation will only be healed if society undertakes a massive regeneration of the political ties which unite us as a people and begin to see these ties as more important for us as a society than the partisan divisions which rend us apart. Let us ask our God to bring this most needed of blessings upon this nation which we all love so deeply.