Should politics make it easier to love one another?
Last month I wrote about a tendency to judge others according to their political choices. This can have negative effects on holiday gatherings. Friendships and family relationships can fray when political choices become the measure by which we decide whether our neighbor is worthy of our love. This is a result in part of a skewed vision of politics.
Consider the word "campaign." That is the word we use for the process by which a candidate tries to win an elected office. Its primary dictionary definition, however, refers to a military effort intended to achieve a specific goal. We view our politics as a kind of war. The effects of this view are legion.
If politics is war, then we fight with the soldiers and generals we have. It doesn’t matter how horrid a general is in his or her personal life as long as we win the war. It is no wonder, then, that so many are willing to compromise principles in order to protect a politician on "our side."
Also, since the formula for war is "kill or be killed," this means that political campaigns are not against fellow citizens with a different point of view, but against monsters. So it is no wonder that we treat those on "the other side" as deserving of our worst assumptions and our worst insults. Sadly, this attitude has crept into our faith life too.
Years ago I was at a presentation in Washington, D.C., hosted by a Catholic organization. The presentation was about our duty to advocate to our political representatives a Catholic vision for society through specific public policies. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but a presenter at one of our sessions then went on to argue that unless we win, that is, unless we get our public policy passed, we are not being faithful to Christ. Suddenly, being a faithful Catholic meant a specific kind of political success, for a specific public policy.
Happily, the people in the room, all of them Catholic, all of them in regular service to the poor, and from every different political background, bristled at this assertion. However, it revealed something deeply unhealthy. Some have conflated fidelity to the church and to Christ with specific political parties because they believe we are in a war. It has gotten so that some argue that unless the bishops say what I want them to say as often as I want them to say it, they are to be treated like shills for the other side.
What is the alternative? We read in the "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" that "life in society takes on all its significance when it is based on civil friendship and on fraternity" (no. 390). Politics, then, is not a war. It is a process of convincing our friends, inspiring them, articulating a perspective for advancing the common good. Politics is the realm in which we practice virtues like fortitude, justice, temperance and prudence. Politics for the Catholic must be marked by faith, hope and charity – and above all charity.
Again from the "Compendium," "The gospel precept of charity enlightens Christians as to the deepest meaning of political life" (no. 392). Politics is supposed to be a means by which we love. It is meant to be a collaborative effort by which we create a society where it is easier, not harder, to love one another.
During this Advent season, and as we gather with family and friends to celebrate the birth of our true Savior, I pray that we all practice a better politics by practicing more charity.
Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.