In a nation yearning for an election that not only has meaning and substance but breaks through difficult gridlock issues, the Catholic teaching that every person is a sacred image of God entitled to reach his/her full potential provides a highly practical substitute for the “politics of division.”
The authors of A Nation for All, Chris Korzen of Catholics United, and Alexia Kelley of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, are both founders of organizations that promote the church’s social tradition for justice and the common good, which is poorly represented—or misrepresented—in American politics. They contend that because the country is overwhelmed by excessive materialism, hyper-individualism and the ugly disparity between the rich and poor, citizens feel blocked from political participation.
The struggle over the separation of church and state in particular has exacerbated the “culture wars,” which are a prolonged, all-or-nothing battle in the “politics of division.” Research shows, however, that the “cultural warriors” are largely out of touch with most Americans, who “want a political dialogue that’s rooted in values…and a civil debate that respects a diversity of traditions and differing points of view.”
A Nation for All provides a short but useful map that can help lead 67.5 million Catholics (24.5 percent of Americans) out of the political mire, not by telling them which candidates to support but rather by encouraging them to press the “common good” agenda. Here is what that agenda would look like:
The common good provides for the health, welfare and dignity
of all people and promotes the best interests of everyone, not just
the few. It ensures that we truly build the essential conditions for
a culture of life. It also focuses on helping those who need it most:
the poor and vulnerable.
Over the past 100 years popes have been formulating the Catholic social tradition in response to the many economic and social injustices that were triggered by the 18th-century Enlightenment and the 19th-century Industrial Revolution.
In his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Pope Leo XIII addressed child labor, sweatshops, displaced families, urban poverty and disease. And Pope Pius XI believed that government should act as a social change agent to rein in economic injustices brought on by both capitalism and socialism. His encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931) introduced the concept of “social justice,” which is especially applicable to questions of global peace and solidarity.
Pope John XXIII maintained that governments must promote the “common good” at the global level in his encyclicals Mater et Magistra (1961), on Christianity and social progress, and Pacem in Terris (1963), on world peace. National governments should maximize employment and employee ownership, increase state regulation of corporate directors, institute price controls and enhance social security.
Pope John also encouraged the faithful, especially young people, to engage the world and to apply Catholic social tradition to vital societal concerns through the “see, judge, act” method. In other words, one should read the signs of the times and the issues of the day in light of the Gospels in order to take a selfless and just political position.
He also convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which issued the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), further promoting social justice and human dignity concerns by developing a morality grounded in community instead of individualism.
Pope Paul VI concentrated on materialism and the accumulation of things in his encyclical The Development of Peoples (Populorum Progressio, 1967). He called for some restraint on corporations’ increasingly competitive nature, which provoked global poverty and war. “Development is the new name for peace,” he declared, and called on prosperous nations to be generous to poor nations (solidarity) and to end unfair and oppressive trade practices (social justice). He also called for wealthy individuals either to pay more taxes for development aid or higher prices for imported goods (universal charity).
Pope John Paul II focused on the centrality of human dignity and the protection of all life, both human and environmental, in The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae, 1995). He later promoted a “preferential option for the poor” and condemned the widening gap between the rich and poor resulting from international debt, illiteracy and the lack of affordable housing, in On Social Concern (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987). Finally, he encouraged the faithful to value people over things as a way of replacing modern society’s “culture of death” with a “culture of life.”
Pope Benedict XVI has addressed the fears and uncertainties of war, terrorism and climate change and threats to human life and dignity in his encyclical God Is Love (Deus Caritas Est, 2005). He recognizes that although the aim of politics is justice, special interest groups too often impede and inhibit justice. The church’s role, however, is not to formulate policy directly but rather to influence politics through Catholics willing to act on justice and the common good.
The authors of A Nation for All make clear that one’s Catholic values need not be compromised in various political debates or elections, but rather that people should “seek compromise on how these values are reflected in public policy.” A case in point is the abortion debate, where advocates of both sides draw lines around the legality of the procedure. This tactic unnecessarily divides Americans over “symbolic legislation that has no actual effect in the real world.”
A compromise on abortion “rooted in both values and cooperation” should instead generate conversation among citizens about how to prevent and reduce abortions by making sure that women and families have access to adequate health care, sex education, economic assistance and support for adoption.
In one sobering chapter, the authors illustrate how some organizations have tried to confuse Catholics. For example, in 2004 the nonpartisan group Catholic Answers produced the Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics, to provide background on five key “nonnegotiable” issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, human cloning and stem cell research—that just happened to favor President Bush’s platform.
The U.S. bishops dismissed the Voter’s Guide as theologically inaccurate and then issued Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, which they revise before every presidential election. The edition prepared with the 2008 election in view, titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, is grounded in Catholic social teaching and lists 50 “moral priorities for public life” that provide Catholic voters with a “moral framework” for evaluating candidates without telling them how to vote.
Our job as Catholics, say Korzen and Kelley, is not only to follow the “higher laws of morality” to which we subscribe as members of the faith, but to convince others in the political and cultural arena of these laws’ moral and social value. This persuasion tactic comes right from St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who advised that Catholics live out their faith in order to influence the political system.
America recently reported that Catholics, especially the young, do not know their religion. A Nation for All summarizes Catholic economic and social teaching; it might also inspire more Catholic leadership in our parishes, schools, neighborhoods and cities—and in American politics itself.