The Work Ahead

In one of the most hotly contested presidential elections in decades, President Barack Obama won his bid for re-election over a challenger who, just a few weeks earlier, seemed to have the presidency within his reach. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, a formidable campaigner and debater, was gracious in defeat. Mr. Romney telephoned the president shortly before 1 a.m. to congratulate the man he had tried to unseat and to offer his support in the next four years. “This is a time of great challenge for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation,” he told supporters.

Whether that prayer is answered depends on whether Americans can be as gracious to one another as Mr. Romney was on election night. The new Congress and the president must find a way to break the political gridlock that has paralyzed the capital. Politicians, however, are hardly the only ones who have demonstrated an inability to listen and a pernicious habit of name-calling. The sad fact is that Catholics and other Christians can be just as divisive, and just as overly partisan and ideological, as the rest of our fellow citizens. At times in this election, a disinterested observer could be forgiven for failing to discern a qualitative difference between the public discourse among American Catholics and that of the country at large. The so-called Catholic left too often accused the so-called Catholic right of not being Christian enough, while the right too often accused the left of not being Catholic enough. Such tactics are incompatible with our self-understanding as a communion of believers.


Still, Catholics also made positive and meaningful contributions. The 2012 election was marked by a remarkable degree of Catholic participation. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and many Catholic leaders and citizens joined in the public debate, defending the traditional definition of marriage, debating the ethical implications of the Affordable Care Act and working to strengthen the church’s prophetic pro-life voice. Other voices, including the Nuns on the Bus group, which grew in prominence as the election continued, emphasized the church’s teachings on other matters of social justice, the need to care for the poorest of the poor and to preserve the social safety net. Catholic commentators and theologians of every political stripe were also not shy in offering their “Catholic perspective.” Ultimately, because both major presidential candidates held positions at odds with important Catholic teachings, neither candidate dominated the Catholic vote. Mr. Obama’s margin of victory among Catholics was only two or three points.

The church in the United States now faces a dual task. In addition to continued witness and advocacy on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, the church must also draw on its spiritual resources to forge a new form of discourse, one based in charity.

So how can we model cooperation in an era of gridlock? Catholics understand that the Holy Spirit works in all people. In our tradition the most unlikely people sometimes have the most to contribute to the church; saints are often drawn from the ranks of the poorest and most obscure. Every life is sacred, and everyone has a unique vocation to help the church in its mission on earth. In the secular sphere, this notion that everyone at the table has something to contribute may help to unite an increasingly fractious country. Only when one holds to the principle that the “other side” might have something meaningful to say does genuine listening become possible.

At the beginning of his classic Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola offers these words: “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.” In other words, give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Assume that he or she is working for the good. This is as important in political life as it is in the spiritual life. Emotionally charged public policy issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, health care, defense spending and religious freedom are difficult and complicated enough without the added hindrance of hyperbole and invective.

This magazine, of course, is not immune to the disease we diagnose. At times in our history, we too have been a part of the problem. With Christians everywhere, we seek forgiveness, for what we have done and for what we have failed to do. We pray that all people of faith, that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, indeed that every citizen will reject the politics of division and remember that everyone at the table is not only welcome, but worth listening to. While the progress of both the church and society relies ultimately on the grace of God, it also depends in no small measure on our willingness to trust one another.

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Bill Freeman
5 years 7 months ago
Randy - You state: " This administration is the worst thing to happen since Roe v Wade started killing generations of babies. President Obama is pro-abortion - period."  This is simply not true.  He has in place the same policies as GW Bush and Clinton - NOTHING HAS CHANGED.  You certainly are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.  

Also, the majority of American's are pro-choice.  That's what it means to live in a democracy - accommodating to the rule of the majority.  If you don't like this, there are many other countries to take up residence.   
Palmer Glenda
5 years 7 months ago

Editor's Note: 

My brothers and sisters: I implore you to heed the principle message of this editorial and converse with one another in a spirit of charity and humility. I ask this not simply in the spirit of the editorial, but in the spirit of the Gospel. We can disagree, of course, but a discourse based on Gospel values will avoid:

1. Casting aspersions on the motives of our brothers and sisters.
2. Scapegoating.
3. Engaging in hyperbole or exaggeration.
4. Anonymity.
5. Hopelessness.

Christians must never be afraid to speak the truth. But we must always remember that, ultimately, truth is a person and his name is Jesus Christ; He is “the way and the truth and the life.” No statement, therefore, however factually accurate it may be, can ultimately be called truthful if it is not spoken in charity.  

Matt Malone, S.J.
Editor in Chief 

David Pasinski
5 years 8 months ago

Who could ever speak against mutual respect and comity?

Yet in these days since the election both the bishops informally and in their episcopal meeting have sent out new salvos and the Republicans have thus far failed to accomodate to the idea of new taxes on the most wealthy. Sometimes one must stand one's ground and ecognize differences with respect,

But the bishops have shown a paucity of that and the Republicans continue to contest the eelction results by other means...

Comity is a long way off...

Leonard Villa
5 years 8 months ago

I am glad you used so-called left and so-called right because those categories, products of ideology, rooted in 1789 never reflected reality either in the Church or society. They are intellectual projections of 1789 and its projeny down the ages. The intellectual discussion should be about truth and error based on objective standards and the simply the ideas of the thinking subject.


Leonard Villa
5 years 8 months ago
Corrected post: The last sentence should read "and not simply the ideas of the thinking subject."
Robert Henning
5 years 8 months ago
Mr. Romney's "gracious in defeat" comments to the President were short lived, as he immediately began making the same old critical remarks about the President to his big money backers.  Disparaging remarks about President Barack Obama's "gifts" to core constituencies that bought the election.  Remarks that were so over the top that many other Republicans slammed Romney for making them.  Looks like the same old Mitt to me.

As for the gridlock in government and the lack of civility between various sides in discussions... I would love to see it end, but when "leaders" (and I use the word loosely here) such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell come out swinging with the same old rhetoric just a few days after the election I have little faith that the gridlock will end soon.
Michael Burke
5 years 8 months ago

Thank you, Editors of America for observing:

"Politicians, . . . demonstrate[d] an inability to listen and a pernicious habit of name-calling. . . . Catholics . . . can be just as divisive, and just as overly partisan and ideological, as the rest of our fellow citizens. [There is no] . . . qualitative difference between the public discourse among American Catholics and that of the country at large.

. . .

"This magazine, of course, is not immune . . . we too have been a part of the problem. . . . we seek forgiveness, for what we have done and for what we have failed to do. We pray that all people of faith, . . . will reject the politics of division and remember that everyone at the table is not only welcome, but worth listening to. While the progress of both the church and society relies ultimately on the grace of God, it also depends in no small measure on our willingness to trust one another."

I join your prayer. Now, if only we could get the shape and size of the table correct* . . . we would not have to wait for the event described by Jesus in today’s Gospel, Luke 17:26-37, when "one will be taken, the other left."

* an allusion to the early work of the Paris Peace Talks near the end of the Viet Nam war.


I guess I need to pray with a more optimistic and hopeful expectation that my prayer will be answered.



Julia Smucker
5 years 8 months ago
I would highly recommend this article except for one thing: it makes the nuns and bishops sound like their own polarizing political blocs, which unfortunately is how many Catholics in America have interpreted their stands. It's not really as simple as the bishops being pro-life and the nuns being pro-justice (with the implication being that the other body doesn't care about the other set of issues). They have agreed not only on the broader importance of these things but on certain specific issues as well, such as their common critique of the Paul Ryan budget proposal for its neglect of the poor.
Robert Sherman
5 years 8 months ago

The Bishops should simply have told people not to vote for President Obama. Trying to lead a flock that is so unaware of American history, rights and responsibilities of citizenship of the role of government in society by reason alone isn't working. Publications like yours are not helpful. The extent of moral relativism in the Church is like a spreading disease.

No Catholic who thinks about it can condone either abortion or the death penalty. There is a separate medical issue between doctor and patient when it comes to saving the life of the mother.

You never see a discussion in the liberal press of why our social service programs are failures. Food bank use is at a record level at the same time that 47 million people are on food stamps. There are more people that are homeless. Only the not for profit sector is reaching out to them. The functional organizations that helped after Hurricane Sandy were the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, local churches, etc. Not the government. But liberals like big government programs that employ a lot of highly paid professionals that provide no direct benefits. Look at HHS as a fitting example of enormous waste and cost while restricting services.

Many of us have come to the conclusion that government programs that have taken over from religious and private charities have failed the people they are supposed to serve. Maybe it is time to go in the opposite direction. That would give your editors some fruitful work to engage in.

Mike Evans
5 years 8 months ago
It seems the gospel has its left and right verses, useful for putting down any dissent. But I think I would go with the 'nuns on the bus' approach which seems way more open to the spirit of conciliation and compassion than hard line judgmentalism. Their stance if far more Christ like and a simple and humble questioning presence. Of course every person deserves decent health care, education, shelter, food, clothing and opportunity to succeed. Every father and grandfather wants to simply bounce laughing children on his knee and hold them close and safe. Every mother wants to nurture, feed, and sustain their kids in both body and spirit. How can we stray so far as to make these human aspirations the object of such terrible conflict? Jesus is weeping. Let us simple keep calm and carry on with the Lord as our guide, whereever he goes.
Virginia Edman
5 years 8 months ago
"The Bishops should simply have told people not to vote for President Obama."

They tried that last election and it did not work.  Why did it not work? 

1.  President Obama is the better candidate.

2.  No one listens to the bishops anymore because of their rigid thinking.

3.  Mitt Romney alienated women and Obama did not.

4.  Mitt Romney alienated Latinos and Obama did not.

5.  Mitt Romney alienated young people and Obama did not. 

6.  Mitt Romney did not care about 47% of the population while President Obama cared about all of the population. 
Ken Shick
5 years 8 months ago

Other responses have pointed out some of the faults with this article. But overall this article is an excellent start. We need much more examination of this issue because it may be the most important issue in America dividing parishioners against parishioners, and family against family. The division and hatred outside the Church is just as much present inside the Church. If the Church can't solve this divisiveness do we expect Government to do the job for us? This election didn't solve a thing in the sense of changing minds and hearts. One thing that will surely solve the problem on the electoral landscape is the changing demographics in America but do we all want to be at war until that happens conclusively? The poor and the middle class who are suffering from lack of opportunity and growth might prefer not to wait that long. In the meantime if priests get up the courage to teach the Church’s whole platform on social justice in their suburban bubble Churches then people may find that they have more in common with each other and with Jesus. Now all they have are differences.

Michael York
5 years 8 months ago
I agree with many of the above. The fact that the Bishops sided with Romney in this latest election just reinforces my feeling that Jesus was being sarcastic in suggesting Peter as the Rock of the Church. If any group of people could be less sympathetic with the Logia of Yeshua, it is the current group of American Bishops and Cardinals.
5 years 8 months ago

I agree with the premise of the editorial but there was something about the "tone" that I found pedantic and condescending. Appeasement has never stopped a war. We pray, "blessed are the peace-makers" which implies that those at war actually want peace and find nothing of value in their violence toward each other. While trying to hold an optimistic view, I find that whether in governmental politics or the politics of the Church, the participants all think they have something to gain and something to lose.

Politicians need to keep their base voters thus they continue to play to the issues they think will sell. Further, outrageous rhetoric gets their names and faces in the news. Even further, with tidy government pensions, perks of office and minions to do their work, making decisions that hurt the 47%+ has no hurtful consequences for those policy makers that hawk the party line without compromise or collaboration.

Does it look any different in the Church? Think about how we "elect" our leaders. We don't. They are selected from among those who best tow the party/Church line and the "faith" they proclaim is often narrowly defined, weakly supported in the scriptures and the product of the days when the Church and the Roman EMpire were best buddies. To attack the President publically makes headlines and in current Church climate, such headlines might lead to a red hat. Our Church leaders have absolutely nothing to lose. Pastoral care is a lost art in too many dioceses.

The common thread I see in both scenarios is a weak, uneducated, unmotivated and fearful citizenry. The most promising event in this election was the long voting lines. It showed a "fired up" citizenry. If that energy can be mobilized, our country has a chance to be truly great once again...from the bottom up.

Now all we have to do is find that kind of energy within the Church....a much harder sell.

Respect for others is a no-brainer. Yet it is difficult to respect the willful ignorance of ushers talking in the narthex about "that Muslim running for President who isn't even an American..." Attempts at conversation only underline the gap. Or how about the priests in several parishes who actually used their homily time to tell parishioners that if they voted for President Obama they would be commiting a mortal sin and go to hell.

Sorry, I'd rather eat alone than at that table...... it would be a near occasion of sin.

Palmer Glenda
5 years 8 months ago
Full names, please, as per our comments policy.
John Barbieri
5 years 8 months ago
After signing the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin remarked: "We must all hang together. For, most assuredly, we shall all hang seperately!"

Pope John XXIII said: "Because we are human, there is always more that binds us together than what seperates us."

How warm! How witty! How wise!
Respect starts with civility.
I'm going to try to do better. 
Don Roberto Hill
5 years 8 months ago
Wishful thinking when the issues are so important.  And as evidenced by some commentators above, a large proportion of people who call themselves Catholic seem unaware that we owe our bishops and the Magisterium respect and obedience.  The Holy Spirit may speak to anyone, but only the Church is inerrant.  If your "spirit" is telling you something that contradicts Church teaching, you may want to check his ID. 

Being Catholic requires more than repeating the Creed and occasionally attending Mass.  For an educated person, it means learning the Faith.  If you know a lot about your worldly affairs and hobbies, there is no reason not to know your Faith. 

It's hard for me to understand how one can think that it is morally acceptable to vote (along with every libertine Hollywood starlet and doped-up purveyor of popular "music") for a party with a platform that violates our core principles—whose membership literally booed God at their convention.  It is okay to argue over whether to vote for the lesser of two evils; it is not acceptable to approve of evil (e.g., by voting for it when there was an alternative) or teach that evil is good (as liberal judges and politicians do by promoting abortion—of which we can anticipate five million examples over the next four years). 

My recommendation is more prayer and religious study, and less TV and secular activities.  (Count the hours spent on each and then ask again why your kids disagree with the Church on so many issues.  If you bathe in mental manure for long, you're bound to come out thinking "funny.")  Humility is critically important.  If you think you know all you need to know about your Faith, consider how Jesus (or Socrates) would respond to such an assertion.    †
Bill Freeman
5 years 7 months ago

Confusing article.  I do not see that the official Roman Church (you know, the ones with the power and control of the money and property) had ANY bearing on the election.  Really, quite the contrary.  At best, the hierarchy was an annoying distraction.  And the results of the election demonstrate this.  Romney was soundly defeated in the electoral college, the GOP agenda was clearly defeated, progressive candidates won across the country, gay marriage won in all four ballot initiatives, even the recreational use of marijuana won in four states.   

If anything, the election was a very clear demonstration that the Roman Catholic Church holds positions in stark contrast with the rest of the U.S. (and no, I don’t believe it is “witnessing” to anything).  I do believe that the Church is becoming more of a cult than an actual voice of conscience particularly on moral grounds. 

Hammered by the worldwide and never-ending sex abuse scandal with a near mafia-like cover up, Philadelphia’s jailed vicar of clergy, the embarrassment of convicted Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, the recently convicted Archbishop of San Francisco on DUI charges (a true insult to that great city). . . Need I add more? 

And for those who would say that "the people are the Church," I'd say, please wake up.  If you can vote for the next pope, then I'll buy that line, until then, I'll just watch the Roman Church continue to marginalize itself from other denominations and the American electorate. 

Randy Schmidt
5 years 7 months ago
How can anyone who voted for the current administration call themselves Catholic? This administration is the worst thing to happen since Roe v Wade started killing generations of babies. President Obama is pro-abortion - period, should be end of the discussion as we all think about the final judgement and what each of us did to stop the killing.
Sara Damewood
5 years 7 months ago
Thanks for this! It does seem that we Catholics should model peaceful cooperation and collaboration.
Thomas Rooney OFS
5 years 7 months ago
@Bill Freeman - The United States of America is (idealistically, anyway) a Consititutional Republic, not a Democracy. 

While we democratically elect representatives to govern us, they are rightly bound by the Consititution and law on the local, state and federal levels.  Simple democratic "accomodation of the majority" can and does result in a brutal trampling of individual rights.


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