A Sacred Calling: Recovering what politics is—and is not
Judge John T. Noonan Jr. described the Second Vatican Council as a “legislature in action” with a “right, center, and left” in The Lustre of Our Country, his book about the contributions of American law and civilization to the world and the Catholic Church. Such expressions are almost always taboo. They offer an unwelcome acknowledgment that the disciplines, doctrines and dogmas of the church, though they may be inspired by a watchful Holy Spirit, are defined by mere human beings through an imperfect human process of debate and negotiation.
Pope Francis appeared to push back against that idea at the meeting of the Synod of Bishops in October of last year when he said: “The synod is not a parliament, where in order to reach consensus we start to negotiate, making deals and compromises. The lone method in the synod is to listen to the Holy Spirit.” But I would like to think that Judge Noonan also has it right and that we should indeed think of the synod as a legislature, and not just as listening to the Holy Spirit. The two possibilities do not exclude each other.
When I teach my introductory course in American government, I give little attention to listing the three branches or enumerating checks and balances. Instead, and despite teaching at a public university, I enter my classroom with a holy zeal to spread a gospel with deep, not inconsiderable roots in Catholic faith: We must reclaim the sacredness of politics. To do that, I tell my students, we must recover a better understanding of what politics is and is not.
I begin the course with a little intellectual history. For the Athenians of the ancient world, politics was the greatest of all the arts because it aims to improve our common life. Aristotle believed the two noblest professions are teaching and politics. The Romans of the Republic, as much as the Greeks, also considered public service to be a good and honorable life, and we see this ancient legacy in the language that we use so casually today. Politics (politeia in Greek) literally means “the things we share in common as fellow citizens,” which makes politics everyone’s duty in the most communitarian sense we can say it. The Romans drove the point home with even greater emphasis, giving us the word “republic,” derived from res publica—“the people’s thing.” The city makes demands on all of us because the city we belong to also belongs to all of us.
The point becomes even more important as we move forward through the medieval period, with its development of republicanism in some of the small city-states of Italy, toward the modern, constitutional republics of our time. The civic humanism of the Italian republics carried forward the sense of a tightly knit community found in ancient republics while it also embraced a more inclusive, universal sense of human dignity—first in the arts, then in literature, philosophy and science and, eventually, in politics. Modern republicanism in constitutional forms of government that regard all citizens equally and include them as participants with civil liberty protections owes its existence to this historical development. Our system of government would not have been possible without it.
Our Political Tradition
But there is another important strand in our political tradition. The Catholic political tradition certainly embraces the classical ideas of pre-Christian philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero, baptizing them into Christianity in the work of figures like Augustine and Aquinas. These philosophers represent a long line of thinking built on a sturdy division between spiritual and temporal realms, church and state. Seeing politics in that way has been healthy, an important part of our political development, insofar as those ideas nurtured a basis for the healthy secularism we enjoy in the United States—one that obliges the state to abstain from religious preferences and to avoid needless intrusions on the consciences of believers.
Yet the division between the sacred and profane that has nurtured the freedom of the Catholic Church has had a less cheerful side effect. The protections guaranteed to the church have been won largely by raising the church above the worldly concerns of the state. This superiority of the church has nurtured a Christian brand of libertarianism in some precincts, a suspicion that the state is a realm of sinfulness. Elevating the church this way, we have reduced the dignity of politics. Subtly, our sense of the nobility of politics has suffered, so the idea that bishops in a synod or a council might be involved in a political process comes to seem tawdry to us.
But politics, in the sense of the tradition we inherited that sees it as a conversation about what is most important in our shared community, is in fact noble. Often it is not pretty, and we mere human beings are rarely at our best when we are in conflict. The councils of Jerusalem and Nicea were filled with conflict, and they were not pretty. Still, we believe that the Holy Spirit worked through those conversations to reveal something to us that is true and has stood the test of time. Throughout our history, dialogue over our disagreements has disclosed to us something new, something better than what we knew before. Our confidence in this tradition is proven in the way we have embraced the constitutional republic, a form of government that welcomes the participation of every member of the community equally in the hope that a process of dialogue will bring about a just outcome. In our most idealistic defenses of the American way, this is what we mean. We mean to evoke the nobility of our politics.
Such a form of government never satisfies everyone, and because it welcomes every point of view, it demands compromises. But these same characteristics explain why the modern constitutional republic preserves peace and promotes the development of civilization as well as it does. We have learned through bitter experience that the process by which we reach an outcome matters more than almost any outcome we reach. That process expresses our regard for the persons who are involved. Their dignity, not the policy outcome, is what politics really is about. For that reason, no outcome ever is perfect or permanent. Our system never intends for it to be. Instead, the conversation goes on.
In these ways, politics in the sense that we too casually use the word is both less and more than we mean. As a lasting solution for our most difficult human problems, politics is an insufficient instrument. Politics never offers us a permanent solution, a perfect settlement of justice. Another election always follows the last one we won or lost. Yet the procedural fairness of our political conversation is a historical marvel we take too much for granted. Modern, constitutional, republican politics expresses the communitarian reality of human life and the irreducible dignity of the human person as eloquently as anything we find in Catholic moral theology, and it does so in lived reality, daily, in the rough and tumble of human affairs. This is an impressive achievement.
The Pope Approaches Politics
For all of these reasons, I was tempted to say Pope Francis’ remark about the synod not being like a parliament was disappointing. His implication seems to be that the process of negotiating and compromising is not a process of listening to the Holy Spirit when, in fact, it seems clear that the Holy Spirit does speak to us and can be heard in the dialogues of politics. But while it is true that the church’s tradition has sometimes diminished the importance of politics and the state, perhaps Francis’ remark at the synod does not reflect a disdain for politics after all.
Throughout his encyclical letter “Laudato Si,’” the pope adopts an approach to politics that is at first puzzling. He points to how much “a healthy politics is sorely needed” (No. 181), a sentiment that expresses his faith in how much good politics can do. At the same time, he condemns “the myopia of power politics,” which is “concerned with immediate results” (No. 178) and “the mindset of short-term gain and results which dominate present-day economics and politics” (No. 181).
In fact, Francis tells us that he does agree about the loftier purposes and possibilities of politics. In “The Joy of the Gospel,” he writes, “Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good” (No. 205). Moreover, he identifies politics with “sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots—and not simply the appearances—of the evils in our world” (No. 205). It seems clear that Francis holds politics, defined as the search for our common good, in high regard. His message seems to be that there is something wrong not with politics as such, but with us and how we approach politics.
Throughout “Laudato Si’” and “The Joy of the Gospel,” the pope discusses politics in the light of the various ways we have allowed it to become corrupted. In “Laudato Si’” he says, “Politics must not be subject to the economy” (No. 189), and “There are too many special interests, and economic interests” (No. 54) that thwart the common good, and there is an “alliance between the economy and technology [that] ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests” (No. 54), while “politics and the economy tend to blame each other when it comes to poverty and environmental degradation” (No. 198). In “The Joy of the Gospel,” we see that “government leaders and financial leaders” (No. 205) are complicit with each other in the myopic, power politics the pope has condemned, and even the very “sovereignty of each nation” (No. 206) may be a part of our problem for how it fractures the human community into seemingly fixed groups of winners and losers, rich and poor, with one group insulated by sovereignty and the other group trapped by it.
It is in “The Joy of the Gospel” that Francis makes perhaps his clearest statement about what he means: “We have politicians—and even religious leaders—who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric” (No. 232). The church is not, after all, immune to the corruptions of politics. The processes of compromising and negotiating through dialogue are corrupted in both places by selfishness, or by special interests, or by an airy devotion to ideas at the expense of the real human beings who must live out our ideas in their daily existences.
The pope has laid before all of us a challenge to rethink our relationship to politics. He calls us in “Laudato Si’” to a “politics which is farsighted and capable of a new, integral, and interdisciplinary approach” (No. 197), and he names the “corruption” that has cost us our confidence in what we can accomplish together through politics. Perhaps more important, he has confronted the bishops in the synod and around the world with a challenge to re-examine how they interact with one another and with the lay faithful. Pope Francis has recognized that our political malaise is also a disease of the church. The manner in which he has led the Synod of Bishops suggests that he hopes, if he can succeed in calling the church to dialogue and to parrhesia (frank speech), that the church can be a model for a better politics for the world.
Pope Francis has called us all not just to dialogue but to a better appreciation of our true relationship to one another. In an important way, this is a recovery of what is noble about politics. Most of all, he calls on us in “Laudato Si’” to “regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for each other and the world” (No. 229). This is what we mean by politics, of course. It is a bond of “civic and political” (No. 231) love.
Of course the Holy Spirit speaks to us and through us when we gather with one another in dialogue as an expression of caritas, our sincere love for our community and for one another. This is the expectation that lives in the church’s adherence to tradition in its teaching, and the teaching tradition of the church is a dialogue among generations of Christians who have interpreted revelation. This also is why we must believe that there is no shame in calling a synod a parliament, or calling a council a legislature in action. We undertake something like sacred work whenever we enter into dialogue with one another, whether within the church or when we govern the state. We are fulfilling a scriptural mandate that links the divine commands to “Have dominion” (Gn 1:28) and “As I have loved you, so you should love one another” (Jn 13:34).
As the ministry of Pope Francis develops, it becomes clearer and clearer that his most important purpose is to call us to this dialogue in love. Only in this way can we hope to have a church that better serves the needs of the faithful. Only in this way can we hope to recover the esteem for politics that will enable us to bring justice and mercy to a world that needs them so badly.