It's time for Catholics to reassess how we engage in politics.

People watch Pope Francis give a blessing from a balcony of the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register) 

I followed the returns on election night from a hotel room in Barcelona. As the evening evolved (or devolved, depending on one’s perspective), it was increasingly clear that a huge swath of voters was sending a powerful message to another huge swath in the only way it now could: through the blunt instrument of the ballot box. In those halcyon though still imperfect pre-Google days of American politicking, such messages were also exchanged before the balloting through reasoned public debate, informed by objective data, established by universally credible sources. This was known as public discourse. And it is very nearly gone.

Some Spaniards told me that looking at the United States from abroad, it seems that politics has become our national pastime, our principle social and cultural pursuit. But it is a politics without argument, I replied, which is the most dangerous kind of politics. While it might seem as if we were engaged in a vigorous public argument for the past 20 months about the direction of our country, what this election actually revealed was the extent to which public argument, in the truest sense of the term, is nearly impossible in the current American political climate.

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The theologian John Courtney Murray, S.J., reminded us that “disagreement and argument are rare achievements, and most of what is called disagreement and argument is simply confusion.” An argument, in the classical sense, requires allegiance to a shared set of principles, as well as general agreement about the data of experience or, to put it more simply, the facts of the matter. Yet the partisans who now command our attention claim a right not only to their own opinions but to their own facts. This is a consequence of the overpowering and destructive influence of post-factual ideological partisanship, which has reduced public discourse to a street fight in which victory has displaced the common good as the ultimate end. Yet the common good is something to which we can all aspire, while victory obviously is not. “Victory is a myth,” David Neuhaus, S.J., recently told America: “The idea that you can be victorious gets in the way of pulling down the walls. And when we speak as church of pulling down the walls, we are speaking first of a process that we must undergo.” In other words, prescinding from the fact that neither political party represents the totality of a Catholic social worldview, and that Catholics who are committed to that totality are politically homeless, the crisis in our public discourse is so profound and poses such a clear and present danger to the body politic that Catholics must fundamentally reassess our public engagement. We must ask how we have been complicit in the demise of public discourse and what distinct and essentially Catholic contribution we can make to fixing it.

Now is the time not to rebut but to reframe the question. We must ask not what our country can do for us but what it is doing to us and what we can do for it in turn. It starts by remembering, as William T. Cavanaugh has observed, that there is more to the church’s public witness than the tired quadrennial debate about whom we can vote for. Such questions, while important, are mere politics. Yet if our democracy is to survive and prosper, then our politics must become less important. It must yield to public argument about the ends of our common existence rather than the mere means. Make no mistake: The end of true public argument presents a profound crisis for democracy, a greater threat to the health of the body politic than that posed by the worst of the policy proposals of either major party.

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Lisa Weber
1 year ago
The Catholic Church could set an example of how to have a debate and take effective action if it undertook to develop womens' leadership. We are entirely disenfranchised within the Church and are expected to bring the Church message to the world. What message are we supposed to bring? The message we are told to? The Church could be teaching us how to be effective leaders in the world, but it won't even teach us how to be effective leaders in the Church. This is a good article, true enough as far as it goes. Thanks for publishing it.
Gerald Gioglio
1 year ago
Nice piece. You know, we can start this by looking at the various tenets of Catholic Social Teaching and at the Catechism and match them with the policies and appointments proposed by political parties, candidates and elected politicians....and then after prayerful consideration, take a stand. For example, my understanding of our teaching is that 'Racism is a sin." So, when I see a nominee for White House service, who is a public and blatant racist proposed as a advisor, I must as a Catholic and a Secular Franciscan take necessary action within our democracy to oppose this appointment.
ed gleason
1 year ago
Gerald Gioglio speaks for me.
Sharon Goodier
1 year ago
There is another fact here. The fact that the liberal/progressive/left establishment to which I belong has consistently refused to listen to the concerns of the lower middle class, unskilled working class, lower class and the poor, the immigrants, the refugees. Now we are having our nemesis, in Canada, too, which is where I write from. Democracy means government by ALL the people, for ALL the people not just by the elected and the educated elites. It's time for churches to speak out about the elitism that has slowly crept into the national political discourse in both Canada and the US, maybe Britain, too. In Canada, churches are afraid to speak up lest they lose their charitable status by being too political. I hope that's not the state of affairs in the U.S. too. Sharon Goodier is a Toronto poet who has been published in various U.S. magazines. A poem expressing this view is currently circulating at several Canadian and American magazines. This is what it means to "keep the faith".
Henry George
11 months 4 weeks ago
Thank you Sharon.
Henry George
1 year ago
I have never understood how Liberals Elites say they have a deep concern for the poor yet spend as little time with the Poor - lower half of Wage Earners - as possible. In Manhattan wealthier parents are fighting tooth and nail to keep their children from being assigned to a local Public Grammar School that has a majority of Minority students. We are told that we are never to turn away any immigrants - documented or un-documented and we are told they only take jobs that Americans will not do. But that is simply not true. This false charity leads to the exploitation of the immigrants who are hired "Off the Book", expected to work long hours without overtime and to be paid less than a minimum wage. Meanwhile, native citizens who have to compete with the Immigrants are just ignored. And so the Elites can have Immigrants as their dutiful near slaves: to be their Nannies, their Maids, their Gardeners, their Servants. Was it just for the Federal Courts to tell a small Southern California town to educate the children of newly arrived migrants, hired by a corporate farm, and to provide them medical care at the local public hospital - all the while going bankrupt because the costs were not fully paid by the Immigrants ? Did the Federal Government, that mandated these services, pay the little town for these services ? No, and so the town was forced to dissolve the School District, to close their small Hospital. Everyone suffered because the Elites mandate what they consider to be justice while the whole time never visiting the people they expect to immediately, and without question, follow their judicial orders. So of course resentment rises, not so much to the immigrants per se, but to the ever smaller slice of the pie that the poor of America have to fight over, while the 1% and their devoted minions live lives of luxury that Louis XIV never dreamed of and then console themselves by naming themselves "Cosmopolitans". I used to wonder how the French Revolution came about and why it was so brutal. I don't wonder why anymore and how, once the fire of the fuse was lit, the Revolution began when it did. The Church needs to fight not only for simple justice for Immigrants but for all the poor in America, all the Poor, not just the one's the Elites like to employ as slaves, but all those in Brutal/Crushing Poverty.
MaryRuth Stegman
1 year ago
I would agree that Catholics need to reassess how they engage ini politics, and this is especially true of the bishops. Now that they have succeeded in electing a fascist, on one issue, abortion, it is time for them to be shepherds. Now they are wolves in sheep's (Matt 7:15). Alas we are doomed to the same fate as Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s.
Gerald Gioglio
1 year ago
Thank you MaryRuth for suggesting a worst case scenario about where we might be heading. You know for all the centuries of good work we Catholics have done we also have a dark side most recently as you suggest 70-80 years ago in Europe. We know that Mr. Hitler was a baptized and confirmed Catholic, then a persecutor of the faith and ultimately responsible for mass murder. We also know that many of Hitler's inner circle and Nazi leadership were at least nominally Catholic....and that after being convicted of their evil deeds went to confession and received absolution. Mussolini, another Catholic, worked hard to coopt the Church in Italy, even adopting our beloved St. Francis of Assisi as his movement's patron saint. Now, Mr. Putin--learning from Mr. Mussolini--has moved the country from totalitarian left to far right and has cozied up to the Orthodox Church to run cover for his domestic atrocities and aggression in the Ukraine and Syria. In fascist Europe during those days, good folks heard and read the words of these Catholic dictators and dismissed them: "oh, they are just politicians." "Oh, they'll never follow through with what they said; we're a democracy, we're a dignified society." Fast forward to America in 2016. We've heard and read the disgraceful words of our new leader and dismiss them as so much rhetoric. But now with the Steve Bannon appointment to the white house staff (another Catholic, by the way) we see that the words become manifest. And so it begins. But hey, this is America....and as Catholics we don't have to be coopted even if our clergy might. Democracy is more than voting; we can and must be vigilant. We must continue to speak out based on what we know from our Catechism and Catholic Social teaching and from the gentle heart of Papa Francisco. Someone on the internet suggested that we make a public witness by wearing a simple safety pin (showing we stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable who could be hurt by policies advanced during the upcoming Administration). I suggest we wear that pin, along with a cross or tau and an American flag pin to proclaim loud and clear that we are Catholics, we are Americans, that our values will not be compromised by crude nationalism and that we will be vigilant and vocal.
L J
1 year ago
Yeah, Mary Ruth, all those whiteys, those Deplorables, how dare they think they should be heard in those 30 States that Donald Trump carried, especially since Hillary rightly ignored them. Afterall, who cares about those 30 States, especially the Midwestern States? They are Deplorables, just like Hillary called them ....TWICE! If only NY and California had had more electoral votes, Hillary would have shown those Whiteys and Deplorables. What to do? Do what any good Fascist would do: resort to violence and undermine the will of the voters. "Jon Stewart Points Out Liberal Hypocrisy in the Wake of Donald Trump’s Win. "There’s now this idea that anyone who voted for him has to be defined by the worst of his rhetoric.” - Jon Stewart http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/11/jon-stewart-donald-trump
Barbara DeCoursey Roy
1 year ago
Thank you, Matt Malone, for your clear statement of the situation we face as a country. I am deeply concerned about the "clear and present danger to the body politic" posed by "post-factual ideological partisanship" where any means necessary is permitted to achieve the end of victory. I have been thinking long and hard about "what our country is doing to us." I turn to the Gospel for operating instructions. I think there is a Catholic contribution that must be made, but I am longing for an interfaith effort to address this crisis. The last time that happened was when Americans from different faith traditions came together to demand civil rights for all Americans. I have quit the mainstream media because the balance of serious journalism to entertainment is seriously skewed in favor of entertainment. I look to America magazine for alternatives to the cultural obsession with "Amusing Ourselves to Death" that Neil Postman wrote so presciently about back in 1985.
Raymond Marey
1 year ago
Fr. Malone, I have enjoyed your tweets which is why I read your essay. It is a distraction to pretend that bipartisanship even exists or ever existed. Our country was set up so that the government would not pass legislation until a concensus in the House and Senate branches existed. Each side tries to persuade the other side until such time as majority exists. That inactivity is actually a sign of a healthy govenment, functioning the way it was constructed. At this point the Church is every bit a part of the problem in society as they stonewall women who are being called to be priests and men who are prolife and want a family who likewise are called by the Holy Spirit to be priests, The Church is stubborn just as much as those politicians you speak of. I can only pray some of your(the Church hierarchy) hearts will be opened and model the behaviour you so want to exist among Americans. If you can't do it, why do you think others are going to magically concede. The church dug in to defend itself during the pedophilia scandal and celibacy for priests issues, and the world is following the Church's actions. Monkey see, monkey do, as my mom used to say when I saw my older brother do something inappropriate.
Vincent Gaglione
1 year ago
“We must ask how we have been complicit in the demise of public discourse and what distinct and essentially Catholic contribution we can make to fixing it.” While I agree with Father Malone, in a hierarchical USA Church in which current political discourse is top down with no avenue for the kind of argument which would be deliberative, I think that he might better direct his remarks to our Bishops. There is a singular lack of public discourse on political issues between and among the laity and the clergy, at least from my experience. That would mean that the discourse could and should not be from a pulpit but rather in some other forum yet to be figured out. Forgive the pun but, as this baby boomer has learned in my lifetime, neither Reverend Father nor His Excellency necessarily know best, especially as it affects politics. There is great irony in the fact that many of our Bishops are no more responsive to the Pope Francis political agenda within the Church than many of us are responsive to our Bishops’ political agenda within the United States.
Richard Booth
1 year ago
I agree that this presidential election left Catholics interestingly afloat. A Trump vote would allegedly mean "pro-life" while a Clinton vote would mean upholding a social net for the needy. Given that about 52% of voting Catholics voted for Trump and that a number of clerics were sounding the bell for the primacy of a pro-life agenda while scarcely mentioning the need for a multitude of needs-based social programs, clerical balance was askew. The post-factual world, in the author's words, has won. Anti-intellectualism has won. Superficiality and showmanship have won. I wonder what role some of the Church's representatives played in all of this. The good news is that term limits exist and when "saviors" fail to keep their promises, the savior falls from grace and the hopeful turn angry. I wish us all well.

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