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Bill McCormick, S.J.March 20, 2024
Francis has offered an example to follow in his public rapprochement with Javier Milei, the Argentine president who has repeatedly and caustically criticized the pope. They met at the Vatican on Feb. 12, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Francis has offered an example to follow in his public rapprochement with Javier Milei, the Argentine president who has repeatedly and caustically criticized the pope. They met at the Vatican on Feb. 12, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

King David has long been a model for politics. Perhaps his greatest lesson is when he wept.

In the Second Book of Samuel, the rebellion of David’s son Absalom comes to a bitter conclusion when Absalom is killed by David’s right-hand man, Joab (2 Sm 18). While Joab expects David to receive the news with joy, David instead weeps, crying out: “My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!” In a twist worthy of Greek tragedy, David has won the battle and kept his kingdom safe, but at a terrible price.

This is the tragedy of so much of life: We hurt each other even as we wish we could do otherwise.

Such stories are not only windows into the suffering of life. They are also an encouragement to cultivate the desire for communion with those from whom we are divided, whether family members, neighbors or fellow citizens.

David’s story has more than a little relevance to our time, and not least during a major election year. When even people of the same political party are tearing each other apart, one has to wonder: Has our society lost the ability to desire peace? Will our longing for reconciliation resurface only after all hope for it has been lost?

A house divided

Conflict is inherent to politics on this side of paradise, and the U.S. Constitution is meant to channel and guide conflict fruitfully. As James Madison writes in the Federalist Papers (No. 10), “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” The careful shaping and directing of conflict is necessary, Madison argues, because a society cannot attempt to completely suppress division without great damage to itself and without a loss of liberty.

But we find ourselves in a time in which factions seem to have eluded the control of our constitutional order. Indeed, political parties, which were not part of Madison’s vision for a constitution, shape our government almost as much as our formal Constitution does with the separation of powers and federalism. The prevalence of political parties might not be a problem in itself, and in any event, they seem a near-inevitable feature of liberal democracy. But in a world where even partisanship has its partisans, political parties can become yet another vehicle for our temptation to reduce others to our enemies.

In, but not of, division

Christians who are sober-minded about how their political cultures shape them may well wonder: Are U.S. Christians being trained to see such conflict and division as normal? Do the divisions of politics occupy our focus more than the unity of Christ’s kingdom? This would be a great tragedy for all those who hear and make their own Christ’s desire that all be one: ut unum sint.

The French Jesuit cardinal and theologian Henri de Lubac, S.J., wrote beautifully on the small-c catholicism of the church. De Lubac saw in the virulent ideologies of his time (such as socialism and nationalism) spiritual pathologies that told lies about the destiny of humankind. Because these ideologies seek to justify the wounds of division as natural and even good, they must be resisted not only politically, de Lubac argued, but also spiritually. For nothing less than the unity of all persons in Christ, something prior to and transcending every political community, was at stake.

[Related: “Corpus Christi reminds us: a different kind of politics won’t heal our divisions. Only the Eucharist can.”]

Cardinal de Lubac’s cause for sainthood was recently introduced, and it seems appropriate in our times to pray for his intercession. Forces of division and violence are once again running amok. And they offer a counterfeit universalism that can only be described as “political religions,” in the lapidary language of the German theorist Eric Voegelin.

Genuine peace and unity involves solidarity. Pope Francis has advocated for such solidarity in word and deed, whether by advancing social friendship in “Fratelli Tutti” or offering a concrete example of it through his conspicuous friendships across the world religions, from Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, the head of the Al-Azhar university and mosque in Cairo, Egypt.

Francis has also offered an example to follow in his public rapprochement with Javier Milei, the Argentine president who has repeatedly and caustically criticized the pope. The Holy Father persevered toward peace and good relations with Mr. Milei, reminding us, as I wrote in a recent column, that “the desire to introduce a Christian leavening in politics depends on seeing the benefits of eschewing short-term gains in favor of something more lasting.”

We find ourselves living at the threshold of the parable of the good Samaritan, as the pope says: “The parable eloquently presents the basic decision we need to make in order to rebuild our wounded world. In the face of so much pain and suffering, our only course is to imitate the good Samaritan” (“Fratelli Tutti,” No. 67). If we are to enter into the mystery of that parable, we must begin to recognize and tend to the wounds of even our enemies.

Solidarity can seem like a daunting task when the world’s problems are so big and we feel so helpless to fix any of them. What does solidarity look like in a world of abstract problems on a gigantic scale? What, moreover, does solidarity look like in a world divided by disagreement over what the word even means, and divided by whether to accept it at all?

Just as Jesus prayed that we all would be one, he also prayed that we love and pray for our enemies. That seems like a good starting point.

But the first step can be the hardest. So my next column will ask: Who is my enemy? And how can I pray for them?

This is part of a series of columns by Bill McCormick, S.J., on the 2024 election. Also read:

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