INTRODUCTION: “Quod tibi videtur?”
“How does it seem to you?”
It seems to me that since 20 January 2017 everyone is still trying to sort out what exactly has happened. For people who supported the candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States, they are full of hope that he will deliver on his various and varied campaign promises, feeling that they have been overlooked by the “professional politician” class and the “elites” in the media and academia. Those who opposed his candidacy and election are full of concern that he will cause irreparable damage to the office and the country through ineptitude or worse. It is quite one thing to run on a platform that is “anti-Washington”; it is quite another to master the inherent complexities of governance. So it seems to me that everyone is to some degree unsettled about the future.
But for me, of all the claims and counterclaims made over the last month, one that troubles me most deeply is the repeated assertion (made in various words and contexts) that boils down to this. “We don’t care that the president lies; his words don’t matter; it will be his actions that matter.” As more than one observer noted, the new president is supposed to be “taken seriously but not literally.” And, of course, there are all of the “alternative facts” to be considered!
But words do matter. Especially for Catholics. Imagine a baptism celebrated without words, especially the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”! Imagine an ordination without the prayer of consecration over those being ordained. Imagine the Eucharist without a Eucharistic Prayer of consecration. In all of these examples, we would conclude that a sacrament has not taken place. Words matter to us. They matter a lot. And of course, fundamental to all of that is the understanding that the Christ is, in fact, the Word of God!
How, then are we to respond to our current political situation, not simply as citizens, but as Catholics, as Christians?
Whether one supported or opposed the candidacy and election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency of the United States is now on a practical level irrelevant. The overall turmoil it has caused, however, is not. His supporters fervently believe that he will take significant actions to ameliorate their concerns. His opponents just as fervently believe that his actions are a danger to the Republic and to our society at large. The polarity that has afflicted our discourse for so long has, if possible, descended to new levels.
Political campaigns built on fear only serve to increase that fear. When we are afraid we want to find the cause of that fear and remove it. If social media are any indication, at least some people find it easy to associate other people with their fear, and the vitriol only increases, and the lines keeping us apart become only sharper and more painful.
Take just one example: when protesters took to the streets following this election, they were called “snowflakes” by many commentators on the right. Why? Apparently, this was a characterization based on the assumption that these were spoiled, wealthy, pampered “college kids” who were just scared of their own shadows. Speaking as a professor working with both undergraduate and graduate students at several universities, I can attest that such a characterization is simply untrue. Some of my students are some of the strongest folks I know, who are hard working (often working several jobs while raising families and still going to school!) and dedicated — and worried. Words matter.
Similarly, it is unfair to characterize all Trump supporters as being some kind of monolithic group of “deplorables.” There are many who support the new president because they feel that they have been overlooked in recent years and that their own concerns have not been heard or responded to. Words matter.
These are our family members. These are our friends. These are our parishioners.
BACKGROUND: “Quid nunc?”
This blog is focused on Catholic ministry, especially the ministry of Catholic deacons. However, I hope that what follows might be helpful not only to brother deacons but to other people of good will as well. Specifically, it seems to me, the fundamental question remains: “How does a Christian behave?” For those of us who are “Heralds of Christ,” publicly and solemnly charged to “believe what we read, teach what we believe and practice what we teach,” the challenge is particularly acute.
Back in 1965, the world’s bishops gathered in Rome at the Second Vatican Council spoke words of hope and challenge. In its capstone document, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes) the bishops had
this to say (in paragraph #3):
Though humankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of the human person in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective striving, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity. Hence, . . . this council can provide no more eloquent proof of its solidarity with, as well as its respect and love for the entire human family with which it is bound up, than by engaging with it in conversation about these various problems. . . . For the human person deserves to be preserved; human society deserves to be renewed.
So, the first point for our reflection must be that we have a responsibility to be active participants in the world around us; we cannot allow ourselves the luxury, however tempting, of withdrawing from the world so as to avoid the often unpleasant and distasteful conflicts which so often permeate contemporary life. Gaudium et spes famously describes this responsibility when it teaches that the Church “serves as a leaven and as a kind of soul for human society as it is to be renewed in Christ and transformed into God’s family” (#40). The challenge for us is to figure out how we — individually and collectively — may serve as leaven in the messy dough of today’s world.
Once again we turn to the Council, which speaks of the “single goal” of the People of God:
to carry forward the work of Christ under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served. To carry out such a task, the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. Thus, in language intelligible to each generation, she can respond to the perennial questions which men ask about this present life and the life to come, and about the relationship of the one to the other. We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics. (GS ##3-4)
This paragraph offers so much!
- Be involved
- Be Christ-like: to be witness, to rescue, to not sit in judgment, to serve
- Scrutinize and interpret the signs of the times in light of the Gospel
- Find language that is meaningful to each generation (and culture)
- Respond to perennial questions asked by ALL people
- Recognize and understand our world: explanations, longings, dramatic characteristics.
When we turn to the specific question of our involvement in the political life of the nation, we must remember always the purpose of political life in general. Politics involves “the rights and duties of all in the exercise of civil freedom and in the attainment of the common good” (GS #73). Specifically, the bishops offer this concise description:
The political community exists, consequently, for the sake of the common good, in which it finds its full justification and significance, and the source of its inherent legitimacy. Indeed, the common good embraces the sum of those conditions of the social life whereby men, families and associations more adequately and readily may attain their own perfection (#74).
The bishops speak of the growing need to give better protection to human rights, including “the right freely to meet and form associations, the right to express one’s own opinion and to profess one’s religion both publicly and privately. The protection of the rights of a person is indeed a necessary condition so that citizens, individually or collectively, can take an active part in the life and government of the state.” Furthermore:
In the conscience of many arises an increasing concern that the rights of minorities be recognized, without any neglect for their duties toward the political community. In addition, there is a steadily growing respect for men of other opinions or other religions. At the same time, there is wider cooperation to guarantee the actual exercise of personal rights to all citizens, and not only to a few privileged individuals.
The bishops also take to task those who would pervert the political process to their own ends:
However, those political systems. . . are to be reproved which hamper civic or religious freedom, victimize large numbers through avarice and political crimes, and divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves (#73).
How do we deal with differing opinions within our societies on how to achieve these goals?
If the political community is not to be torn apart while everyone follows his own opinion, there must be an authority to direct the energies of all citizens toward the common good, not in a mechanical or despotic fashion, but by acting above all as a moral force which appeals to each one’s freedom and sense of responsibility.
It follows also that political authority, both in the community as such and in the representative bodies of the state, must always be exercised within the limits of the moral order and directed toward the common good—with a dynamic concept of that good. . . . But where citizens are oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence, they should not protest against those things which are objectively required for the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority, while keeping within those limits drawn by the natural law and the Gospels.
Finally, the bishops speak specifically to the role of Christians:
All Christians must be aware of their own specific vocation within the political community. It is for them to give an example by their sense of responsibility and their service of the common good. In this way they are to demonstrate concretely how authority can be compatible with freedom, personal initiative with the solidarity of the whole social organism, and the advantages of unity with fruitful diversity. They must recognize the legitimacy of different opinions with regard to temporal solutions, and respect citizens, who, even as a group, defend their points of view by honest methods.
MOVING FORWARD: Bringing the Word to the words
- Remember our fundamental relationship: with Christ. That’s the point here. Christian. For the moment, not American, not French, not Iranian, not German — and certainly not Republican or Democrat. For those who claim to be disciples of Christ, the Messiah of the living God, Christianity is a way of life. It is not simply a collection of teachings, liturgical rites or even a moral code. It is all of those things, but so much more. “Being Christian” means being in a relationship with Christ, and just like any relationship, our lives are to be lived accordingly.
- The Word of God, Christ, called us all to serve the common good of all. He gave his life to that end; it must be our end as well. How do we constantly and consistently serve the common good of all?
- In serving the common good, we must first be involved in the life of our communities. Just as Christ emptied himself into our human condition, we too should follow the same path, pouring ourselves out for others. This means we cannot hide away from society, or act as if contemporary issues really don’t matter to us since we’re focused on heaven! The incarnation of Christ demands that we too are co-responsible for this world and not only the next.
- We must be like Christ in other ways, too, as the bishops reminded us decades ago: that we must witness to the Truth always, that we are involved in order to rescue others while not sitting in judgment of them, to serve others where they are and not asking to be served.
- We have a responsibility to examine and interpret the signs of our contemporary times in light of the Gospel. The world of 2017 is a different place than the world of 1965, or the world of 1945 or the world of 325. The Council reminds us that we must not only critique the times, we must interpret the signs we see in light of the Gospel of God’s love and Truth.
- Words matter: we must find “language that is meaningful” to each and every generation and culture. Do the words we use hurt, demean, insult? Or do the words we use build up, nurture, heal? (Do calling fearful people “snowflakes” tear down or build up?)
- Before speaking, we should find out what people’s questions are, and attempt to answer them! As Pope Francis reminds us constantly: answer people’s questions; don’t spend time on questions that have never been asked!
- We must be engaged and knowledgeable about our world today. If we are to be the yeast in that messy lump of dough, if we would attempt to make a difference, we have to get ourselves involved with it. We should be critical of society when necessary, and supportive of reasonable attempts when possible. The leaven doesn’t take over the dough, it helps it rise!
- Focus on your particular community: what are the concerns being raised by all persons in that community? How do our words and our actions address the needs of all of them, and not merely to one side or another? We are called to serve them all
- Before, during and after each and every thing we say and do, PRAY! Above all, PRAY! Remember that Christ, the WORD is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all human longing. We begin with the Word, we end with the Word.