A Lenten Reflection on Catholics and Politics

politics-religionIt’s Lent: a time for purification and enlightenment, according to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  Most of us grew up thinking of Lent in terms of what we were going to “give up.”  Speaking only for myself, I sometimes wish I could give up following what passes these days for American political “discourse.”  But as Pope Francis said recently, quoting Aristotle, a human being is by nature a “political animal.”  We cannot and should not avoid the political process; in fact, we have a moral obligation to participate to the best of our abilities!  As Catholics, then, how might we participate in ways consistent with Christian discipleship?  For those of us who also serve as Catholic clergy, what are our own obligations and limitations with regard to political life?

360_wtwain_0714American political life has always been, to say the least, exciting, interesting, and inherently disputatious: there’s nothing new about that.  Consider just a few historic, pointed quotes from Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Will Rogers (1879-1935):

Here’s Mark Twain, writing about politics in the 19th Century:

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.

Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.

Will RogersAnd here’s Will Rogers with some observations about American politics during the 1920’s an 1930’s:

There is only one redeeming thing about this whole election. It will be over at sundown, and let everybody pray that it’s not a tie, for we couldn’t go through with this thing again.

If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.

This country has gotten where it is in spite of politics, not by the aid of it. That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation.

America has the best politicians money can buy.

The Senate just sits and waits till they find out what the president wants, so they know how to vote against him.

A president just can’t make much showing against congress. They lay awake nights, thinking up things to be against the president on.

There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the entire government working for you.

Politics is a great character builder. You have to take a referendum to see what your convictions are for that day.

Today, however, I think most people would readily admit that what passes for political “discourse” has deteriorated to a level that does not warrant the term, since “discourse” is supposed to be “a communication of thought by words, talk, or conversation; earnest and intelligent exchange” or “a formal discussion of a subject in speech or writing. . . .”

Aymond 1Gregory M. Aymond, the Archbishop of New Orleans, has written an excellent column, “What has happened to civility in politics?” (read the whole piece here) in which he observes, 

What has happened to politics, from my perspective, is candidates in campaigns no longer run on merit, their qualifications or their ability to lead, but run on the weaknesses of the other person. The name-calling and insulting comments that candidates exchange, in my mind, create an evil spirit among us.

Archbishop Aymond outlines four principles for evaluating a political candidate:

  1. Human Life: This principle covers the spectrum from conception to natural death, with the Archbishop listing abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, caring for the poor, issues regarding biotechnology, issues of war and the promotion of peace “in our country and beyond.”
  2.  Family Life: This principle obviously includes marriage, and “a candidate must be willing to do all he or she can to help a person form a family that gives respect to family and children.”  This principle also involves wages, since one’s income affects how one can support a family with respect.
  3. Social Justice: Here the concerns listed by the Archbishop include: welfare policy, religious freedom, Social Security, affordable health care, and sharing housing and the resources of the earth with the poor.  He also includes the reform of the criminal justice system, and the issue of immigration (“welcoming the stranger). Not only must the immigrant be treated with dignity, the Archbishop correctly observes that “the Catholic Church teaches that people, under certain circumstances, have a right to leave their country and find a new life.” Other social justice issues involve respect for the environment and using the environment in a way that promotes respect for humanity.
  4. Global Solidarity:  Finally, the Archbishop asks, “what is the candidate willing to do to foster solidarity, for the elimination of global poverty, for religious liberty and human rights? We must ask how the person will work with the United Nations and international bodies.

Archbishop Aymond is a realist who recognizes that “it is likely that no candidate will measure up to all four completely.”  What is the Catholic citizen to do?  He answers:

We have to decide which of them would best move our country forward in a way that reflects those qualities.  We as Catholics must have our voice heard: We are tired of the lack of civility that exists in campaigns and we are calling for change.

Aristotle-Bust-640x424So, as much as we might be tempted to “give up politics” for Lent this year, as human beings (and therefore “political animals” as the Pope cites Aristotle) we cannot; as Christians we must not.  In fact, I think we can add to the Aristotelian reference and find this moral obligation highlighted even more.  In his Politics, the fourth century BC philosopher writes:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it. . . . he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.

Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And. . . the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

As difficult as it can be, therefore, we have a moral obligation to participate in the political process.  We cannot say that we are “above” it or that we are presented with no other moral option than to withdraw.  The greater good — the common good — demands that we do the best we can on behalf of others as well as ourselves, as expressed in the greatest Commandment given by Christ: to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.

pope-congress04.w529.h352A word about clergy and politics.  I have written about this previously, but I want to recap three points here.

  1. Clergy and Social Media: Clergy of all faiths are prominent in their use of social media and are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking and teaching at every conceivable level, and even venues formerly considered more informal, such as Facebook.  It is important to reflect on our own participation in such exchanges in light of our responsibilities as clergy. It is often not what we say, or don’t say, from the pulpit that can influence others, but our casual “status update” on Facebook, a blog entry or even a tweet can have far-reaching effects.
  2. Catholic Clergy and Canon Law:  Canon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”  However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons would still bound) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.” Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop. A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.”  While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross. Much more about this can be said and I will review all of this in more detail in a later posting.
  3. Unique Political Position for Catholic [Permanent] Deacons:  As we just saw, permanent deacons may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics (including transitional deacons) under the law. However, permanent deacons are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so. I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked. First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.” This is such a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony?  Second is the whole area of participation in political campaigns. Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop. Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign. 

aymond_mass1

In concluding this Lenten reflection on Catholics and political life, I return to Archbishop Aymond’s fine column one last time.  His own frustration is almost palpable as he ponders what the Church is supposed to do in the face of the contemporary political situation:

First of all, the church’s responsibility is to do what I am doing – speaking out and saying this is not what we want politics to be. It’s not of God. Where is our negativity bringing us? The second thing we should look at – helping people form their consciences so when they go to the voting machine, they know the basic qualities they are looking for in a candidate.

So, for Lent this year, let’s give up the vitriol, the name-calling, the demonizing of those who disagree with us.  In fact, let’s go the other direction and increase and deepen our involvement in the political process as our state of life demands.  In this season of purification and enlightenment, we must keep both of these elements in mind: to purify ourselves of that which demeans humanity and God’s creation, and to seek out and be enlightened by God so as to build up rather than to tear down.

Lenten Jerusalem Cross

Forty Days To Get Ready: Ash Wednesday Reflection

lent-40-daysWhile lots of folks are able to get to church on Ash Wednesday, even more cannot.  So, especially for those who could not be present, here are the Mass readings for today.  Before turning to them, however, we might consider the nature of the season of Lent itself.

Every Lent, as we sing about “these forty days” and refer to “the forty days” of Lent, we get questions:  “Why are there more than forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter?”  “Do the Sundays of Lent ‘count’ as days of Lent?” “Do we ‘count’ Holy Week as part of Lent?”  All of these questions, and so many more, reflect a misplaced understanding of the significance of the number “40” itself.  By looking at it so literalistically, trying to treat it as a kind of math problem, we miss the fundamental point.

Like other ancient languages, the letters that make up the alef-bet (“alphabet”) of the Hebrew language do double duty.  Consider the letters of the Latin language first as an example.  When we see “I” or “V” or “XII” we see both literal and numerical meanings: the letter “I” or the (Roman) numeral for “1”; the letter “v” or the numeral for “5”; the letters “x – i – i” or the numeral for “12”, and so on.

Hebrew alefbetHebrew letters do the same kind of thing, but there is a kind of TRIPLE duty involved: the literal, the numerical, and the symbolical.  Hebrew numbers have symbolic meaning: 1 is a Divine number, as is 3.  The number 2 represents life and strength; the number 4 represents the universe created by YHWH.  3 plus 4, in Hebrew numerology represents the union of the God with God’s creation, making 7 a perfect number.  3 times 4 (12) represents God’s own community.  Since 7 is perfection, 6 represents IMPERFECTION or SIN, since it just doesn’t quite “make the mark” of getting to 7.  Consider some examples: YHWH is always emphasized as ONE God; the animals go into the Ark 2 by 2; 3 is a divine number — not in the later Christian sense of Trinity, but Divine nonetheless.  The 12 tribes of Israel.  And on and on, including the number 40.  The people wander in the desert for 40 years; the rains of the great flood last for 40 days and 40 nights.  We see these things carried forward into Christian Scripture as well.  The very first thing that the apostles have to do following the Resurrection is select a replacement for Judas in order to return their number to 12!  Jesus goes to the desert himself for 40 days where he is tempted.

lent2 temptationsSo what does all of this mean for us for the “forty days of Lent”?

The number 40 is used to designate a period of human preparation and testing in readiness for a MISSION which follows.  After the Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years, the enter the Promised Land; after the rains stop, YHWH and Noah enter into a whole new covenant; after his own sojourn in the desert, Jesus embarks on his public ministry as the Christ.  So the period of time represented by “40” always points to what is to come: a renewal of covenant relationships as we enter into a new phase of mission.

lent 40 days noahThat’s the role of the forty days of Lent: it is not a goal in and of itself.  It is to be a time of preparation for whatever the Lord is calling us to be and to do after Easter!  How are we being formed for post-Easter mission?  Just as we refer to Lent as the period of Purification and Enlightenment for the candidates for sacramental initiation at the Eastern Vigil, so too it is for the rest of us as well.  This is a time of spiritual “boot camp” in which we are refined, formed and empowered for the mission to come.

So we come to today’s readings.  The prophet Joel proclaims:

Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.

Lent1While we often talk about the external things we’re “going to give up” for Lent, Joel reminds us that the true purpose is the journey back to the Lord God “with our whole heart.”  External observances, while they can be important, are not nearly as important as our internal conversion: “rend your hearts, not your garments.”

Matthew makes the same point in the Gospel:

Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.

Whether in giving alms, praying, or fasting, the conversion to God is internal and not the result of “doing” the right things during Lent.  Unless the outward observance reflects an internal “return to the Lord with your whole heart” we have missed the point!

But then there’s that whole “40 days” thing to consider.  How does this interior conversion prepare us for the mission to come?  Pope Francis, in his Ash Wednesday homily earlier today, issued the challenge:

We run the risk of closing ourselves to others also: we risk forgetting them, too – but only when the difficulties and sufferings of our brothers challenge us, only then we can start our journey of conversion towards Easter. It is an itinerary that includes the cross and sacrifice. Today’s Gospel shows the elements of this spiritual journey: prayer , fasting and almsgiving (cf. Mt 6,1-6.16-18 ). All three involve the need not to be dominated by the appearance of things: the appearance of things does not matter – nor does the value of life depend on the approval of others or on success, but from how much we have inside. . . .

With its calls to conversion, Lent comes providentially to rouse us, to shake us from our torpor, from the risk of moving forward [merely] by inertia. The exhortation that the Lord speaks to us through the prophet Joel is loud and clear: “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). Why must we return to God? Because something is wrong in us, in society, in the Church – and we need to change, to turn things around, to repent! Once again Lent comes to make its prophetic appeal, to remind us that it is possible to realize something new within ourselves and around us, simply because God is faithful, continues to be full of goodness and mercy, and is always ready to forgive and start over from scratch. With this filial confidence, let us set out on our way!

Read his whole homily here.

Blessed Lenten journey to all!