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

Bread, Shoes, Rugs, and the Mass: What did the Bishop just say?

Purification and EnlightenmentPurification and Enlightenment.  That’s what the season of Lent is called within the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), and that’s something we’re all called to be doing.  As Holy Week approaches swiftly, and on a secular note, as our politicians continue their posturing in anticipation of future elections, I thought that the following quotes from some of our early bishops from the 4th Century would be a challenging source of reflection, purification and enlightenment.  Just as in our own day, the 4th Century was a time of political, military, social and economic upheaval.  Extreme wealth and extreme poverty existed side by side.  In their homilies during the Eucharist, these bishops took their people to task in strong, unambiguous terms.

EUCHARIST SUSTAINS BELIEVERS, SAYS POPE JOHN PAUL IINamely: the Eucharist and our understanding of charity and social justice go together.  As Christ taught and lived, we cannot love God without loving our neighbor.  It’s just that simple, and that challenging.  Here are some insights from some of the great bishops of our history.  Obviously there are many more, but these should get us all thinking!  Imagine: you have just entered into the Eucharist with your fellow parishioners in Constantinople, or Nyssa, or Caesarea, or Milan.  The deacon has finished proclaiming the Gospel, and your bishop enters the pulpit.  Listen to your bishop!

St. John Chrysostom of ConstantinopleSt. John Chrysostom, the great 4th Century Archbishop of Constantinople, preached frequently and eloquently (“Chrysostom” is a title of sorts, meaning “golden-mouthed” for his eloquence as a preacher) about the care of the needy.  “Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead,” for example.  He observed that “The Body of Christ in the Eucharist demands pure souls, not costly garments,” which naturally did not endear him to the wealthy members of the Byzantine court in Constantinople.  John was not above using graphic images to shock his listeners.  Consider how you would feel if your bishop including this line in his homily: “Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?”

He didn’t mince words about our responsibilities to the poor:

“It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with cold, so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.”

“Yes, you say, he is cheating and he is only pretending to be weak and trembling. What! Do you not fear that lightning from Heaven will fall on you for this word? Indeed, forgive me, but I almost burst from anger.”

“Only see, you are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?  On the other hand, you question very closely the poor and the miserable, who are scarcely better off in this respect than the dead: and you do not fear the dreadful and the terrible judgment seat of Christ. If the beggar lies, he lies from necessity, because your hardheartedness and merciless inhumanity force him to such cheating. . . .  If we would give our alms gladly and willingly, the poor would never have fallen to such depths.”

“Truly, I am ashamed when I see rich people riding about on horses decorated with gold and with servants clad in gold coming along behind them. They have silver beds and multitudes of other luxuries. But, if they have to give something to a poor man, suddenly they themselves are the poorest of the poor!”

If Archbishop John’s passion for the poor doesn’t convince you, consider some others.

st-basil-the-great-3

Bishop St. Basil of Caesarea

Bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Bishop St. Basil of Caesarea were no shrinking violets either.

Bishop Gregory: “We are all of the same family; all of us are brothers. And

gregorynyssa

Bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa

among brothers it is best and most equal that all inherit equal portions.”

Bishop Basil: “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.”

Bishop St. Ambrose

Bishop St. Ambrose

And how could we not include the great Bishop of Milan, Ambrose?  The outline of his own life is well known, but when he became the bishop of Milan, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, giving everything he had to the poor.  The only funds he retained he earmarked to care for his sister, who later became a nun herself.  So, here we are in the cathedral, listing to our Bishop Ambrose giving this homily at Mass:

“Wealth, which so often leads men the wrong way, is seen less for its qualities than for the human misery it stands for. The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor. True, even if the voice were heard, it would be ignored. . . .  The poor man cries before your house, and you pay no attention. There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”

As we continue our own journey of purification and enlightenment, these great bishops from our past can help us for the demands of Christian discipleship of today.  The measure of our holiness lies in how well we care for the poor and all those in need.