his first encyclical letter DEUS CARITAS EST (God Is Love), Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, “Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew.” This is essentially the work of lay women and men. My hope is that there are numbered among readers of THE ROVER able women and men who wish to take up the crucial vocation of politics and so to engage in this crucial work. The Church aims to help inform her members in pursuing this vocation and in this effort Catholic colleges and universities have a special role to play, for they have a treasured intellectual tradition and great wisdom to pass along to their students.
Students at schools such as Notre Dame should emerge with a clear understanding of Catholic moral teaching and social doctrine and so be ready to play their part in shaping their society for the good. In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (GAUDIUM ET SPES), issued in December of 1965, the Council fathers at Vatican II approached very positively the whole issue of Catholics’ political participation. They honored the political vocation and conveyed that Christian politicians were called upon to engage the modern world in ways that would promote the dignity of each person and the common good. They were to serve within their own domain as “leaven.” They certainly were not to see their political activities as separate from their religious commitments. The Council fathers emphasized that “there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other” (43). They firmly rejected any compartmentalization of faith and political engagement.
Sadly, the impact of the vision for Catholic politicians set forth in GAUDIUM ET SPES has been minimal at best over the past decades. Many politicians who identified as Catholics hid behind the notion that religion was a private matter. They blended in and refrained from utilizing the moral and social teachings of their religion as an inspiration and guide for their actions. They did this despite the fact that some of the fundamental problems of the American polity and society—the assault on human life, the decline of family and community, unrestrained individualism at the expense of the common good, rampant relativism in values—presented a unique opportunity and challenge to Catholics to contribute in the public domain.
The privatized religion model largely triumphed despite both the efforts of those who pushed the ‘consistent ethic of life/seamless garment’ approach in the 1980s and the courageous witness of some faithful Catholic politicians such as the pro-life governor of Pennsylvania, Robert P. Casey. The increasingly blunt pronouncements from official Church teaching regarding the responsibilities of Catholic politicians in encyclicals like Evangelium Vitae (1995) and in the “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life” went largely unheeded by many professedly Catholic politicians.
We can lament this sad story and even admit that prospects for any rapid change seem dim. Yet, perhaps we might see things in a longer-term perspective such that this last forty years has been a difficult period in which many Catholic politicians lost their way. They failed to benefit from the guidance of GAUDIUM ET SPES. They failed to build upon the example of Governor Casey and other courageous politicians who understood well that politics and faith must meet. Surely, however, a crucial task is also to look forward and to see how a new generation might take up the challenge to live out the call to serve faithfully as Catholic politicians. Let me offer some brief counsel, drawn from a number of thoughtful commentators, on how this might be done better.
I borrow firstly from Mary Ann Glendon, the distinguished Harvard Law Professor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. In her 1996 commencement address at Notre Dame, she clarified that “religious participants in public debates will not be as effective unless they can speak in terms that are persuasive to men and women of good will – of all faiths, and of no faith. One will not get far if one preaches only to the converted.” The key is to work for what is right and good by persuading others of the rightness and goodness of your objectives. In doing so one must utilize reason accessible to all to clarify the ethical foundations for one’s political choices and actions. Hopefully, a good Notre Dame education prepares students here to do this.
As they pursue the political vocation, religious folk must have some sense of modesty as to what they can accomplish, some limits on what they think they can achieve on this earth and on what they see as the role of government. They should know well that heaven is elsewhere and, while in the Augustinian sense they may work to have the City of God penetrate and overlap the City of Man, this is an ongoing task for each generation, as Pope Benedict XVI notes. When one appreciates the limits of politics one understands well that one’s task is not to create ‘heaven on earth.’ The latter was the approach adopted by the totalitarians of the last century and they succeeded only in creating variations of a disastrous hell. Furthermore, one must understand, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out in the commencement address he gave at Notre Dame in 1969, what “government cannot provide.” The future senator clarified that “it cannot provide values to persons who have none, or who have lost those they had. It cannot provide a meaning to life. It cannot provide inner peace. It can provide outlets for moral energies, but it cannot create those energies.”
Possessing a realistic grasp of the role and possibilities of government usually helps folks of religious outlook appreciate that they will not agree on all the details of policies. GAUDIUM ET SPES says in rather formal Vatican ‘document-speak’: “Christians should recognize that various legitimate though conflicting views can be held concerning the regulation of temporal affairs.” So it is that good folk can differ– and quite markedly and passionately–on a variety of matters. We might all be able to agree that our religious tradition calls for us to care for “the poor and the weak, the widow and the orphan,” but that doesn’t mean that all need agree on what precisely should be done with Social Security or entitlement spending and the like.
That said, there are some issues of fundamental importance, especially the life questions, where moral absolutes rather than prudential judgments are involved. Of course, one’s conscience must ultimately be one’s guide, but it must be a properly formed conscience and one guided by basic precepts of Catholic teaching. There ARE moral truths and they must be acknowledged. Everything is not relative. There are some matters, such as abortion, where saying one is ‘personally opposed’ but unwilling to impose one’s views on others is deeply flawed.
While the focus here is on the place of religion in the public sphere for politicians, it should go without saying that one’s faith should also be a guide to one’s private morality. Honesty, integrity, fidelity and generosity should be personal qualities of those who would publicly refer to their religious convictions. Faith is to guide one’s whole life – public and private.
Let me offer a final encouragement for good people to enter public life. Politics is a noble calling in a democratic society. GAUDIUM ET SPES holds that “the church regards as worthy of praise and consideration the work of those who, as a service to others, dedicate themselves to the welfare of the state and undertake the burdens of this task.” Those who sense a call to the political vocation should pursue it but always as “a service to others.” Perhaps the second Catholic president–and an unapologetic one at that—will be a Notre Dame graduate! But always keep St. Thomas More as your guide—he was the King’s good servant, but God’s first!
(Fr. Bill Miscamble, CSC, is a Professor of History at Notre Dame and a member of The Rover’s advisory board.)