Much can and has been said about the most recent election, and much more will be said for years to come. What is undoubtedly true is that the election cycle exacerbated two powerful dynamics in American public life: the constant thirst for change as a reaction to a political system that does not seem to work for average Americans; and deepening, vitriolic divisions between people.
This reality requires us to approach the results with sobriety rather than jubilation or despair. The latter responses are those of people whose horizons, sadly, do not extend beyond the finite things of this world.
For, Catholics, the question now is how we become salt and light in a situation where divisiveness and partisanship, anger and fear, have been felt by many across the political spectrum. Because although we elect new leaders, we know that the true “elect” of this world—the sons and daughters of God the Father—have a decisive role in bringing God’s loving care to all of creation. That’s you and me, not someone else or some class of people called “politicians.”
First, we must ground ourselves in a hope that lasts, and is not subject to the ebbs and flows of electoral politics. Our hope is in the Lord who has won the final victory. He is the king, the standard bearer, who calls us to renew political life from the ground up – to restore all things in and through His Name.
And, ever faithful to his people, he gives us the tools of Catholic social teaching with which to build.
Rather than impose our will on others, we instead propose what we believe best serves human dignity and the common good. Sometimes, however, our arguments, policies, or candidates, will not prevail.
This is not the end of the world. In politics, there are no ultimate victories, just as there are no ultimate defeats. And though there are sometimes matters of great weight that are decided in the public arena, and injustices that need to be corrected, practicing scorched earth politics, demonizing others, or using power expediently to occupy spaces rather than nurture participation is, in the end, counterproductive.
Secure in the knowledge that politics can only create the conditions for human flourishing—the state cannot love people, provide happiness, or lead people to their ultimate end of eternal beatitude—we recognize the limited nature of political life, understand that the work of persuading others and the community takes time, and that our own personal work may be to sow the seed and let others reap the harvest.
A new generation of missionary disciples in the public arena can address the divisions and unresponsiveness in our political culture by modeling politics in the way the Church sees it: as civic friendship, rather than as a power game.
Politics as civic friendship sees public life as a great conversation—a coming together of the community to answer the question how we ought to order our lives. In that conversation, every voice matters because every person and part of the community matters.
Therefore, a necessary component of a healthy politics is coming together, encountering one another as brothers and sisters, and listening to their challenges, problems, joys, and hopes. In that encounter, new paths may arise, and new relationships forged, leading to greater peace instead of discord.
What is described above cuts so deeply against our current political climate. People are becoming more isolated from each other, are blindly committed to their own narratives despite evidence pointing in a different direction, and cannot believe it when a whole class of people seemingly emerges from thin air to challenge their rule and moral superiority.
A critical question is whether our political, business, and media elites will properly understand the election results as a rebuttal of their exploitation of our nation’s economic, moral, and social capital. We can be hopeful, if not optimistic.
Either way, Catholics, as missionary disciples in the public arena, can model a different way of practicing politics by offering principles that serve the well-being of all and by listening to others with civility, respect, and generosity. In this way, we can be an invaluable balm for healing the deep wounds that divide us.
Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Minnesota.