A Papal Antidote for Our Doctrinaire Politics

This article was featured in Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit http://www.capitalcommentary.org.

When House Republicans agreed to reopen the government last month, few regarded that agreement as anything but a temporary truce in the ideological warfare fought by the two parties over many years. The shutdown resembled a conflict in which one side violated an unstated agreement not to use certain kinds of weapons. True, the Republicans fared badly in public opinion polls during the shutdown, so G.O.P. leaders may avoid another shutdown in the near term. 

As we enter the next election season, the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia failed to deliver a negative verdict on the strategies of the Tea Party and other conservatives in the Republican Party. Moderate G.O.P. Governor Christie’s win was widely expected against a weak opponent, while conservative Republican Attorney General Cuccinelli’s narrow loss in Virginia was as much a function of being outspent many times over by Terry McAuliffe as it was any sort of rejection of Tea Party principles. 

Both parties are undergoing internal struggles over the course they should take going forward. The deep cuts initiated by the sequester early this year, with more to come, especially in programs like SNAP (more commonly known as food stamps), have angered liberal Democrats who want to ensure that their own leaders do not bargain away any more of the social safety net. Now New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s election victory has further emboldened them.

In short, few signs indicate that ideological warfare may weaken in the next three years and several suggest it may even strengthen, with voters moving towards their respective parties’ more conservative and liberal wings.

Since both parties are in the midst of struggles around identity and direction, perhaps it’s time they borrowed a page from Pope Francis’s playbook.

Pope Francis in  Rio de Janeiro in July. Photo via AFP PHOTO / EVARISTO SA

Pope Francis in  Rio de Janeiro in July. Photo via AFP PHOTO / EVARISTO SA

In a few short months, the Pope has propelled the full scope of the Church’s mission to center stage. He has acknowledged and challenged a diminished view of the Church as focused exclusively on issues of the culture war, a view projected by the media and by some Church leaders as well. His actions and words do not simply push those issues into the background and still less do they change doctrine. But they remind Catholics that there is more to the Christian message than doctrine, however important that doctrine remains. The body of Christ is called to care for the world, to preach the good news to the poor, and to bring the many faces of care to a hurting world.

Echoing Pope Francis, Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley stressed these many facets of Christian service. “The US bishops’ conference is very engaged in all of these issues,” O’Malley said in a Boston Globe interview, “in Catholic Relief Services, immigration [advocacy], Catholic Charities, but unfortunately those kinds of things fade into the background.”

The Pope’s readjustment of Catholic priorities may contain wisdom for both political parties. We are familiar with their taboos, but it has become very difficult to grasp their larger vision. If that vision exists, it, too, has been pushed into the background. As voters, citizens ought to demand the larger vision rather than allowing their representatives to trot out the usual bogeymen. Behind distorted doctrinaire appeals can be found philosophical and religious principles, and these need connecting to the American future in realistic and meaningful ways. If Democrats and Republicans are leaning more left and more right respectively for 2014 and 2016, with the prospect of heightened ideological conflict, they owe it to all Americans to cast that larger vision.

Citing Pope Francis in the interview quoted above, Cardinal O’Malley observed, “The word he uses over and over again is ‘tenderness’ — so often, he talks about our need to take care of each other, that we have responsibility for each other… In a world that’s grown so individualistic and so polarized, his message is the antidote to that.”

For these same reasons, perhaps Democrats and Republicans can find a similar antidote?

-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts and a Sabbatical Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.