Everyone with half an eye on the news is aware that America’s already polarized political climate became even more polarized with the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. The often erratic and even bizarre statements of the President, the relentless current of negative news about him, and the insults thrown at opponents by the partisans of either side are enough to make one avoid politics altogether. But while politics in the sense of the rough and tumble of electioneering and legislating, with its routine deceit of the public and its pandering to special interests, is generally a depressing business, there is another sense of politics that is both of more significance, and can hardly be avoided by anyone interested in our common humanity. This is the classical meaning of the term, namely, a concern for the common good, for the genuine welfare of one’s polis or nation, for just laws and policies which promote the general welfare. This kind of political concern is the sphere of any good Christian, indeed of any good citizen.
In this second way of being political, Catholics especially should be in the forefront, for the Church has a long history of critical engagement with the powers and concerns of this world. As Leo XIII wrote in Rerum Novarum, it must not be supposed “that the solicitude of the Church is so occupied with the spiritual concerns of its children as to neglect their temporal and earthly interests” (no. 28).
But an observer of today’s American political scene might look in vain for any substantive Catholic contribution, especially a contribution grounded in the Church’s authentic social magisterium. Conservative Catholics, by and large, seem, if not delighted, at least pleased with the Trump administration, and often focused on little more than freedom for Catholic institutions from unjust or meddlesome federal regulations, while tolerating or even applauding the Republican party’s fixation on market solutions for any and every problem, despite Pius XI’s condemnation of those who “would have in the market place and in unregulated competition a principle of self-direction more suitable for guiding them than any created intellect which might intervene,” (Quadragesimo Anno, no. 88). Liberal Catholics, for their part, say or do little that might distinguish them from the secular left in their opposition to anything and everything that Trump and his advisers dream up, and even in their championing of whatever crazes are currently regarded as progressive. But in this capitulation on the part of both conservative and liberal Catholics there is no politics of the common good, no coherent Catholic approach to today’s situation based on the millennial wisdom of the Church
It is no wonder that the Church in the United States is losing members at such a rate, when she appears to stand for nothing beyond a narrow range of mostly self-interested concerns, such as the bishops’ obsession of late with religious liberty. I applaud all efforts to obtain liberty for the Church’s apostolates, certainly, but when this appears to be the major preoccupation of the hierarchy, as opposed, say, to the conversion of the country or the furthering of justice in the political and economic realms, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Church is concerned mostly with making sure her institutions run smoothly, not on having an impact on those outside her bounds.
If the Catholic Church is nothing special, nothing exceptional, simply one among the many religious or charitable institutions of mankind, then she has little reason for existence. But if she has uniquely received the commission to carry the Gospel to the entire world, to transform the world both spiritually and temporally, then the lack of Catholic interest in addressing the common good is to be lamented. Instead of joining the often irrational obsession with President Trump’s sayings and doing, whether to celebrate or to damn them, let us instead make clear that we have something to offer which addresses more than a small set of parochial concerns. Let us offer a positive politics for the common good; let the hierarchy and all Catholics be unafraid to expound and champion the doctrines which were so boldly taught by over a century of Sovereign Pontiffs, and thereby show that it is not the case “that the solicitude of the Church is so occupied with the spiritual concerns of its children as to neglect their temporal and earthly interests.”