Earlier this year, Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-MI) gave an interview on National Public Radio from her congressional office. Another day on Capitol Hill. Except on this day she was holed up with another member and a staffer, splitting water and peanut M&M’s because they were under lockdown during the January 6 insurrectionist riot in the seat of American government.
Cool and cheerful, all things considered, Rep. Slotkin said something better than anything I’ve heard (almost) any Catholic bishop say. She talked about how Americans need to decide that we want to live in this country together. She spoke eloquently about what the common good means, certainly in a political sense but also in a sense recognizable from within the Catholic tradition. She reminded me of the Le Monde headline on September 12, 2001: “Nous Sommes Tous Amẻricains.” She also reminded me of Ronald Reagan’s quip to his surgeons after he had been shot—“I hope you’re all Republicans”—and his surgeon’s answer: “Mr. President, today we’re all Republicans.” There do come moments when we recognize each other, when we really see each other. Those moments are the foundation of our political community and, in a different way, they also are cornerstones of our Church. These communities depend on that.
Perhaps it seems strange to assert that the Roman Catholic Church whose one foundation is Jesus Christ our King depends on our human relationships this way. But we only need to recall the Gospel that commands us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves in the same breath we are told to love God with all our hearts, our minds, and our souls. The “more excellent way” Saint Paul encourages us to seek in the First Letter to the Corinthians is the way of love. The Catholic, communitarian ethic is built on certain assumptions about our human nature as created beings, and essential to all of this is that we live for our Creator who created us to love God and to love God’s creation. An understanding of Christianity that does not place this all-encompassing social love at its center not only risks missing an important point of our faith, but it also, eventually, will seem rather silly—that is, if it does not become inwardly focused and actively destructive in the world. And that has happened before.
Social love never is easy. And it always is hardest when we encounter people who seem unlike us. This was a problem in the early Church, as much as it has remained a problem throughout Christian history. How shall we conceive of the Christian community as distinct but also one that is and must be open to every other community and person? We can sense this in the First Letter of Saint Peter, addressed to the persecuted churches of Asia Minor. At once, be “aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires” (1 Pt 2:11). At the same time, we are to be “subject to every human institution” (2:13) that exists for the sake of “those who do good” (2:14). Even in challenging circumstances, the call to Christians is the same: “be of one mind, sympathetic, loving toward one another, compassionate, humble” (3:8). We are meant to live at peace with others and each other, to love all.
I think it is no mistake that these discourses in the Christian Testament arise around the treatment of social questions or that, often, Christian life is expressed in political metaphors like kingship. Peter is writing to Christian communities under pressure. Paul writes to a church in Corinth that is growing divided and confused by outside influences. In Luke, Jesus moves from the Greatest Commandment directly to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a challenging story about loving others who are different. Our Christian life is inseparable from our lives in the world together and, as Catholics, we know that is always most true for the communities to which we belong particularly—our families, our churches, our nation.
We might say, therefore, that tending to our social relationships this way is a pre-eminent political value among Catholics. When our social relationships and our political community become so broken and divided that even Christians begin to lose the ability to see one another—to really to see others—as people we must love, I would suggest that there is no more urgent political issue in front of us.
In November 2019, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not produce a new Faithful Citizenship document to replace the prior edition (which dates to 2007), I voiced skepticism publicly about our leaders’ unwillingness to engage the urgent problem growing in our politics. I was especially worried that—amid the terrible things revealed and unleashed in our politics in the immediately preceding years—that the bishops had let our long, pro-life focus on abortion distract them from something else pernicious and virulent that was permeating our Church and our culture. Of course defense of the unborn is an important sign of our love for one another. We must continue to defend the unborn. But we also bear responsibility for the world into which we want them to be born. Much as Cardinal Joseph Bernardin linked our concern for the unborn to our concern that children should not be born into a world where they would be annihilated in a nuclear exchange, today, we are responsible for working to ensure that every child is born into a world where nationalist conflicts and political violence do not undermine our civilization and the goods that come from peace.
In months since (with only a few notable exceptions) we have not seen our Catholic bishops step away and gain some critical, prophetic distance from this metastasizing problem. Instead, we have seen them grow closer and closer to it. The common denominator is and remains what it has been since I wrote a book four years ago about how Catholics have driven our polarization: abortion is the pre-eminent priority. And due to that polarization, Catholics have failed to be a healing influence in our political community. Our Church has done more than its share of dividing and polarizing us, teaching how not to see one another as someone we must love. January 6 was an epiphany. The fruits of all of this manifested concretely on Capitol Hill.
The duty of a Catholic in public life is a subject that has not lacked for discussion across the last few decades, and that is good. The subject is complex and important, and we should go on discussing it. But in some moments, it becomes clear and simple and there is little to say. Since January 6, we are in one of those moments.
The health of our social and political community, as much as the health of our Church, is the pre-eminent issue with which we need to be preoccupied—elected officials, judges, citizens, and bishops. We will accomplish nothing good in those important arenas until we accomplish the thing on which they all depend. Catholics must love others—concretely, not abstractly. Catholics must give evidence of a better kind of community. And, Catholics must play our part to build “A Better Kind of Politics.”
Image: By United States Senate – https://www.senate.gov/index.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63532525
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Steven P. Millies is associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His most recent book is Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters’ Road from Roe to Trump (Liturgical Press, 2018).