By Patrick Schmadeke
(The first in a six-part series)
What does it mean to be a responsible Catholic citizen in the midst of rising political polarization?
The need for thoughtful commentary on this topic is readily apparent: we are experiencing political turmoil at all levels of government, trust in our institutions is eroding and interpersonal relationships that have previously been immune to the vicissitudes of partisanship are showing signs of fragility. Worse still, many simply assume the worst about persons of the opposite political persuasion.
Such suspicion is stimulated by various actors. Persons who have political power, certain voices in the media and leaders of corporations all contribute to the political cacophony. Appallingly, those who advocate for political division benefit financially and politically from the very turmoil they create. Such opportunism is incompatible with the Gospel.
As citizens, we cannot stand idle on the sidelines, nor should we enter confused political debates haphazardly. The need for critical and constructive political dialogue and civic engagement is heightened by the social sins of our time. This series intends to be a resource in response to that need, a guidepost of Catholic political theology and ethics in the service of bringing one’s faith to bear on one’s politics.
The series cannot be comprehensive; it is the beginning of a conversation. It does not intend to offer specific solutions to any particular political problem. Rather, the aim is to highlight primary principles of Catholic theology which inform our critique of specific political positions and candidates. With the February caucuses just around the corner and the November elections nine months later, this topic is a timely one. The following is a sketch of what is to come in the series.
While this first column is an introduction, the second will make clear why being politically engaged is a necessary dimension of one’s Catholicity. Various expressions of Christianity have historically said that the realm of faith is isolated from the realm of politics. But, as we will see, there are historical and theological reasons why our faith is indispensable to questions of politics.
We know that all is intertwined in the seamless garment of creation, so the third article explores the shared starting points of faith and politics. Two frameworks are particularly helpful in considering this relationship: the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and Natural Law.
The fourth article observes the seemingly inevitable conflict between political realities and theological principles and offers a clarification regarding the concerns of these two realms. While the object of the political task is the common good, the object of the theological task is God. While theology continually refines our understanding of the common good and offers it to the political order to enact, there is no intrinsic discontinuity in the tasks of theology and politics.
The fifth article seeks to set the November elections in a broader context. While commentators have observed that the presidential election is our highest national “sacrament,” we must situate this “sacrament” in the wider horizon of civic responsibility. The more we are grounded in local civic experiences the better we can responsibly engage local, state, national and international issues.
Finally, the sixth article offers three interrelated “tools” that serve as the foundation for political conscience formation. Briefly, these tools are: (1) examine how our communities contribute to political conscience formation, (2) draw on the Catholic intellectual tradition to inform this reflection and (3) develop fuller attention to the agency of the Holy Spirit in conscience formation.
If it is the case that we find it difficult to speak with one another about politics, then articulating shared starting points will help us begin on common ground. The articles published here from September through February can be read as individual units, stitched together in the end to form a single whole and can be used as discussion pieces with friends as well as resources for individual reflection. If there is an outcome from this series I hope it is this: to make sure that our politics conform to our faith, and not the other way around.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic Tradition and its relevance to the world today.)