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Essay
May 16, 2011
The concept, if defined falsely, disables civic virtues.

Vice President Joe Biden, Senator John McCain, and Governor Sarah Palin hope that their sons will return safely from military deployment overseas, although they still disagree, as they did on the campaign trail, about how to prosecute the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Legislators from both political parties hope that there will be no further terrorist attacks in the United States, yet they differ widely in their views on foreign policy and domestic freedoms.

Baby boomers facing retirement hope for a bullish stock market. My brother and his wife hope to keep their jobs. Joe “the Plumber” hopes to hire an assistant without putting his business into a prohibitively high tax bracket.

It is a safe bet that most Americans are “pro-hope.” The neo-Marxist German philosopher Ernst Bloch maintained that human beings are hard-wired for hope, which defines how we exist and act in an incomplete world.

The personalist philosopher Gabriel Marcel, in a lecture given in 1942, noted that two elements are always found in hope: “a wish and a certain belief.” Some hopes are so “diluted” as to approach “the point of indifference”; for example, “I hope that James will arrive in time for lunch.” Yet in times of trial, when hope is full strength, it constitutes the “veritable response” of one’s whole being. (Marcel, by then a Catholic, was speaking during World War II in occupied France.) Transcending calculation, hope shares in the mystery of the human person.

Hope, then, is not rhetorical frosting, enthusiasm, or a group dynamic. In matters of public policy, we should distinguish the two elements of hope. The “wish” is the object of hope: safer neighborhoods, lower taxes, a cure for diabetes, etc. The “belief” is the conviction, worldview, or deeply held value that makes the object appear necessary or desirable.

Not all hopes can be fulfilled in the political arena at public expense. Furthermore fellow citizens hope for conflicting things. The task of politics is to prioritize and to arbitrate among the various objects of hope. This requires prudence and a keen sense of justice. Civility helps; courtesy toward one’s opponents implies respect for their beliefs (even as one argues that other objectives are more urgent or important).

Hope, like love, is noble but easily debased. Marcel observes that some slippage or “degradation” is inevitable.

“To hope in” becomes “to expect from,” then “to have due to me”—i.e., “to count on,” and finally “to claim” or “to demand.” The object of hope (the “wish”) may remain the same while the kind of hope (the underlying “belief”) is transmogrified. Long-range trends in American society illustrate this; prosperity remains high on the wish list, but patriotism and a sense of civic duty have declined precipitously since the 1960s, while the attitude of entitlement has proliferated.

Marcel warns that degraded kinds of hope can be more harmful than erroneous objects of hope. The soul is sorely disappointed whenever it presumes to “chain reality down in advance as one binds a debtor with an agreement.” Mistaking hope for a contract alters one’s mentality and diminishes the very capacity to hope.

It is indeed difficult to interpret as hope the idolatry which immense, fascinated masses show for leaders who have previously, by ceaseless propaganda, succeeded in paralyzing not only any critical spirit in their minions, but all true sense of values. All that we can say is that this idolatrous attachment is the miserable substitute of the hope for which those same multitudes no doubt still have a nostalgic longing in the depths of their hearts.

Ersatz-hope does not empower; it disables genuine civic virtues. The French philosopher blames this phenomenon on the imperfect democratic process.

Democracy—not in principle but in its actual achievements—has perniciously helped to encourage claiming in all its aspects and the demanding of rights, and indeed to bring a mercenary spirit into all human relationships.

This occurs at the expense of “the idea of disinterested service born of fidelity”; the ideal of justice becomes jumbled with the fear that others might take advantage.

In 1984, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that one of the greatest threats to democracy is “a fanaticism that arises from a disgust with the status quo.” The traditional faith perspective is actually the most realistic:

Christianity…has not set its messianic hopes on the political realm…. From the very beginning it has insisted on leaving politics in the sphere of rationality and ethics…. But ethics alone cannot supply its own rational basis…. The Christian faith awakens the conscience…. It gives practical reason its contents and shows it the way…. The courage to be reasonable, which is the courage to live with imperfection, requires the Christian promise in order to stand its ground.

Americans hope that their elected officials will govern reasonably and responsibly. Let us hope and pray that they will allow moral reasoning to have its say.

 

 
About the Author
Michael J. Miller 

Michael J. Miller translated Introduction to the Mystery of the Church by Benoit-Dominique de la Soujeole, O.P., for Catholic University of America Press.
 

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