In Philippians 4:6, the Apostle Paul tells us:
Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline: think on these things.
The advice is excellent, since we are formed by what we attend to. But what does it tell us about politics? People say we should pay attention to politics, but it’s full of things that aren’t true, modest, just, holy, or lovely.
For proof, spend a couple of hours on Twitter. You’re much more likely to see Paul’s “works of the flesh,” like “enmities, contentions, emulations, wraths, quarrels, dissensions, sects, [and] envies” (Gal 5:20-21), than “fruit of the Spirit,” like “charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, [and] longanimity.” (Gal 5:22-23)
There are reasons for that. Politics means working with people, including stupid, irrational, and ill-intentioned people, and inducing them to cooperate. It also means conflict, not always conducted fairly, and forcing people to do things they oppose—often with some reason, since it’s rare for all legitimate arguments to be on one side. These activities are not absolutely inconsistent with sanctity, but they’re not conducive to it either.
Beyond that, politics notoriously involves lying. A politician won’t get anywhere unless he can tell stories that are simple, dramatic, and compelling, and to do that reliably you need to edit the facts—sometimes a lot. And how many politicians are willing to dispense with fear, anger, and hatred to stir up their followers? Fear and anger are sometimes justified, but the temptation to appeal to them does not depend on that.
Also, Jesus said it was difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Lk 18:25), not because riches are always ill-gotten or otherwise bad but because the rich “are choked with the cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and yield no fruit.” (Lk 8:14) The same would certainly apply to politicians wholly consumed—as they all seem to be—in acquiring, keeping, and exercising power.
It is hard to imagine a modern democratic politician as a saint. Few saints have been politically active, and even fewer voluntarily chose a political career (royal saints were born to it) or were canonized for their overall political activity rather than particular acts leading to martyrdom.
Recent Catholics with a reputation for saintliness and an interest in politics have usually failed to combine those qualities with good sense. John Paul II may have been an exception. But Jacques Maritain—to pick an example—showed amazingly bad judgment promoting his friend Saul Alinsky, and Dorothy Day’s pacifism and anarchism allowed her to combine intense political interests with avoidance of obvious basic issues.
So, why get involved? Sometimes it’s a matter of self-defense. Most of us can’t affect politics much, but politics can affect us and what we love a great deal. As they say, you may not be interested in it, but it is interested in you. And since each of us has some political influence, at least in cooperation with others, it seems we should use that influence to promote good things, and especially to oppose bad things.
In principle, politics has to do with cooperation for the common good, but in practice Lenin’s “who/whom”—do unto others before they do unto you—is often a better description. That’s all the more so today, when trust, honor, and rational public discourse are in short supply. Worse, the technological outlook and disappearance of any public sense of the transcendent has turned politics for many people into a messianic substitute for religion that combines a false idea of the good with an insistence on radically transforming the world.
The result is that influential public positions, including positions of intellectual leadership, are often held by bigoted cranks who loathe—and want to destroy—both their opponents and natural human tendencies. Recent developments regarding transgender ideology provide examples.
Under such circumstances efforts to secure even basic physical aspects of the common good—national defense, suppression of criminal violence, safeguarding public health—fail because they lose their connection to reality. And rational discussion of equally basic but less physical aspects of the common good, like stable and functional family life, are wholly out of reach.
What do we do under such circumstances? How do we combine the good and the effective in politics when conditions are so unfavorable? And what do we do about the corrupting effect of much political participation?
First, it seems that the search for broad common ground with public institutions and our fellow citizens is becoming less realistic. Catholic functionaries, who like working with other functionaries, naturally like the idea. But there’s no common ground on basic issues today, and that makes broad systems of cooperation ever more difficult.
A humane system of law and government, or of health, education, and welfare, is impossible without a humane concept of human nature and the common good. That is why Catholics have run into difficulties collaborating with a healthcare system dominated by technocrats who basically view it as a branch of the biotechnology industry devoted to maintaining human economic assets, scrapping them when no longer needed, and, where money is available, providing consumer goods like babies, abortions, extended lifespans, and sex change operations.
So, what to do? If people are promoting bad things, we can help to some extent by providing good things, but above all by showing why they are good. Rather than emphasizing collaboration with an inhuman system, the Church should emphasize her own charitable activities. But more than that she must concentrate on her central function, presenting the truth about God and man. The growing insistence on policing discussion, displayed for example in the fear and outrage regarding Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, suggests that such an effort has its difficulties. But it also shows it can have important practical effects—otherwise, why the insistence?
Catholics can contribute in particularly effective ways regarding issues where realities are hard to obfuscate because they touch us closely—for example, with regard to abortion, transgenderism, or what goes on in the schools. Truth really does have power regarding such issues, because control depends so much on silencing it.
But more broadly we need to present a full-fledged alternative to the system of belief now official. It’s important to oppose particular evils, but opposition to evil can’t be effective without illumination by a vision of how life can be better. And that is where Paul’s advice to form our thoughts by directing them properly comes in. We can’t present the truth unless we live by it, and for that we need constantly to attend to it.
However important it is to deal with disease, crime, and trash collection, we should place our greatest emphasis on health, virtue, and beauty. If we don’t like the present state of education, pop culture, public discussion, ideals of life, the world of work, or relations between the sexes, we need to search out ways to make them better. We need models, literary or real-life, to aspire to.
Individuals and groups are of course working on such things—education alone provides many examples. Dissatisfied Catholics tempted simply to complain need to support them any way they can. But whatever our situation and calling, we are all able to live better ourselves, and to display concretely what that involves to our neighbors. And that is normally the best thing we can do politically.
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