Finding our way in political storms

I have a confession to make. I believe in the positive power of government to promote the common good. Yes, that's right, 100 days into the new administration, amid an ongoing toxic political debate with drastic budget cuts on the horizon that will negatively impact people on the margins who are already struggling, I still believe in we the people. As Sr. Simone Campbell of NETWORK likes to say, if we the people created this mess, then we the people can get ourselves out of it.

First of all, some self-disclosures are in order. I am the daughter of a dynamic duo who instilled in their five children a belief in good government and the responsibility to participate as active citizens. My father was a local elected official who helped to desegregate the school system in the 1960s and later helped build public transit and infrastructure systems that get us going in our daily lives. My mother worked for struggling people through non-profits and as a constituent advocate on Capitol Hill. My parents taught their children to be critical thinkers and to work to better the systems that hold our social fabric together. It's no wonder then that my first job out of college was in local government. Before I became a Catholic sister, I spent 11 years working in government administration, where I sought to improve access to information needed to be good citizens.

That's actually part of the problem these days, I think — access to information. In this information age, we are paradoxically blinded by all the data. What to believe? Whom to trust? Is that link on social media actually weaponized information or alternative facts? Then there is the sheer volume of information, the number of outrageous statements or draconian policy proposals crying out for a response. Even the most well-intentioned citizen would be forgiven for feeling a bit lost or thrown off course during our current political storms.

How do we find our way through this mess? As Catholics, we are blessed to have a strong moral tradition to guide us. As the U.S. bishops note in their faithful citizenship document, the "The Catholic community brings important assets to the political dialogue about our nation's future. We bring a consistent moral framework — drawn from basic human reason that is illuminated by Scripture and the teaching of the Church — for assessing issues, political platforms, and campaigns."

Most likely, if you are reading Global Sisters Report, you are at least somewhat familiar with the major principles of Catholic social teaching, such as the sacredness of life, the dignity of the human person, and the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. The richness of our tradition, however, is more than a list of principles to be recited. It is a living and breathing tradition which is meant to orient our lives and human communities toward right relationship with God, self and other.

Moral theologian Kenneth R. Himes, in his 2014 book Christianity and the Political Order: Conflict, Cooptation, and Cooperation, offers a good way of finding our way during these political storms that engages the orienting nature of our moral tradition. He outlines ethical coordinates that can frame our response to the complex realities of our day. Just as a compass guides the traveler on the right path, the citizen, consumer and community can use the ethical coordinates to direct actions and choices in the right direction.

Himes draws his seven ethical coordinates from Catholic social teaching, and they are intended to help the Christian community read the signs of the times through a focused lens.

  • Authentic Humanism undergirds the Catholic understanding of authentic development. Building upon the insights of Pope Paul VI, authentic humanism broadens the conversation beyond mere economic concerns to include everything that is needed for human flourishing — material needs, just social structures, and cultural/educational opportunities. It recognizes that the human person is the primary moral reality.
  • Solidarity is the Catholic response to the reality of interdependence, which is thrown into even sharper relief by globalization. Pope John Paul II understood solidarity as a virtue that helps to recognize the other — whether next door or across the globe — as our neighbor and to respond accordingly with a firm commitment to the common good. Solidarity is intimately connected to the option for the poor.
  • The common good is the sum total of everything needed for human flourishing. Pope John XXIII gave us an understanding of the common good as universal. This coordinate reaches beyond borders to encompass the entire community of life.
  • Justice orients the allocation of goods, resources and power in human communities toward that which makes the "good life" possible. It extends to all people and all communities and is particularly focused on meeting basic human needs.
  • Human rights include civil, political and socio-economic rights. Human dignity is at the root of this coordinate, which also necessarily involves responsibilities and duties to community and the common good.
  • Participation as an ethical coordinate respects the basic human drive to be involved and share responsibility in the decisions that shape our lives as both individuals and as members of the human community.
  • Subsidiarity guides us to ensure that decisions and actions for the common good are made at the local level whenever possible.

When I feel lost at sea in the midst of the latest tempests of political and policy debates that seem, to be quite honest, more than a little bit insane, I find it helpful to have my response guided by these ethical coordinates. They give me an anchor to hold on to and a lens to wear which helps me to see the real complexity of the issues at hand, even if certain politicians try to make them overly simplistic or are themselves purportedly surprised by the complexity.

The collective project of democracy, coordinating our lives for the common good, is by necessity a complex matter. The challenging issues of our day will require equally complex strategies and creative solutions, rather than simple answers or quick fixes. And, my friends, I do believe, we the people are up to the challenge if we can only find our way through the storm.

[Susan Rose Francois is a member of the Congregation Leadership Team for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace. She was a Bernardin scholar at Catholic Theological Union and has ministered as a justice educator and advocate. Read more of her work on her blog, At the Corner of Susan and St. Joseph.]

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