By FATHER WILLIAM F. MAESTRI, Commentary | Published September 11, 2008
Labor Day has come and gone. The official end of summer (someone needs to inform nature) gives way to the change of seasons. Those “lazy, hazy, crazy” days of barefoot, lemonade and sleeping late have been replaced by falling leaves, a real breakfast and shouts of “it’s time to get up for school!”
This year another season occupies our attention: not one of nature but of a desire to grasp the brass ring of presidential power. We are beginning, in a focused way, the every-four-year dash for the Oval Office. Between now and Election Day, we will be bombarded with infomercials from the politically anointed messiahs promising a kingdom of peace and prosperity in our time. This political saturation could make us long for a good summer rerun.
A question arises: what is the Catholic to make of this Potomac fever? Being Catholics, persons of faith, does not disqualify or excuse us from thoughtful participation. On the contrary, our Catholic faith, especially Catholic social teaching, calls for us to take seriously the responsibilities of citizenship. Participation is more than an exercise in civic virtue. It is a moral responsibility to promote the common good. We do not limit our sources for reflection to political party, campaign literature or sound bites. We prayerfully consult Scripture, the Catholic tradition, current teachings of the Magisterium, local and national bishops conferences, and the work of the Holy Spirit within the people of God.
The selection of a candidate involves both an analysis of the platform and a judgment about character. Issues require answers. Already we are told that heading the list of national concerns are the economy and national security. These are important issues. Yet, they must be viewed through the lens which helps view the moral foundations that are too often covered over by the purely political.
For the person of faith, economic issues extend beyond Wall Street. Main Street and the “mean streets” of poverty, neglect, despair and violence are part of our platform. The working poor and the hard-pressed middle class cannot be made invisible. The mighty waters of justice will not be capped by the purely political, but those mighty waters will rush down seeking a level that ensures equity, equal opportunity and participation by the many, not just a select few. Personal witness joins with institutional reform in order to create a culture in which all life is respected.
The images from 9/11 are forever part of our national story. The fear of another attack is real. At the same time, this prudent fear must not drive out what Lincoln termed “the finer angels” of our character. The careful balancing of national security and hospitality will require our best thinking, wisest judgments, deepest hopes as that shining “City on a Hill,” and the guidance of Providence. Those who traffic in fear are not worthy of that public trust which comes with high office.
Character counts. And character is revealed in conduct, public and private. Specifically, political character is evidenced through style—especially the style of one’s rhetoric and the tone of one’s campaign. Style is deeper than the fashionable (what is expedient). It is more telling than the clothes we wear. Style and tone give evidence to the kind of person one is, and the limits one is willing to go, and not go, in achieving a goal.
Politics is a rough business. It has always been so. Yet this should not keep us from expecting civility in our debates and honesty in trying to persuade the electorate. Sadly, the state of current political discourse has become one of personal destruction in which issues are laid aside in favor of demonizing the opponent. After all, “going negative” works. And in politics the end always justifies the means. Or does it?
This politics of personal destruction is not unexpected in a media-saturated age of blogs, Internet, tabloids, and 24/7 cable news. The vacuum of time must be filled. Too often the titillating replaces the noteworthy, and the sound bite substitutes for the thoughtful response.
In an age in which we seek to amuse ourselves to death, civility and honesty are viewed as signs of weakness. In reality, both require strength of character. Civility requires a strength, a restraint, in the prudent use of words, images and actions. Honesty calls for an acknowledgment of what is true, not an easy assignment in a culture of spin, denial, cover up, insincere apologies.
People of faith can seize this moment in order to bring about a politics deserving of our high ideals and most cherished beliefs. Faith can inform, and even elevate, politics. And such is a seasonal change we can all welcome.
Father William F. Maestri served the Archdiocese of New Orleans as communications director and school superintendent during the years following Hurricane Katrina. He is currently teaching at the John Marshall School of Law in Atlanta as a distinguished visiting professor of social justice law.