In one of the most hotly contested presidential elections in decades, President Barack Obama won his bid for re-election over a challenger who, just a few weeks earlier, seemed to have the presidency within his reach. Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, a formidable campaigner and debater, was gracious in defeat. Mr. Romney telephoned the president shortly before 1 a.m. to congratulate the man he had tried to unseat and to offer his support in the next four years. “This is a time of great challenge for America, and I pray that the president will be successful in guiding our nation,” he told supporters.
Whether that prayer is answered depends on whether Americans can be as gracious to one another as Mr. Romney was on election night. The new Congress and the president must find a way to break the political gridlock that has paralyzed the capital. Politicians, however, are hardly the only ones who have demonstrated an inability to listen and a pernicious habit of name-calling. The sad fact is that Catholics and other Christians can be just as divisive, and just as overly partisan and ideological, as the rest of our fellow citizens. At times in this election, a disinterested observer could be forgiven for failing to discern a qualitative difference between the public discourse among American Catholics and that of the country at large. The so-called Catholic left too often accused the so-called Catholic right of not being Christian enough, while the right too often accused the left of not being Catholic enough. Such tactics are incompatible with our self-understanding as a communion of believers.
Still, Catholics also made positive and meaningful contributions. The 2012 election was marked by a remarkable degree of Catholic participation. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and many Catholic leaders and citizens joined in the public debate, defending the traditional definition of marriage, debating the ethical implications of the Affordable Care Act and working to strengthen the church’s prophetic pro-life voice. Other voices, including the Nuns on the Bus group, which grew in prominence as the election continued, emphasized the church’s teachings on other matters of social justice, the need to care for the poorest of the poor and to preserve the social safety net. Catholic commentators and theologians of every political stripe were also not shy in offering their “Catholic perspective.” Ultimately, because both major presidential candidates held positions at odds with important Catholic teachings, neither candidate dominated the Catholic vote. Mr. Obama’s margin of victory among Catholics was only two or three points.
The church in the United States now faces a dual task. In addition to continued witness and advocacy on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, the church must also draw on its spiritual resources to forge a new form of discourse, one based in charity.
So how can we model cooperation in an era of gridlock? Catholics understand that the Holy Spirit works in all people. In our tradition the most unlikely people sometimes have the most to contribute to the church; saints are often drawn from the ranks of the poorest and most obscure. Every life is sacred, and everyone has a unique vocation to help the church in its mission on earth. In the secular sphere, this notion that everyone at the table has something to contribute may help to unite an increasingly fractious country. Only when one holds to the principle that the “other side” might have something meaningful to say does genuine listening become possible.
At the beginning of his classic Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola offers these words: “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.” In other words, give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Assume that he or she is working for the good. This is as important in political life as it is in the spiritual life. Emotionally charged public policy issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, health care, defense spending and religious freedom are difficult and complicated enough without the added hindrance of hyperbole and invective.
This magazine, of course, is not immune to the disease we diagnose. At times in our history, we too have been a part of the problem. With Christians everywhere, we seek forgiveness, for what we have done and for what we have failed to do. We pray that all people of faith, that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, indeed that every citizen will reject the politics of division and remember that everyone at the table is not only welcome, but worth listening to. While the progress of both the church and society relies ultimately on the grace of God, it also depends in no small measure on our willingness to trust one another.