The Working Catholic: Vocation of Politics
by Bill Droel
Can electoral politics be a vocation; a person’s response to God’s call? By one opinion, the answer is decidedly no. Political office, this opinion points out, is a place for illicit sex, ostentation, financial corruption, self-serving ideology and general boorishness. As for those politicians who invoke God’s name, their policy positions hypocritically oppose God’s revealed positions: care for the poor, proper labor relations, compassion for widows and orphans, respect for each life and more.
Days after a recent primary election in Illinois, Lumen Christi Institute (www.lumenchristi.org) hosted a forum in Chicago’s Loop on “The Dignity of Politics.” In its promotional material Lumen Christi, a Catholic group, said that “politics is held in low repute today” and that political activity breeds contempt for the law and public policy.
James Stoner of Louisiana State University, at Lumen Christi’s invitation, shared his own list of negatives with the forum’s participants. Among his obvious examples: the corruption of some office holders deters citizens from electoral politics, including from voting; plus the prevalence of rigid ideology within the major political parties discourages those who might consider political involvement as a vehicle for change.
The Lumen Christi forum—like the daily activity of governance—was conducted in secular language. Perhaps a subsequent forum could ask a panel of elected officials to share how their Catholicism informs their daily work; how within their given environments they incrementally advance justice and peace; how and where they find support when they feel their profession is drifting from the common good.
A panel of Illinois officials at the forum tried to balance Stoner’s negative list. Mary Jane Theis, an Illinois Supreme Court Justice, reminded the participants that politics is a limited activity. While governance must be conducted honorably, its normal business is not a take-no-prisoners moral crusade. Justice is always approximate. The improvements of today must be improved upon tomorrow.
Dan Cronin, a county board chairperson, agreed. Constructive political service doesn’t have the time for moral grandstanding, he said. “Compromise is the way to accomplish good things; it is a virtue.” A conscientious official, said Cronin, must go to work each day with the humble attitude that yesterday was “not quite good enough.” For example, he said, politicians must do more tomorrow to alleviate today’s poverty in Illinois.
Larry Sufferdin, a county board member and a panelist at the Lumen Christi event, spoke of the positives. The corrupt officials dominate the news, but overall “the integrity of politics is good today,” he said.
Some Christian denominations stress people’s sinfulness. Christian sectarians go even further and judge an entire culture to be evil. Withdraw from the world, they preach. Catholicism, by contrast, is world-affirming and therefore accents the goodness of people and their institutions. Catholicism acknowledges that people are flawed by sin and that their institutions can drift away from original aspirations and from the plan of God. But normally the Catholic strategy—grounded in the dogma of Incarnation–is to start with positives and then coax people and institutions toward improvement.
If our world resembles the plan of God, it is because Christians and others respond to the call that is issued to each of us. Politicians need places and occasions in which to reflect on their vocation. Politicians need the solidarity of colleagues—from whatever political party, whatever religious background, or whatever humanistic impulse.
Politicians and other workers who want to live their calling might here-and-there find weekend worship to be a useful resource. They might get some spiritual cues from official Church sources. Unfortunately, the credibility of Catholic bishops and their staff is at low tide these days. More likely, modern workers would find critique and support in independent lay-centered groups, including Lumen Christi. Best yet are those support groups that politicians and other workers form among themselves. For example, a small support group of lawyers that meets regularly or a business executives group that discusses mutual concerns and perhaps adopts a project for the common good.
Most of the time, most workers and most parents and most students go about their daily routine individually without the benefit of a support group. In the modern age, everyone it seems is a solo-practitioner. A true vocation, however, has two parts: A person’s unique gifts plus the objective needs of a community. Without the challenges and support that come from one’s circle of friends and colleagues, a full vocation is unlikely.
Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work for National Center for Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)