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True Politics

By Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
February 2021

From a Catholic perspective, what happened at our nation’s Capitol on January 6 was not true politics. Nor was much of the rhetoric, acrimony, and hostility that preceded it.

The political commentator and columnist Mark Shields often said that politics is the peaceable resolution of conflict among legitimate competing interests. I first heard him give that definition at a conference on Catholic social justice and it has always made sense to me.

Politics, at its core, is the act to getting an individual or organization to do what he, she, or it would otherwise not have done. If that act of persuasion, however, is not peaceful, it becomes an act of violence. If the competing interests are not legitimate, what passes for politics is really just and exercise to divide, further an evil, or serve a narrow self-interest.

It turns out that the definition used by Shields, who is Catholic, is not far off from how politics is viewed in Catholic teaching. The Catholic view of politics is that it should be (1) peaceful, (2) serve the common good, and (3) an act of charity.

Pope Francis’ 2019 World Day of Peace Address was entitled “Good Politics is at the Service of Peace. It begins: “In sending his disciples forth on mission, Jesus told them: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest upon him; but if not, it shall return to you” (Lk 10:5-6). Bringing peace is central to the mission of Christ’s disciples. That peace is offered to all those men and women who long for peace amid the tragedies and violence that mark human history. The ‘house’ of which Jesus speaks is every family, community, country and continent, in all their diversity and history. It is first and foremost each individual person, without distinction or discrimination. But it is also our ‘common home’: the world in which God has placed us and which we are called to care for and cultivate.” Good politics, therefore, is at the “service of peace.”

Another principle in Catholic teaching is that ends cannot justify the means. This means that we can never consider violence — and actions that incite violence — as acceptable, even if a person believes it will result in peace or a greater good.

The assault on our nation’s capitol and the rhetoric leading to it was not an act of peace.

True politics also requires that the purpose be legitimate. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Guadium, Pope Frances wrote that politics must seek the common good. In his World Day of Peace address, he went further. He wrote that true politics must build “human community and institutions,” serve “society as a whole,” and be for the “good of the city, the nation and all mankind.”

Politics cannot, he wrote, come from a “thirst for power,” “become a means of oppression, marginalization and even destruction,” or flout “community rules.”

The assault on our nation’s capitol and the rhetoric leading to it was not in furtherance of the common good or any legitimate purpose.

In Evangelii Guadium, Pope Frances wrote that politics should be “one of the highest forms of charity.” He quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote that charity “is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones).”

Charity, therefore, should not only motivate and shape our political life, it should be the very purpose of politics. In his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, the pope calls for “political love” that “transcends every individualistic mindset.” There is no place for “us vs. them,” division, or demagoguery in authentic politics.

The assault on our nation’s capitol and the rhetoric leading to it was not an act of charity.

I have throughout this column called attention to the rhetoric leading to the assault on the capitol because the riot and and attack did not come out of nowhere. All of us need to examine our actions and reevaluate the actions of others. Were all the tweets, speeches, facebook posts, campaign literature, and more acts of true politics marked by peace, legitimate purpose, and charity?

When examining our actions we should avoid the “you also” argument. What the “other” side did never justifies the actions of another.

Politics, true politics, is not a team sport where the purpose is to defeat the other side. The purpose of politics is to find not to win and destroy at all costs, but to peacefully resolve legitimate differences in the name of love.

Somehow, somewhere, we lost sight of that purpose and only with serious reflection, conversion, and acceptance of God’s love can we regain it.

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The North Dakota Catholic Conference acts on behalf of the Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota to respond to public policy issues of concern to the Catholic Church and to educate Catholics and the general public about Catholic social doctrine.
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