‘If we don’t love the poor, and do all we can to improve their lot, we’re going to go to Hell,” the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput, recently said. It’s not pretty, but it is real. And it should resonate even with people who don’t believe in eternal damnation, but who do care about the future of the country and of Western civilization.
This reality, that we have moral obligations to one another that run deep, is why the concept of “nuns on a bus” protesting federal budget cuts tugs at people’s hearts. (If this weren’t the case, the Democratic national convention wouldn’t have recruited one of those nuns to speak in prime time.) We are a people of compassion, and we believe that having people around who want to serve their neighbors out of love of God and of their brothers and sisters is a good thing for all of us — for our neighborhoods, for civil society, and for the life of our nation.
Perhaps it is largely out of fear that there are not enough people who feel called to serve their fellow man that so many of us have fallen into a reflexive, default position that the government must provide. But the government can’t give love like a woman who has devoted her life to Christ, forgoing marriage and children so that she can serve full time as a nursing sister, and the government cannot provide palliative care the way she can. Our default position must be to ensure she has the space to serve. Likewise, America cannot long maintain its compassion if we become a hemlock society, imposing the euphemism “Death with dignity” in place of a human touch as our reflexive solution to the pain and suffering that can come at the end of life. (This a choice voters face in a ballot initiative this November in Massachusetts.)
Paul Ryan’s speech on poverty in the homestretch of the 2012 presidential campaign was crucially important in addressing our need for a reinvigoration of civil society. “No matter who your parents are,” Ryan said in Cleveland last week, “no matter where you come from, you should have the opportunity in America to rise, to escape from poverty, and to achieve whatever your God-given talents and hard work enable you to achieve. “That’s the message at the heart of our history as Americans. It’s a good and an obligation that we help one another meet our potential; it’s at the heart of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We talk so much in our politics about change. But what we’re really seeking is renewal. Renewal helps us sustain and transmit the best of our past. Renewal is essential to being good stewards of our blessings. Renewal builds on foundations. Renewal is truly progressive (albeit with a lower-case “p.”)
Renewal, too, is why some of the best-known American Catholic bishops have been meeting in Rome, along with lay Catholics and ecumenical leaders from around the world. Earlier this month, I joined them to receive a message to the women of the world from Pope Benedict XVI. The message was literally the same one that Pope Paul VI delivered in 1965 at the end of Vatican Council II. We’re not living as if we heard or received those messages, though; messages about the innate dignity of man, about the gifts men and women each bring to the table, about roles played by people in all walks of life. And so the message I received, I would translate as: Let’s try this again, being responsive to our current circumstances throughout the world. Let’s try again to be who we say we are, loving one another.
The best intentions of both “the nuns on the bus” and Paul Ryan can be heard in the words of Paul VI: “From this Catholic center of Rome, no one, in principle, is unreachable; in principle, all men can and must be reached. For the Catholic Church, no one is a stranger, no one is excluded, and no one is far away. Everyone to whom our greeting is addressed is one who is called, who is invited, and who, in a certain sense, is present. This is the language of the heart of one who loves. Every loved one is present! And we, especially at this moment, in virtue of our universal pastoral and apostolic mandate, we love all, all men.”
This is the all-important message, and one that is not always communicated by Christians.
“We are Catholics before we are Democrat, we are Catholics before we are Republican, we are even Catholics before we are Americans,” Archbishop Chaput has also said in recent days, “because we know that God has a demand on us prior to any government demand on us.” For Catholics, he says, the issue of abortion “requires . . . loyalty to the Church prior to their political party. “The Democratic party has gotten “worse and worse” on the issue because Catholics have let them. Perhaps the Republicans right now are the ones not taking the Catholic vote for granted. It could be the Democrats one day, too, if Catholics and other people of faith, with a concern for America’s soul, start expecting more — a defense and protection of human dignity and its flourishing in freedom. We could be on the verge of an awakening, a renewal of our union, and a cleansing of the poisons of the culture of death. We’ll know when we make a real, joyful commitment to authenticity.