An earlier column discussed “being Catholic first” — how our moral vision should judge partisan positions, not vice versa. Also essential for a Catholic view of politics is a sense of perspective, or “taking the long view.”
Let’s begin with what common sense tells us. Success and failure are equally aspects of human life. “Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” Political victories and defeats are the most fleeting of all, especially in a democracy where key players are replaced every few years.
And the ultimate consequences of political acts may not be what we expect.
Take President Bill Clinton’s repeated vetoes of a ban on partial-birth abortion. Abortion advocates hailed his actions as a great victory. But his long impasse with Congress kept this issue alive and kept before Americans the image of a developed child pulled backward from the womb and brutally killed.
Even “pro-choice” lawmakers like Senator Daniel Moynihan saw this as infanticide, and polls showed a clear majority of Americans identifying as “pro-life” for the first time in many years. The next Congress and president enacted the law, which was upheld by the Supreme Court and remains in place today.
Or take the Supreme Court’s 1984 Grove City decision, narrowly interpreting federal laws against sex discrimination.
The backlash against this decision by liberals and some conservatives led to the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, applying these protections to all departments of schools receiving federal funds. The law also corrected a past misuse of sex discrimination laws to force institutions to support abortion. The Catholic bishops’ conference helped develop the law and override a veto by President Reagan. This law, too, remains valid.
This doesn’t mean we should praise bad policy decisions because they might turn out well. Rather, each setback led smart and dedicated people to take the long view, to consider how to take the lemons and make lemonade. They didn’t waste much time announcing the end of the world, or alienating potential allies by their rhetoric, before getting to work.
This is a lesson for those who coined the slogan “Not My President” to exempt themselves from the decisions of a government with which they strongly disagree. There are more constructive ways to persuade other Americans of one’s views, and those ways may even involve listening.
What does a Catholic perspective add to this? Ours is the longest of long views. We should see things from the viewpoint of eternity.
Does this mean not taking issues seriously?
On the contrary: We know injustices like abortion, racism and disdain for the poor are not political footballs, but offenses against human beings made in the image and likeness of God. People promoting these endanger their immortal souls. Such matters are of penultimate importance.
The only thing more important is that God judges us all, loves us all and commands us to love one another.
Some advocates for important issues do not understand this. For them, each victory is a triumph, each defeat an invitation to despair. They push away friends as well as opponents, rejecting incremental progress as a form of betrayal. They are prone to bitterness and early burnout.
We Catholics deal with the most serious concerns on earth, but each of us plays only a humble role. As St. Teresa of Kolkata said, “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”
The ultimate victory — a victory over death itself — has already been achieved, by One who deserves our full devotion. Oddly, people with this perspective may also be more effective in improving society.
Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.