(Backgrounder and analysis)
By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis had been lecturing about politics lately, reminding people that it is a noble calling, but one that may require a politician to compromise or set aside some of his or her goals for the good of their whole community, entire nation or even the world.
The pope’s recent remarks about the role of politics in overcoming fear, in gathering people together and in serving the common good come at a time when “an often myopic particularism is multiplying,” wrote Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
Vian’s editorial was published Oct. 2 after a weekend of speeches by Pope Francis explaining “healthy politics” and what the church means when it says being a politician can be a “noble” profession.
For Vian, and for many other observers, it was a reaction to the spreading “political particularism,” or a politics focused on a small group of people and on defending not only their rights, but their privileges.
Meeting with Italian mayors Sept. 30 at the Vatican and with the citizens of Cesena, Italy, in their main square the next day, the pope spoke instead of politics as a concerted effort to ensure that as the rights and opportunities of one’s constituents are protected and promoted, so are the rights and opportunities of all people and even future generations.
“In recent times, politics seems to have withdrawn in the face of the aggression and pervasiveness of other forms of power, such as financial or media power,” the pope said in Cesena. “We must reaffirm the rights of healthy politics, its independence, its specific suitability for serving the public good, acting to diminish inequality and promote with concrete measures the good of the family and to form a solid framework of rights and obligations — both — to make it effective for all.”
Giuseppe Casale, who teaches contemporary political thought at Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, said he believes Pope Francis and other church leaders see a “lethargy” in politics today with politicians “abdicating the faculty of making choices that are both courageous and responsible.” Instead, they “ratify the approaches” dictated by the global economy and transnational finance.
John White, a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America, said that just as individuals choose sides in politics, so do “interests with a stake in a political outcome that favors them. Those who lack power or are demonized, or both, become victims of this new, zero-sum politics.”
Pope Francis’ recent remarks about politics, he said, can be read as a response to “a coarsening of public dialogue in many countries, including the United States. American politics has become completely polarized in recent years, and that polarization has been deliberately exploited by Donald Trump.”
Both with the Italian mayors and during his visit to Cesena and Bologna, Pope Francis highlighted treatment of migrants as a test of local governments’ commitment to the true common good of the people in their cities and towns, urging civic leaders to open spaces where citizens and newcomers can meet, overcoming fear and working together for a better world for their children.
“The Catholic Church has long emphasized the importance of social justice and solidarity, an emphasis that was lost during the culture wars that dominated the latter part of the 20th century,” White said in a written interview with Catholic News Service. “Pope Francis has rightly called attention to the importance of social justice, solidarity and mercy in an age where immigrants are scapegoated, and politics has become all about the ‘other’ — i.e., demonizing one’s political opponents, including immigrants from various countries, among others.”
The church has consistently focused on serving the common good as the central responsibility of politics. Although politicians must answer to their supporters, attention paid to people outside that group, especially people in vulnerable situations, is what makes the difference between service and selfishness.
While winning an election may mean “all politics is local,” the church’s definition of the common good definitely is not.
“The church has always taught the fundamental equality of human beings and this transcends borders,” V. Bradley Lewis, who teaches political philosophy at The Catholic University of America, told CNS. “Since the time of St. John XXIII the church has talked not just about the common good of nations, but about the universal common good. This too is the business of statesmanship.”
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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.