by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
Back in April of this year (seems like such a long time ago) Robert Ellsberg, editor of Orbis Books, wrote a reflection based on Albert Camus’s novel The Plague. Briefly stated, according to Ellsberg, the book is the story of a city afflicted with the bubonic plague. The author used it as a metaphor for a moral plague that followed in that population. Ellsberg goes on to apply a similar metaphor to America’s responses to the current national illness — not the coronavirus — but one which he describes in terms of incompetence, lies, denial of reality, scapegoating of foreigners, cruelty, divisiveness and authoritarian tendencies.
The entire short essay makes for interesting, if disturbing, reading. Of particular interest for us who are part of the Pax Christi USA movement is the question Mr. Ellsberg goes on to pose: “Has the leadership of the Catholic Church in America also caught this virus?” We shall say something about this burning question here later.
A seminar this week conducted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University was entitled “Faith and the Faithful in the 2020 Election: What Happened? Why? What Now?” The introductory overview at the seminar stated: “Politics are important. Through politics in America, we can get good things done. Voting is perhaps the most important action citizens of this country can take.”
It is a fact of life for Catholics. Pope Francis has been quoted as saying, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.” (I believe “meddles” has a bad connotation and a bad translation of what the Pope said. In any case his intent is clear.) Years before Pope Francis, the Second Vatican Council stated that the “laity are never to relinquish their participation in public life.” And clearly the century of Catholic Social Teaching is all about politics. So a seminar on “Faith and the Faithful in the 2020 Election” is entirely appropriate.
The consensus in the discussion was that religion had a significant impact on the recent political campaigns and their outcomes. Perhaps a snapshot of each candidate for the U.S. presidency underscore this reality. There was the curious even ridiculous moment when police officials and U.S. military personnel forced their way through peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators near Lafayette Park in Washington so that President Trump could stand mute at St. John’s Episcopal Church with a bible awkwardly in his grasp. In contrast candidate Joe Biden in his first public appearance after being elected used the words of a Catholic hymn to underscore his hope for America’s future. Each in his own way was vying for the vote of the faith communities.
About the American Catholic Church and the moral virus, the initial results of the election are significant. We represent 22% of the entire electorate; 50% of us voted for Trump — 49% for Biden. White Catholics went 57% for Trump — 42% for Biden. 67% of Latinx Catholics voted for Biden — 32% for Trump.
Given the profound differences between the two candidates, our Catholic population is completely split on matters of national values. To that extent, Catholics in America have caught the plague pointed out by Albert Camus.
As a Catholic (political) organization in the United States, we have an enormous amount of work to do.
Like so many other similar groups, our work has to continue outside of like-minded bubbles. In this regard I wonder if organizations like Pax Christi ought to forego our 501c3, tax exempt status so as to free ourselves for much more explicit political activities. (The Network Sisters have chosen this path and seem to be doing well financially.)
Above all, it was stated in the Georgetown seminar that there is an overriding task for religious leadership (read Pax Christi USA) in this post-election moment: Truth in public life and discourse.
At every turn we have to fight the current national plague that Robert Ellsberg pointed to in the essay quoted above: “lies and denial of reality.”
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.