by Bishop John Stowe
Bishop-President, Pax Christi USA
“The best way to dominate and gain control over people is to spread despair and discouragement, even under the guise of defending certain values…hyperbole, extremism and polarization have become political tools. Employing a strategy of ridicule, suspicion and relentless criticism…one denies the right of others to exist or to have an opinion. Their share of the truth and their values are rejected and, as a result, the life of society is impoverished and subjected to the hubris of the powerful. Political life no longer has to do with healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only with slick marketing techniques primarily aimed at discrediting others. In this craven exchange of charges and counter-charges, debate degenerates into a permanent state of disagreement and confrontation….
“[When] victory consists in eliminating one’s opponents, how is it possible to raise our sights to recognize our neighbors or to help those who have fallen along the way? A plan that would set great goals for the development of our entire human family nowadays sounds like madness.“
—“Fratelli Tutti,” No. 15-16
Viewed in the aftermath of the over-hyped midterm elections, Pope Francis’ description of the distortion of politics sounds pretty accurate. In states with hotly contested races, the barrage of negative advertising and scare tactics have only enhanced the distaste for politics in the United States and have done nothing to entice 18-year-olds and other potential new voters to the polls. Reluctantly, we might have to concede that scare tactics work. Whether voters were warned about losing access to abortion (what is more frequently referred to now as “reproductive rights” or even simply “women’s health care”) or about a vague threat of impending disaster and collapse, many Americans of either political stripe did vote not so much for any candidate but against “them,” the “enemy” as they perceive it.
The characterization of contemporary politics quoted above comes from Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” which he signed at the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi on the vigil of his feast, Oct. 3, of 2020. It was presented to the world during the final month of the ugliness of the last U.S. presidential election—a context certainly on the pope’s mind but not the only example of the poor politics he is describing. Many democratic nations have witnessed a similar phenomenon in their electoral politics lately. Pope Francis laments the loss of any concern whatsoever for the common good, and throughout this encyclical he describes the diminished awareness of the dignity of the human person as a regressive reality unexpected in the 21st century. He knows only too well that employing these themes of the common good and inherent human dignity, so central to Catholic social teaching, would be dismissed as strategic disasters in a campaign designed to diminish the opponent rather than debate issues and policy…