My first meeting with community organizers was memorable. A group of Catholic pastors in Bed-Stuy recognized that many of our parishioners were being displaced by real estate predators and that we wanted to combat this. When I entered the meeting room the lead organizer, who has since become a mentor and friend, looked at me and said, “Here comes the problem.”
I was taken aback but he explained that he did not mean this personally, but that I was of the ‘60s generation which tends to be anti-institutional. He told us immediately that we would help our parishioners keep their homes only by using and strengthening institutions and if we were not prepared to do that our time could be better spent helping them move their furniture on to the street.
Today’s gospel and Pope Francis’ new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” have shown me again the wisdom of these words.
First the Gospel. Jesus is being set up and he knows it. Taxes are always a vexing question and even more so in an occupied territory where they are paid to an oppressor. If Jesus says don’t pay them, he would be arrested; if he says pay them, he will seem to be a collaborator. We admire the shrewdness by which he avoids the trap, but isn’t it stating a misconception: doesn’t everything belong to God?
The answer, of course, is yes, but God expects us to live together and thus encourages institutions which promote security and the equitable distribution of goods. This will vary from age to age, but it is a necessary part of human living, even something as flawed as the Roman empire.
Pope Francis reminds us of this in the encyclical. Every person and society must seek the common good, but that can be obtained in many ways by many systems of thought. There are many roads to the same end, yet he is very clear that all will require the development and sustenance of strong institutions. These extend from the family through voluntary organizations like churches and local societies to the entire range of civil agencies This is organized by politics.
Francis is quite aware that politics is for most of us distasteful and acknowledges the corruption and inefficiency of many politicians. Yet he is insistent that, and I quote, politics is “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good”.
We need to take common good rather literally. There are some people who believe that politics exists to only to enhance the economy. Indeed, for some a country can be judged by its gross national product alone. This is certainly a part of any successful society, but it must serve the common good. Vast inequalities of income and wealth inevitably weaken a community. If a sizable proportion of the population realizes that no matter how hard they work, they will never really be able to change their situation. While others have few impediments before them it is difficult to develop meaningful patriotism. This is usually compounded with the reality that while some people live like kings, others scrounge in garbage cans for food. Massive inequality has teeth.
Politics for Francis is the art and science through which our neighbor does not find himself in poverty. Sometimes this can be handled by a family, sometimes by a church, but it usually requires a more robust civil component. Francis writes: “private life cannot exist unless it is protected by public order. A domestic hearth has no real warmth unless it is safeguarded by law”.
This quote continues for a while and it is included with some excerpts from “Fratelli Tutti” on the website. They are well worth reading.
This is all a matter of love and he gives a wonderful example of two kinds of love. He expresses this so well and with such warmth that I will quote it in full:
It is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering. If someone helps an elderly person cross a river, that is a fine act of charity. The politician, on the other hand, builds a bridge, and that too is an act of charity. While one person can help another by providing something to eat, the politician creates a job for that other person, and thus practices a lofty form of charity that ennobles his or her political activity.Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (186)
Note how Francis clearly identifies the person who puts this all together as the Politician. He reminds us that the politician will be successful only to the extent that he or she is motivated by love. Francis is in no way naïve in this matter. Indeed, his comments on practical politics are disturbingly realistic. The last paragraph of the selections provided on the web site is particularly poignant and should be read by all of us before we vote this or any year.
Francis sees the politician, admittedly used very broadly, as the person who is responsible for coordinating all the elements which go into a successful country. There will always be the temptation to mechanically apply the principles of one’s favorite ideology to the world without thought or love. His holiness is particularly concerned about this as it puts human beings of flesh and blood in the straitjacket of mere thoughts and ideas. A politician is called to apply his or her whole being to real life. He calls this political love, difficult to obtain and more difficult to maintain. Yet do we pray for them and do we pray that people will take up politics as more than a potentially lucrative career?
My own experience of this is rather personal. During my mother’s last illness, we would pray together and I, loyal priest that I am, would always include a prayer for priestly vocations. My mom would add a prayer for vocations to the political life.
This was amazing because she was usually, at best, disrespectful of authority. I think at the end of her long life, a good deal of it spent causing trouble, she knew what was lacking in the society and knew what was needed to build it up: young people willing to participate in the give and take of civil life.
We are all now Caesar, with the power to determine who will act for us. Can we raise up leaders who will show political love and give more back to God than they received from us?