We, the People

The American founders knew that for any collective endeavor to succeed, people must work together, even if they had bitter disagreements at times. The first words of the U.S. Constitution recognize this inescapable necessity: “We, the people…” 

The story of American democracy, in its most hopeful stages, has always involved expanding the “we” of who we are as Americans, from ending slavery to welcoming immigrants, even those who did not speak English, or who were Catholic, to finally electing a Catholic as president in 1960 and an African American president in 2008.

In more troubled times, our politics becomes polarized, even toxic. It is true that there are great principles of justice that must be fought for even at the expense of tranquility, yet serious efforts must also be made to maintain bonds of affection and civility. Without this effort, we descend into violence or even civil war.

Catholic teaching stresses the obligation for everyone to work together for the common good. This includes upholding the human rights of all people, even those out of sight, such as unborn children. This same teaching calls for civil friendship and fraternity:

The profound meaning of civil and political life does not arise immediately from the list of personal rights and duties. Life in society takes on all its significance when it is based on civil friendship and on fraternity. The sphere of rights, in fact, is that of safeguarded interests, external respect, the protection of material goods and their distribution according to established rules. The sphere of friendship, on the other hand, is that selflessness, detachment from material goods, giving freely and inner acceptance of the needs of others. Civil friendship understood in this way is the most genuine actualization of the principle of fraternity, which is inseparable from that of freedom and equality. In large part, this principle has not been put into practice in the concrete circumstances of modern political society, above all because of the influence of individualistic and collectivistic ideologies.

Catholic teaching can seem couched in too abstract a language, but read carefully; the passage above has a lot to say to us today at a time when devotion to political parties seems to override a sense of patriotism or the pursuit of the common good. In any society, there will always be those who seek to tear down and divide rather than bring people together. America is not unique in this regard. 

In the early part of the last century, Ireland was rife with conflict, leading the poet William Butler Yeats to prophesize: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” And several lines later he laments that: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” There is certainly a place for the passion that can fuel social change, but there is also a terrible need for reasoned dialogue in a spirit of civil friendship. Pray for our country; pray for our leaders in these trying times.