Pope Francis meets Barrack Obama. Wikimedia Commons

A Precious Gem

One Year ago, Pope Francis' historic visit shattered many assumptions, including assumptions about faith and politics. Since then, what has changed? And what is at stake in the race between Hillary and Trump?

It was exactly one year ago that Pope Francis delivered one of his most powerful speeches during his visit to the USA, in which he reminded the U.S. Congress of their call as representatives of the people to “defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.” The Pope’s apostolic visit, which went through Cuba before coming to the United States (on September 22nd), had a fundamentally political mission, yet was devoid of politics and strategic tactics. The Pope exhorted the American people and its institutions to overcome the boundaries set by ideologies, and to go beyond labels that, even among Catholics, reduce political engagement to an argument between progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.

In the country that prides in calling itself the land of the free, the evangelical “City on a Hill” admired and beheld by all the world as an example, the Pope gave a powerful reminder to put our focus back on the common good, which, according to the Church’s social teaching, “does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity”; rather, it is the “social and community dimension of the moral good.”

In other words, it turns our perspective on its head. Period. It was a precious gem bestowed on us during that Apostolic visit in a radically polarized context dominated by wounds within the parties themselves.

The Pressing Challenge
After one year, the situation could not be more fragmented–America heads into the presidential elections on November 8th on a road marked by uncertainty. The Republican Party has been shattered by the blows of Donald Trump, the anti-system candidate who crusades under a message that America is isolated and ailing, protected by walls and border checkpoints from external threats, whether they be migrants crossing over the Mexican border or Chinese merchandise undermining the domestic labor force. The 16 other candidates who contended for the Republican nomination were swept away, a powerful sign that the political elite is presently incapable of understanding and interceding on behalf of the needs of the people. Hillary Clinton has become the nominee of the Democratic party seeking conquest of the White House, though during the primary campaign she struggled against Bernie Sanders, who began as an unknown Independent senator with a socialist platform, but today is recognized as the mastermind of a formidable campaign that seized the hearts and minds of millions of young Americans.

This landscape, which may appear desolate, makes the Pope’s challenge even more urgent. In the face of the collapse of old certainties that is demonstrated in the crisis of the parties and the erosion of the concept of representation, it is crucial that we construct entities capable of regaining momentum for building up the common good.

“This round of voting [in the primaries] is unprecedented and revolutionary, especially because Trump shook up the conservative movement. For this reason, the Pope’s invitation to overcome polarization is even more significant,” says historian Brad Gregory, a professor at Notre Dame University. At the same time, the fact that the two candidates competing for the White House are among the most unpopular in recent history, and that this is taking place during a fundamental crisis in the party system, illustrates, according to Gregory, “the limits of politics, which cannot answer all of man’s questions: it’s difficult for voters to believe that the candidates are ‘incarnations of morality,’ role models to emulate, and this sets off a quest to be creative, to imagine solutions that allow us to collaborate with a spirit of realism.”

Gregory cites as an example the birth of the American Solidarity Party, a small group inspired by the motto “Common good, common ground, common sense.” The presidential candidate of this small party, Michael Maturen, describes himself in his biographical profile as a “Catholic who spent most of his political life as a conservative Republican,” but later, “extensive reading on the views of the Church... led him to question his positions on fiscal conservatism.” Groups like the American Solidarity Party do not have a great impact on electoral percentages or seats in Congress, but Gregory sees its emergence as “a small testimony of the effort to overcome the radical dichotomy, found also in the Catholic Church, between Progressives and Conservatives, a debate between those who put all the emphasis on social justice and those who put all of it on ethics.”

Words and Gestures
In the midst of this political moment marked by profound confusion, where the only constant is the vast distance between the ruling class and the people, Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, sees an opportunity which is almost paradoxical. “The Church is one of the few American entities that bring together both Democrats and Republicans, so it is in a privileged position to begin a genuine conversation on the common good. From a certain perspective, this is the most fortuitous time to clarify the pertinence of Catholic social teaching, a vision that unites those who want to have a dialogue, from within and from outside of Catholicism.”

For Reese, the great achievement of Francis’ trip to America is to have “set the tone in the conversation.” America, he explains, “does not remember its discourses, but it remembers the sense, transmitted especially through gestures, of an openness: openness to those who are last, to the unwanted, to immigrants, and, more generally, openness to the other.” In this “ultra-ideological” political climate, characterized by the adoption of a more European conception of politics rather than the American pragmatism that supported the art of compromise for decades, Reese finds it difficult to open up a discussion. “Yet, I cannot think of a more convincing promoter than Francis to set things in motion,” he adds.

It is within this context that a flyer was released this summer on the judgment made by the American CL community, in which there is an acute sense of urgency in the face of the upcoming elections. It states: “We have reduced our political agency to merely expressing our opinion on Facebook, or somewhat more actively, to casting a ballot,” and continues: “We seem to have lost the deeply rooted desire to be protagonists in the political process which has historically distinguished American democracy. The apathy that characterizes our time does not originate in the political process, nor does it confine itself to politics. Its source is quite different–we are dealing with a crisis of the person. We seem content watching and commenting, drawing back into our safe spaces, letting history run its course. However, by doing so, we deny the profoundly human desire to be responsible actors, to be part of something great, and to grapple with social reality–all of which lies at the core of any democratic endeavor.”

This re-awakening and rebuilding of the person is at the heart of the political race. In this context, the full-blown crisis of the parties that has spread throughout the nation over the past year, taking over the public space, has opened a door of opportunity. What opportunity? An end to the idolatry of politics, reminding us of what is not at all assumed in America (which is, according to Jean Beaudrillard, the “original version of modernity”)–that politics is incapable of solving everything; it is not an instrument that, once calibrated properly, will introduce a society “so perfect that no one will need to be good,” as T.S. Eliot put it. The fact that the candidates facing each other in November were chosen more out of anger and resentment than conviction shows evidence of disillusionment with a system that has fooled itself into believing that it can account for and answer every human need.

It is through realism that the person once again becomes a protagonist of politics, as the flyer explains: “We are called to be the protagonists of our own history by witnessing to one another what we hold most dear, and by supporting one another in the pursuit of truth. This is what a free democratic country needs. Otherwise, we will become prey to the tyranny of the loudest voice in the room. This is the spirit of the American people we seek to rediscover and develop. In November we will vote for the candidate that most closely mirrors our genuine desires, but after having voted we will not be finished. There is much to be done.”