Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

demarco_halfFor the ancient Greeks, as well as the great medieval thinkers, politics is a continuation of ethics. The ethical behavior of individuals flows naturally and beneficially into the common good of society. Edmund Burke put it nicely when he remarked, "The principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged."

 

 

What past thinkers have joined together, unfortunately, the moderns have torn asunder. As a result, ethics is now regarded as something "private" that no one should ever try to "impose" on society. And politics, unnourished and untempered by streams of ethical behavior, has degenerated into power.

As a result of the split between ethics and politics, society’s common ground disappears. Various political groups compartmentalize into "parties" and exercise their power by waging verbal war against each other. The culture war is an inevitable result of this divorce between ethics and politics.

In reviewing Ann Coulter’s New York Times best-seller, Slander (which preceded another best-seller, Treason), the Weekly Standard found it to be a useful counterweight to such books as Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men: "Conservatives can use a weapon like Slander, for it offers them innumerable examples of liberal gaffes to use as ammunition when liberals start slinging mud." Such is the style of political pundits, digging in and increasing the distance that separates one party from another.

In ancient Greece, Socrates persistently engaged in dialogue with his opponents in the hope that both sides could come to realize and share a common truth. It was a noble endeavor, and one that inspired Plato and Aristotle to give it systematic expression.

Today’s political figures are equipped, not with logic, reason and good will, but with ammunition, ridicule and mud. Whoever wins does not convince his opponent, but crushes him. Gone is the approach of a passé politician such as Abraham Lincoln who believed he had the right to criticize because he had the heart to help. The "heart" has been excoriated from contemporary political discourse. Vitriol has taken its place. One now believes he has the right to ridicule because he has the desire to win.

What does all this mean for the Christian who wants to bring his Christian ethics into an arena where ethics is assumed to be entirely private, and consequently irrelevant to society? (Although abortion, euthanasia and adultery are no more "private" than grand larceny, serial killing and domestic violence.)

Christianity is an apostolic way of life. The Christian knows that he has a profound duty to contribute morally to the larger world in which he lives. He can no more submerge his ethical convictions and remain a Christian than a ballplayer can come up to the plate without his bat and expect to hit the baseball.

Saint Paul believed very strongly that "Being all things to all men" is an essential requirement for apostolic service. This attitude presupposes a certain willingness to identify with the other. One does not alienate those whom one wants to convince. Ultimately there is but one party – the human race party.

A critical factor that enabled Paul to become the "Apostle of the nations" was precisely his capacity to identify with his listeners. He had a thorough command of Jewish theology. But he was also very much at home in the thinking of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean world. In his letters, we find rabbinical forms of argumentation alongside of affirming quotations from Greek poets. He was not interested in being clever, or in dividing people from each other. He was the apostle of the common ground, one established in truth and reached by the heart.

Pope Benedict XVI has stated that "only conviction convinces, and it still does today." Do political figures today truly believe that their opponents are as mentally deficient as they claim? In today’s political forum, conviction yields to cleverness. Politicians are on stage and play to a mass audience. In this regard, they are the antithesis of the Christian apostle.

We return to the question: Can a Christian enter politics in today’s climate and preserve his or her Christian ethics? It is a difficult question to answer. At the same time, it may be a golden opportunity. The world may be becoming weary of the mudslinging, the cheap shots and the tawdry comments. The time may very well be ripe for the entrance of a modern Saint Paul who is "all things to all people" and is genuinely concerned about reuniting ethics with politics. The culture wars sap a nation’s strength and distract it from its more important enterprise, namely, of making the effort to become united in the pursuit of a common good.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell and Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, R.I.