Catholic Americans expect too much of politics — and we don’t expect enough.

Politics is a national obsession in America.

There is a lot of interest in politics — and a lot of passion.

Christ once warned that he would be a divisive force in the world.  But in the year 2006, for many families, his warning describes attitudes toward party as much as religion: “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household” (Matthew 10:35-36).

Don’t get us wrong. As we’ve made clear, we at the Register understand the importance of politics (have you registered your Church group to vote, as we suggested in one recent editorial?). But for this Fourth of July issue, we thought we should take a step back and put politics in perspective.

Catholics have a duty to act in the political sphere to better the world. The danger is that we can put so much stock in a political party that our politics overrides the principles of our faith.

Traditionally, most Catholics were Democrats — because the Democratic Party had the reputation of standing up for the underdog. But some Catholics have stuck with the party even as it has abandoned the weak by supporting abortion. The GOP has a pro-life platform — and statistics say Sunday-Mass going Catholics are now  more likely to be Republican. But the Republican Party has shown itself every bit as capable of taking Catholics for granted as the Democratic party on key questions of Catholic morality.

We get trapped by a party when we expect too much from politics — or, at least, when we expect the wrong kinds of things from it.

Pope Benedict XVI sums up the problem in his first encyclical: We put too much faith in politics — and not enough love in our faith.

 “Christian faith has never presumed to impose a rigid framework on social and political questions,” writes the Holy Father. “Christians must reject political positions and activities inspired by a utopian perspective which, turning the tradition of Biblical faith into a kind of prophetic vision without God, makes ill use of religion by directing consciences towards a hope which is merely earthly and which empties or reinterprets the Christian striving towards eternal life.”

Instead of identifying our faith with political answers to society’s problems, Pope Benedict suggests we critique and complete politics with faith.

“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible,” he writes. “She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”

He identifies at least three ways the Catholic faith helps critique and complete political life.

1) Through her social doctrine, the Church helps define what “justice” means.

2) By direct participation in the process, Catholics give the faith a voice in politics.

3) By exercising charity toward the needy, Catholics and other Christians free up the state to focus on its proper sphere.

As we celebrate Independence Day, we might consider examining our political conscience along these lines.

1) Do I know what my Church teaches about central questions of our day? Abortion? War? Embryonic stem cells? Capital punishment?  Immigration? Marriage? Do I know why it teaches what it does?

2) Have I identified a way to promote the Church’s teaching in a practical way — especially as regards the upcoming elections? What have I done to advance my pro-life convictions?

3) Most importantly, have I put charity in its proper place? Or have I made politics a surrogate for real charity? Do I think that promoting this or that political initiative can take the place of helping the needy and evangelization?

Pope Benedict expects a lot from Americans. Before he became pope, a journalist asked him if there were an “American way of life” for Catholics. 

There is, he said. In America, “people are taking up Catholicism as a whole and trying to relate it anew to the modern world.” He recommended that others look to us as a model for vigorously and imaginatively applying our faith to public life.

Let’s not let him down.