America’s Soul Needs Healing
EDITORIAL: Only love — the love the Lord Jesus Christ commands his followers to bring into the world — guarantees the future.
The dark events on Jan. 6 in Washington — when protesters bearing Trump flags and paraphernalia stormed the U.S. Capitol in an unsuccessful bid to thwart Joe Biden’s certification as president — were horrifying, reprehensible and utterly un-American.
Our nation was founded on the basis of democracy, so the despicable actions of the protesters — unacceptably fueled by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric — are by their very nature incompatible with Americans’ most cherished political ideals.
“Violence never wins. Freedom wins, and this is still the people’s house,” Vice President Mike Pence said as he reconvened the joint session of Congress after Capitol police cleared the building of rioters.
The lawmakers who pressed on with their duties Jan. 6 should be applauded. They did not let the tyrannical mob deter them from debating or prevent them from ultimately certifying Biden’s election. That return to democratic process was a necessary first step toward calming this storm politically, but, obviously, much more will need to be done to heal the nation.
Certainly, the context within which the events of Jan. 6 occurred matters. The wounds of this last year are great. The pandemic and public-health crisis that has cost lives and livelihoods has put millions of U.S. citizens in a state of heightened anxiety.
Adding to that national stress, noted professor Robert George in an interview with the Register, is that “we have seen violence and lawlessness and people taking the law into their own hands for months now in cities like Seattle and Portland and Kenosha and even in Washington, D.C. So we can’t say that this sin against the law that was committed by a mob yesterday is unique.”
Yet protesters breaching the Capitol sends a monumental message.
“Nothing that has happened has had the symbolic significance of an attack on the capital of the United States. And symbolism does matter,” said George.
The United States is troubled today by something deeper: At its core this is a spiritual and cultural crisis, even more than a political one.
The Founding Fathers worried about the same factionalism we saw on full and ugly display at the Capitol. But in the past, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, shared religious values have provided a glue that allowed for peaceful coexistence in our strikingly individualistic nation, while reminding us that politics was not ultimate.
Today, that is no longer the case. The system of Judeo-Christian values that grounded our political and civic life for more than two centuries has eroded and not been replaced. The ensuing vacuum means our national tendency toward factionalism has no “ballast” to steady the ship of state at turbulent moments, such as this disputed presidential transition.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, speaking to the Register from his locked-down office in the Capitol on the night of the violence, called out Church leaders’ profound “passivity” in the face of the destructive cultural and political trends that culminated in the mob’s attack on the Capitol.
“Politics can’t fix this,” advised Fortenberry, a Catholic lawmaker from Nebraska who holds a graduate degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. “It is a deep, deep cultural problem for which the hierarchal Church and all of us as members of the body of Christ have to understand more deeply; it’s not just about an Electoral College vote.”
Many of our ecclesial leaders and public intellectuals may have failed to participate effectively enough in the national debate that brought us to this moment.
But it is also fair to say that many Catholics have looked elsewhere for their news and commentary, choosing to exclude the best-informed and most authoritative voices in the Church as they stick instead with their preferred news outlets that reaffirm partisan narratives.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, during his speech before the joint session of Congress that certified Biden’s election as the 46th U.S. president, decried this trend, which applies to Americans across all religions and all political persuasions.
“We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes, with a separate set of facts and separate realities, with nothing in common except our hostility toward each other and a few national institutions we all share.”
This moment points to a clear need for a national examination of conscience. We cannot afford to shirk our moral responsibility by pointing out the failures of the other side and leaving it at that. We cannot afford any appearance of moral relativism. Our Catholic faith demands we point out what is right and just and that we propose a way out of our civil disorders.
The only way out is to turn away from this form of politics that turns our neighbor from a person into an existential threat. To paraphrase an observation of Pope St. John Paul II, our neighbor is a person to whom the only appropriate response is love. President Abraham Lincoln himself recognized this as the only true path to lasting peace when he exhorted the nation in 1865, “With malice toward none, with charity for all ... to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
Only love — the love the Lord Jesus Christ commands his followers to bring into the world — guarantees the future. As St. John the Apostle writes, “perfect love casts out fear.” He also warns, “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Catholics must propose and insist upon a politics, whatever the political party, that demands we see each other as brothers and sisters. Our very future is at stake.