Anger and citizenship

The Iowa caucuses are in the rear-view mirror, the New Hampshire primary looms on the horizon, and by most media accounts, the leitmotif of Campaign 2016 is “anger.” As in: a lot-of-Americans-are-angry-and-that-explains-the attraction-of-certain-candidates, whether that be the anti-political-correctness anger of Donald Trump voters, the anti-government anger of Ted Cruz voters, or the Obama-hasn’t-been-radical-enough anger of Bernie Sanders voters. For those of us with long cinematic memories, it’s rather reminiscent of the Howard Beale character in Network, urging people to stick their heads out the window and holler, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

I get it. My own reactions to the papers I read daily, the magazines I read weekly, and the news programs I watch occasionally are not often conducive to a happy blood pressure reading. Yet whatever my sympathies may be with this, that, or the other wrath du jour, I hope that, as the 2016 campaign unfolds, the electorate will begin to understand that anger is not a particularly healthy metric of public life.

The first Marquis of Halifax, George Savile, a 17th-century English statesman and a notable phrase-maker, ranks second only to the immortal Dr. Johnson in the number of entries in The Viking Book of Aphorisms. There, I find this small gem: “Anger is never without an argument, but seldom with a good one.” Does that ring a bell or two, my fellow Americans? It should, given the character of the presidential “debate” thus far. And that warning bell suggests that we’ve got a problem. For serious debate, conducted with civility, is the lifeblood of democracy.

Civility does not preclude passion. Given the gravity of the issues before us in 2016 – which involve the future of freedom around the world and the dignity of the human person here at home – passion is entirely welcome. But passion is not anger. Anger is a glandular thing. An angry politics is a politics of the gut. A passionate politics, informed and disciplined by reason, can be a politics of the intelligence, a politics of great ideas: a politics, if you will, of sound moral judgment. And sound moral judgment is rarely, if ever, the child of anger.

Most of us recognize that in our personal lives. We ought to recognize it in our public lives, too.

In 1818, John Adams, parsing the great events in which he had played a central role, wrote this: “But what do we mean by the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations.” The American Republic, in other words, began with ideas: ideas passionately held, to be sure; ideas that took shape in response to perceived grievances, without a doubt. But these were ideas (and sentiments, or feelings) about “duties and obligations:” which is to say, they were ideas and feelings about moral responsibilities.

The United States did not begin in a spasm of anger, although there were surely anger-driven incidents before and during the Revolution. And if history’s longest experiment in democratic republicanism is to reach its 250th anniversary, a mere ten years from now, in moral continuity with its founding, it won’t get there through an anger-defined, anger-driven, and anger-dominated politics. It will only get there through a rebirth of genuine political argument, which is a rational, not a glandular, thing.

Catholic citizens of the United States should be particularly sensitive to this dimension of our public life. Catholic political theory is an extension of Catholic moral theology; or to put it another way, Catholic political theory treats politics as an arena of moral reasoning and moral judgment. The Catholic citizen, as the Church understands these things, is obliged to think, not just to feel; to judge, not just to react; to exercise prudence in weighing options among usually-imperfect alternatives, not to indulge in fantasies about simplistic quick-fixes to all that ails us and the world.

Were the Catholic citizens of the United States to act that way in 2016, both God and the Republic would be well served.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash