Government for the people should be for everyone

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“Do you feed your children macaroni? It was a real question that 19th century officials who surveyed New York’s Lower East Side were asking Italian immigrant mothers. If they answered yes, then officials would tick “not yet assimilated”. The Tenement Museum in New York is a wonderful place to step back in time and challenge our assumptions about historical periods of migration and poverty. The United States often proclaims itself a “nation of immigrants,” but immigrants are often kept on the margins of the political community.

Democracy, or a democratic republic, only exists when there is autonomy. It requires government, to quote President Lincoln, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Yet at the center of many political and social divisions in the United States are disagreements over who matters and who defines “the people.” The question lurks in seemingly apolitical descriptions of the electorate, in instances of voter suppression and, every decade, in the conduct of the census. The deep divisions we all see often reveal divisions between those we recognize and do not recognize as part of our community.

As Pope Francis says in the 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti (On fraternity and social friendship), the mark of a “living and dynamic people” is “its capacity to welcome differences”. As this year’s elections approach, Catholic social teaching asks us to reflect on what it means to be “one people”.

In Fratelli Tutti, the pope explains that “the people” is not a static or exclusive boundary. It is not just a collection of individuals in a physical space. “To be part of a people, he says, is to be part of a common identity resulting from social and cultural ties. And it’s not something automatic, but rather a slow and difficult process. Just as “neighbor” in the order of loving one’s neighbor is not really about the person who lives next door, so “the people” is not simply defined by geography or shared language.

Drawing on this theology, the pope offers us “the people” as a category that can help us focus the communal struggle against injustice. Argentinian theologian Emilce Cuda explains that this category “is about unity in difference”. This community identity is rooted, she says, “in the memory of the injustices suffered as a community and the decisions of the community to deal with them”.

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It is important to distinguish that this is not a reference to populism, the tendency of people to rally, usually out of a sense of destructive anger, around a leader who promises to punish those who harmed them and restore power or importance to their community. Pope Francis experienced the pain of this reality in 1970s Argentina, and he condemned it at every turn.

On the contrary, sharing lived memory rooted in truth and confronting injustice is not a quick or easy solution. This month, some will mark “Columbus Day” and others will mark “Indigenous Peoples Day”. It is difficult to fight against a legacy of colonialism and oppression. Collectively, the United States does not engage well in this self-criticism (as demonstrated by the contentious battles of the past two years over whether and how to teach the history of slavery).

Politics can and should be a noble vocation.

Catholic social teaching does not provide a way out of this challenge, but it does remind us to evaluate from the margins, from the perspective of the excluded. So, in trying to embrace “the people,” Pope Francis calls us to center the lived memory of indigenous peoples. This is how he proposes to build fraternity and social friendship.

“Good politics”, according to the pope in Fratelli Tutti, “will seek ways to build communities at all levels of social life” rooted in what he calls political love or charity. For Catholicism, politics and government play an important and positive role in working for the common good. Our civil government should reflect the needs of the community. According to Catholic social teaching, small government is not good because it is small, and government itself is not viewed with suspicion. Politics can and should be a noble vocation.

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Political participation is a right and a duty. It is also morally complex. Political decisions are limited choices, and there is rarely, if ever, a simple choice or an ethically perfect candidate or proposal. Faithful citizenship therefore concerns both the prophetic witness of protest and voting, membership in community councils and the payment of taxes. Doing this cannot be a simple addition of personal interests. Catholic social teaching is not utilitarian, not the greatest good for the greatest number. The common good must involve discerning together as a people, uplifting and centering the experiences of those who struggle against injustice. Good politics focuses on the margins, on those caught up in what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway culture.”

Reflecting on what it means to be “the people” puts us on the right track to discern one of the most important aspects of faithful citizenship this November: voting.


This article also appeared in the October 2022 issue of american catholic (Vol. 87, No. 10, pages 40-41). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Phil Scroggs

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