I walked an unusual path as a lay Catholic leader, a path that may have helped me understand the importance of Catholic leadership at this difficult time in our history. As an act of youthful rebellion, I did not go to a Catholic university. After all, I had already received a Jesuit education from birth. My mother is a Jesuit-trained theologian and my father was a Jesuit priest for 17 years before leaving to start a family. Maybe I needed to see the world differently.
I went to a secular university near my home, then to Harvard Law School (or, as my mentor, Congresswoman Lindy Boggs called it, “that Yankee Protestant school”). There, I found myself a little embarrassed to wear a crucifix but because of that, I forced myself to do it. I was worried that religion would be seen as ignorant, but for me religion was intellectual. The walls of my house had been lined with biblical scholarship, and when my parents didn’t want the children to hear, they spoke in ancient Greek. The idea of being grouped with those whose religion rejects reason seemed unfair to me.
From church teachings on abortion, to the death penalty, to caring for the poor and caring for the land, none of this fits neatly into our current political chasms.
I also discovered the stereotype that religious people are politically conservative, which prompted me to dig deeper into how our church straddles the American political divide. From church teachings on abortion, to the death penalty, to caring for the poor and caring for the land, none of this fits neatly into our current political chasms. Not only that, but the very roots of our teachings have begun to feel counter-cultural. As Catholics, we believe in making sacrifices for the common good. We believe in taking care of our neighbors like brothers and sisters and welcoming the stranger. It may seem that libertarianism has begun to triumph, but the teachings of the church strongly oppose it.
There have always been two competing instincts in American political values. Individualism leads to the search for opportunities and human freedom. Just as powerfully, communalism defines a common good and teaches us civic virtue. A healthy balance between the two has served us well. Right now, however, unchecked individualism is crushing our communal norms, poisoning our political discourse with unfettered selfishness. Even in the midst of a pandemic, when our very breath can infect others, we struggle to recognize that our freedoms are almost always affect others. More and more of us refuse to see our neighbors as one human family, worthy of respect and dignity. We are losing the common values we need to fend off growing movements of hatred and political violence.
It may seem that libertarianism has begun to triumph, but the teachings of the church strongly oppose it.
So what does it mean to be a lay Catholic leader at this apocalyptic moment in our history when everything seems to be falling apart? I believe this is a huge opportunity. If we can remind American Catholics to the teachings of the Church, if we can speak a language of common values that reminds all Americans of our founding principles, we could provide a spark of hope.
The language of faith is a powerful, often misused tool. But it can serve as a beacon capable of shining through the fog of rationalization and self-interest. Leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, did not simply cite values or political goals; they called a nation to its conscience by reminding us of the power of God’s love over hatred. As Catholic leaders, we should speak even louder about our own fundamental principles – basic human dignity and concern for the poor and vulnerable. We should push back hard against those who define the outsider as a threat.
As the leader of a Catholic university, I try (admittedly, sometimes with trepidation) to make our institution a center for nuanced discussion of critical issues. In the Catholic intellectual tradition, I hope our institutions will demonstrate the power of intellectual curiosity and humility. I believe we can bridge the growing divisions.
None of this will be easy. The forces that separate our country also divide American Catholics. In an age of absolutes, the language of nuance and humility falls flat. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, progress is not inevitable. We have to fight for it, every day.
We speak the language of hope because we have to. We follow the lessons of the Gospels because we believe. And we pray hard that we can make a difference.