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WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! See more about me and my work at http://home.comcast.net/~bfmswain/onlinestorage/index.html or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Friday, May 13, 2016

#452: Must America Be the Modern Sparta?


As the editorial pages and the blogosphere filled up with appreciations for the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ, who died last week in New York, my sadness was not for him but for our country. 
Berrigan, who was 94, had a full life devoted to the cause of peace, often choosing radical, even illegal actions in the name of gospel values.  But by 2016, more than 50 years after he began his crusade, America doesn’t seem to have made much progress toward peace. We peaceniks used to say, amid the struggle over Vietnam, “The enemy is not the enemy.  The real enemy is War.” And we still have not conquered war. 

In fact, a blog post that popped up on my Facebook page last week observed that the United States has been at war for 93% of its history.  That means 21 scattered years of peace in our entire national life! Find the details at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article41086.htm  .


I remember how shocked I was to read, during my college days, that 1968 was the first year of the 20th century that no British soldier died in combat.  I should not have been shocked, of course: I should have known that permanent warfare is the price of empire.  And sure enough, Britain went to war in Northern Ireland the very next year. 

By the age of 30 I was less naive.  In 1977 I told a fellow peacenik that I planned to look for work in Canada, just in case of war.  I’d done some rough math, and figured that, based on our past history, we could expect the next war by the time my one-year-old child reached draft age.  I was close enough: the first Gulf War came 14 years later. 

Still, that 93% is even bleaker, and it stuns me (even though three of the 21 peaceful years came just as my first child was born).  Think of what that figure of 93% means:

It means that no U.S. generation has lived ever lived their lives in peace. 

It means that every single U.S. president has been a wartime present

It means that no U.S. child has grown up in peace.

It means that no U.S. parent has raised their children free of war. 

Of course, even the tamest of our schoolbooks revealed how bloody U.S. history has been.  Our nation was born in the blood of Revolution in the 18 century, became an indissoluble union in the bloodbath of the Civil War in the 19th century, and we spent most of the 20th century fighting wars overseas.  And those modern wars have inflated our military’s scope beyond all our rivals and allies put together.  We remain the only nation to use nuclear weapons in war, and the only major nation to claim the right of a first nuclear strike.

The US military has expanded dramatically even in the last 15 years. We now maintain up to 800 military bases in 70 countries. We have up to 150,000 military personnel present in 153 foreign countries.  It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, but today we can say that the sun never sets on the U.S. military.  Viewed strictly for our war making capability, we are the world’s only global empire.

Why so much war?  Since World War II, it is largely because our leaders have convinced enough of us that our “National Security” can be jeopardized by the puniest forces, by the vaguest, most remote threats.  So we went to war in Vietnam supposedly to prevent the “dominoes” from falling across Southeast Asia.  We fed weapons to the Taliban supposedly to thwart Soviet control of Afghanistan. We backed the Contras to unseat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  We invaded Grenada to stop the construction of an airfield.  We occupied Panama to unseat Noriega.  We attacked Saddam Hussein and bombed Iraq, invaded Haiti, invaded Afghanistan, invaded Iraq again to remove Saddam, waged war in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and now Syria.All those in the last 40 years, at the cost of millions of lives and countless refugees. 
Except for Vietnam itself, public protest has failed to alter US policy.  It is as though the American people really believe that the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Manuel Noriega, and Daniel Ortega were threats to the most powerful--and most isolated--nation on earth.   
We might even argue that the paranoia has intensified since Vietnam.  50 years ago, “Weapons of Mass Destruction” meant the hundreds of real Soviet nuclear weapons aimed at us. By 2002, “WMD’s” meant some non-existent cache of aluminum pipes hidden in Baghdad.  And a healthy percentage of Americans still believe that Saddam was behind 9/11, and that our mission in Iraq had some connection to something called the “Global War On Terror.” Of course, it does connect now—since Saddam’s henchmen metastasized into ISIS after our invasion.  As one Facebook post put it: “All this started by invading a country to drive out the terrorists that weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out.”

It seems we Americans are prepared to accept war on the flimsiest of excuses.  And the government has made this as easy as possible by (1) Eliminating the draft to short-circuit popular protest and (2) Paying for war on credit.  We don’t feel war touching our families or our wallets, because the cost of war falls on the poor who serve and on the future generations who will inherit our debt.

Moreover, our people seem to actually believe that such “threats” jeopardize our “freedom,” and we willingly sacrifice many of our liberties to protect "it."

This theme is, of course, as old as the nation itself:  “Live free or die”; “I regret that I have but one life to give…”; “Better dead than bread”; “The Domino theory” ; “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Perhaps we need to face facts and ask ourselves (if only to honor the spirit of Dan Berrigan): “Are we Americans by nature a war-like people?”

As a school kid, I love ancient history, and was particularly fascinated by the typical textbook contrast between Athens and Sparta.  Athens, we learned, was the seat of Greece's noble culture: sculpture, theater and poetry, history, philosophy, learning.  Sparta, by contrast, was portrayed as a kind of barracks-state, its men constantly preparing for or waging war.  We gathered, from the stories, that these wars were fought for honor, for revenge, for security, for wealth--but anyhow war was Sparta's defining trait.

This stereotype about the two cities lives on.  After all, who ever heard of a football team called “The Fighting Athenians"? 

As I grew older, and I began commuting to high school in Boston, I learned of a traditional nickname for the city of Boston: “The Athens of America.” Actually, Samuel Adams proposed nearly the opposite in a 1764 letter. "Boston,” he wrote, “might become a Christian Sparta."

But in 1819, William Tudor (a leading literary figure and co-founder of America’s first railroad) wrote a letter describing the town as "perhaps the most perfect and certainly the best-regulated democracy that ever existed. There is something so impossible in the immortal fame of Athens, that the very name makes everything modern shrink from comparison; but since the days of that glorious city I know of none that has approached so near in some points, distant as it may still be from that illustrious model."

The phrase “Athens of America” stuck. And even if the nickname does not accurately describe Boston itself (and certainly it predates Boston’s becoming America’s pro sports capital!), it does describe why Bostonians are proud of their town. We like to think that our contribution to the richness of American culture (in the arts, education, politics, science, etc.) over nearly 400 years is all out of proportion to our size and power.

Why this digression?  Because, dear reader, as a native Bostonian I not only embrace this (admittedly romantic) image of my city, but I also hold the fervent desire that it be a model for my country.

Alas, it seems to be a hopeless longing.  Many people around the globe (not only the French!) may admire American movies, our jazz, our jeans, our energy and vitality and creativity.  But despite all that, our image for most others in the world is defined by our real presence in the world—a presence that has brought (and still brings) our troops to every continent and, tragically, has left behind the victims of Washington bullets.

Must I accept that we are Sparta? 
   © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016

#451: Why France—and Europe—Need a New Future


The triple crisis of terror attacks, refugees, and Brexit (Britain’s possible exit from the European Union) show that the EU’s original dream of a unified “Christian Europe” is over.  But a truly Christian vision could be key to building the kind of future these crises call for. 

PARIS--As the French government this week extends France’s state of emergency for two more months, the tension persists in this city following two major attacks in 15 months. 

As my bus approached Charles De Gaulle Airport last week, the driver announced a “bomb alert” that forced him to skip my terminal (A shuttle train and lots of walking got me back).  Airport security was also a good deal more rigorous than usual.  The day I flew authorities announced that last month’s Brussels attacks were originally aimed at two Paris locations--specifically, the commercial center at La Defense and an “unnamed Catholic association.” And one restaurant owner acknowledged that his business had dropped dramatically since the attacks, as tourists traffic is down.

Yet mostly Parisian life remains remarkably normal.  Clusters of Tourists toting smart phones on selfie-sticks still trudge up and down the Champs Elysees.  The famed monuments are still open and still attract long lines.  The streets and subways are still laced with pickpockets, panhandlers, and the homeless.  The Metro itself displays no obvious extra security beyond measures dating from the 1995-1996 subway bombings.  On Friday night in the Latin Quarter, at the same hour as the November attacks, young people still jam outdoor cafes and line up outside clubs. 

Some parks had extra security (the Jardin du Luxembourg was briefly locked down), as did the University of Paris (no entry to the Sorbonne’s courtyard without a student ID), but all that was for the most Parisian of reasons: widespread student street protests (this time, over a new work law threatening to alter their future working conditions). 

On the surface, then, Paris carries on largely as if nothing has happened--but everyone knows that things will never be the same. Parisians persist in their routines lest they hand victory to the terrorists by allowing them to dictate how Paris lives.  But they also know that a future fraught with constant tension and risk is not acceptable. 

So what is next? 

No one here talks of banning or restricting Muslims.  The Muslims I spoke to feel accepted, not stigmatized-- but I spoke to people already assimilated into the core of French life: shopkeepers, restaurant owners, and servers.  And obviously many Muslims in Europe have not been assimilated--not because they are Muslims, but because they are Arabs or Berbers or Turks, who carry a culture that does not match European ways.  And clearly some places--like Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood that proved a breeding ground for both the Paris and Brussels attackers—have become deep pockets of isolation, alienation, and resentment.  This has left some young people easily influenced or even “inspired” by those who justify violence by fraudulently invoking Islam

What has gone wrong?  Why is that resentment and anger bubbling over now? 

One opinion I heard came from a woman with decades of experience observing policymakers in both France and Europe.  Her connections include high level academic and business institutions, NATO, the EU, and the UN. 

Her response to my questions: the process of decolonization was badly managed, or even bungled. 

As she spoke I recalled my own school days in the late 1950s when every addition of “My Weekly Reader” (a current events newspaper distributed in my elementary classes) contained another story about a newly independent nation.  These included, of course, many former French Colonies, especially along the Mediterranean coast of Africa and the Middle East which the French call “The Maghreb.”

According to my French commentator, the long-term effects of ending colonialism were never really thought through.  Most Europeans agreed that independence for their former Colonies was necessary, though the mechanisms and timing were controversial and provoked both polarization and violence in France, including assassination plots against Charles De Gaulle. 

But the long-term consequences were not understood or prepared for--probably because they were never considered.  In the former colonies, this led to conflict between those content to maintain the previously imposed colonial (i.e. European) culture, and those insisting on a return to traditional, pre-colonial ways.  This included returning to a reliance on traditional religion--Islam--in lands where French-styled secularization (“laicité”) had been established for decades. 

For the colonizers, the process also brought profound change: a steady influx of formerly colonized peoples into the home country.  In France, this meant a huge influx of both blacks from central and western Africa, and an even larger influx of Arabs and Berbers from all over the Maghreb.  This process began around 1960 and continues today, accelerated by the disruptions of Al Qaeda, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Syrian civil war, the Arab Spring, and the rise of ISIS.

The effects on France cannot be overstated.  France has been a unified state longer than any other European country.  For centuries its monarchy worked long to impose the French language and national identity on the country’s regions.  Thus the Celts in Brittany, the German speakers in Alsace, the southerners who spoke Occitan or Italian, and even the Basques, all acquired a single official identity.  This veneer of homogeneity survived the Revolution and remains a cornerstone of French Life.  For most French, the nation’s unifier is the state itself--whether that means Louis XIV or Napoleon or De Gaulle or the current leadership. 

The assumption was that such unity would apply even to migrants from former colonies.  After all, France considered all its colonies part of France itself, and brought the French language, culture, and religion to every colonial outpost.  (To this day, residents in the remaining French possessions vote in French elections.) 

But 60 years into decolonization, France has millions of residents with colonial origins who are too young to remember colonial days.  They cannot say if colonial life was good or bad--they only know that they continue to be considered and treated as outsiders.  They learn French in school but speak Arabic or a tribal language at home and among their peers.  They have their own food, music, and customs—and their own religion.

 All this has broken through France’s veneer of homogeneity. For all the public rhetoric about recent arrivals “becoming French,” the fact is that decolonization has introduced social, cultural, and religious pluralism into a country that is neither experienced with nor committed to the kind of pluralism we already know in the U.S. 

The failure to develop an adequate process for integrating the post-colonial peoples means that many of them remain unassimilated into “the nation.” Decolonization gave them juridical freedom, but it did not give them a place in French life (much like Emancipation failed to give U.S. blacks their rightful place in American Life).

One further problem: since 1905 France has been officially a secular nation, where religious practices are subordinate to public policy.  There is no premium on religious liberty, as in the U.S.  Over the last century, the Roman Catholic Church has learned to accept this restriction, but Muslims might naturally contrast this with the open or even established practice of Islam in their lands of origin.

What can be done?

As I explained in CrossCurrents #350, the European Union has its roots in a Catholic, personalist vision for a peaceful, unified, Christian Europe.  My recent trip confirms that it is time to recast that vision before Europe breaks down.  This will take several steps.

First, the problem must be acknowledged. The legacy of colonialism is that Europe is no longer simply a “Christian continent,” even in its cultural underpinnings (let alone its actual religious practice, which has long been in decline).  Personalism can still ground a vision of European unity and peace--but not by presuming a “Christian” system.  While Europe’s heritage is undoubtedly Christian, its culture is now largely secular, and its population is now both religiously and ethnically diverse.  A new vision must include them all.  Failure to do this will perpetuate violence.

Second, public expectations of migrant populations must change.  Unlike the U.S., Europe has not been a land of immigrants--but it is now.  Not only must Europe find out how to welcome them into their midst, it must also find ways to help them belong and give them a stake in the dominant culture around them.  If they see no benefit in that culture, they will have nothing to lose by attacking it.  Thus Europe must not only accept newcomers, but also make them feel at home.

Third, integrating new peoples will be neither easy nor simple.  The New York Times, profiling the Molenbeek neighborhood, distinguished two groups of Muslims.  The Turks feel little connection to Belgian culture but also expect little, and lived in stable, mostly peaceful isolation.  But the Berbers from Morocco inherit the effects of French colonialism, speak French, understand the prevailing customs and culture, but do not feel welcomed or accepted. So their isolation is resentful and dangerous—and the attackers come from this group.

In their recent book Why Muslim Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies, scholars Claire Adida, David Lattin, and  Marie-Anne Valfort argue that “anti-Muslim discrimination is a significant social phenomenon,” in France, Belgium, and the rest of Western Europe. It will take new, different policies to correct the situation.

Fourth and finally, this all means that recasting the new vision for Europe will require careful and creative planning about how to promote better integration of these new people.  This will have to include altering attitudes on sides, creating opportunities for disaffected people to invest in the surrounding culture, and inviting these people to identify as Europeans.  This in turn challenges traditional Europeans to simultaneously acknowledge their Christian heritage but then demonstrate radical Christian hospitality by welcoming their “Muslim neighbors” with open arms into a new, pluralized vision of a shared and peaceful future.
   © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016

Thursday, March 24, 2016

#450: Attacking Brussels = Challenging a Catholic Dream


The historic importance of Brussels in recent European history deepens the tragedy of this week’s attacks.
During my junior year abroad as a political science major, one of my courses at the University of Paris’ Institute of Political Studies was a seminar in energy policies of the Common Market. In those days (1969!) “Common Market” referred to the six-nation cooperative that later expanded into the European Economic Community (EEC), and finally into today’s European Union (EU).

The highlight of the term was a field trip to Common Market Headquarters in Brussels. For 4 days, our seminar group participated in working conferences with Common Market diplomats discussing the future direction of the Common Market.  (In those days, simultaneous translation was available in French, Italian, Dutch, and German--but not English, since Great Britain had not yet joined the Market.)

On the final day of the conference we finished with a lavish lunch that reinforced our impression that our hosts were intent on recruiting as many of our seminar members as possible for the work of international diplomacy.  My classmates knew that I was the exception, since I would be returning to the United States at the end of the year.  Nonetheless, they wanted to know what I thought of the entire gathering.  My response was that I hoped, if I returned in 25 years, I would find a new “United States of Europe” waiting for me.  This pleased everyone, since it was exactly what they were hoping for as well.

In the nearly 50 years since then, what was the Common Market has expanded to more than 25 countries, continues to expand, has added political institutions like the European Parliament,  opened the borders among all its member countries, and even established the Euro as a common currency among most of them.  And through all this time, Brussels has remained the capital of the New Europe.

 But behind this history is a vision that was driven by Catholic leaders whose dream, while it has come very close to fulfillment, is now being jeopardized by the terror movements that surfaced once again this week—precisely in Brussels.

The Common Market started with something called the Schuman plan in the years after World War II.  Its chief architect was Jean Monnet, a Frenchman who represented an entire class of socially elite Europeans who belonged to Christian Democratic parties and espoused a world view rooted in Catholic “Personalism.”

The theology of personalism looked beyond the national identities dividing people to focus on the people themselves. It called for the reconciliation of former enemies, the reduction of animosities and divisions among European countries, and the creation of a transnational community that could end the long history of European warfare and provide the basis for both peace and prosperity.

Their notion was that European nations, tired of long generations of war, would be willing to sacrifice some of their national sovereignty and independence for a more interdependent federation that would end up looking something like the United States of America.

Their agenda was gradual and progressive.  They intended to begin with free trade agreements leading to an economic union, which in turn would gradually encourage nations to form a political federation.  When I visited the headquarters in 1969, things like a common currency, a European parliament, and open borders were far away--but they were part of the vision from the start.

It may be difficult for Americans to appreciate what Europe has accomplished.  Most Americans I meet have no idea that the European Union is a clear imitation of the experience in American history of moving from three distinct colonies, to 13 loosely federated states, to a unified republic of states under the U.S. Constitution.  And while the media consistently describes contemporary China as the world’s #2 economy after the U.S., the fact is that by most standards the EU is a bigger economy than China.

But now, as refugees pressure the eastern borders of Europe, as the open borders within Europe allow radicals to move freely, and as security forces prove incapable of preventing further attacks, the common wisdom is that Europe’s experiment may be in jeopardy.  Perhaps the open borders will be lost.  Perhaps the single currency will soon be gone.  Perhaps the vision of a unified Europe will not survive terror.

Brussels remains at the center of that vision.  It is not only the headquarters of the European Union’s daily operations, is also the where NATO has located its Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) since 1967.  In short, this small country finds itself the host of the major institutions that make the Catholic dream of a united Europe a reality.

But ironically, it is precisely in this small country that we see the critical flaw in that original dream.

Observers on the scene have been informing us that the neighborhood recently raided by intelligence and security forces, the same neighborhood where the newest assailants lived, is a kind of isolated, “no go” Muslim ghetto within Brussels, capable of harboring fugitives and providing a home base for planning terrorist attacks.

Such neighborhoods exist in many major cities in many countries, and are almost always the result of the failure to integrate newcomers into the general mainstream of the population.  And it is no surprise that this has been especially difficult to do in Belgium, a country which has not even succeeded in unifying its own people.

Belgium has long been torn between the Flemish and the Walloons--that is, the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking.  It has it is as though Belgian has been caught cultural and between France and the Netherlands, and never resolved its identity.  With such a fissure in the main population, it is no surprise that the Muslim community has fallen through the cracks.

But there is a deeper tragedy in this fact.  The Christian democratic parties that founded the vision of a common Europe on Catholic personalism came from the elite classes of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy.  These elites assumed not only that it was the responsibility of the educated elite to forge the continent’s future--they also assumed that the continent’s future depended on its Christian identity.  In other words, the vision behind the European Union was a vision of Christian culture dominating the continent.

No surprise, then, that the influx of Muslims into Europe has been consistently out of sync with the progression of the European Union.  Just as many conservative Americans cling to the myth of the Christian nation in the United States, many of the governing class behind the European Union have clung to the myth of a Christian Europe. 

The explicit endorsement of Christianity has disappeared from EU documents, to be sure, in the interest of the secularized cultures that have emerged since World War II.  But the founding vision has never been quite prepared for the pluralism that Europe has witnessed in the wake of the end of colonialism.  As populations have flooded into Europe from North Africa and the Middle East, Europe has been consistently caught off guard.  And this week’s attacks have revealed that the very city which has become the heart of the European Union has been perhaps the least prepared to broaden the vision that would keep that union alive. It has become home to the vision of United Europe, but has failed to become home to its newest peoples.

The lesson, for both Europe, and for America, is not to hold back the movement of new peoples.  That strategy would be little more than a finger in the dike of global migration.  Rather, the lesson, the moral of the story, is that we must learn better than ever how to welcome and integrate new peoples, adapting our vision of the future so that these people, rather than radicalizing into dangerous attackers, develop a sense of ownership and investment in the vision itself.

Ironically, the EU’s founding Catholic vision of a peaceful Europe will only work if it opens beyond Catholicism, and even beyond Christianity.

Nothing could be clearer about this week’s attacks than this: the attackers felt no stake in the status quo, and had nothing to lose by attacking it.  And nothing is more common sense than this: the survival of our hopes for the future--for the kind of life we would lead, and for the kind of world we want--all that depends on creating for such people a stake in our way of life.  Only when they have everything to gain by joining us, and everything to lose by attacking us, will the threat recede and civility return to our life.

But for both Europe and America, this means abandoning the destructive myth of a culture dominated by Christians, and accepting that the global future--and in all probability the providential will of God--calls for a single human family learning to inhabit, in civility and peace, what Pope Francis has called “Our Common Home.”
   © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016

Sunday, March 6, 2016

#449: Can Americans Elect a Moral President?



Chagrined observers of the nastiness we call “Campaign 2016” have begun to inject the character question into their coverage of the candidates. 


Even before the KKK uproar, the below-the-belt debating, and Mitt Romney’s aspersions and allegations, commentators (especially on the conservative side) were denouncing mean-spirited tactics and schoolyard taunts as evidence off the candidates’ unethical roots. 

So evangelical talk show host Michael Brown derided the willingness of voters to support candidates who lack a “solid moral base.” He wondered how they can justify voting for “someone who has a long track record of being ruthless, cruel, unchristian, immoral, profane, full of pride, greedy, and double-minded.” He bemoans that people are not looking for “men [sic] of integrity.” This is because he believes that an American president must be “a moral and ethical leader, a leader who will make godly choices.”

On the Catholic side, columnist George Weigel has lamented the anger pervading the campaign, grouping supporters of Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders under the same “glandular” label.  Such anger, he claims, cannot be righteous:

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.

(Note that George Weigel neglects the reverse possibility: that anger can often be the righteous child of sound moral judgment--witness Jesus with the money changers!). 

Catholic politics, he says, must always be moral politics:

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.

I think both men are onto something—but they  fail to go far enough.  The truth is that asking for a “moral president” is really asking for two things.

A Moral Person.  First, it is asking if the president is a moral person, a person of integrity.  Given contemporary politics (perhaps politics in general), this is asking a lot: a public official who is consistently honest, humble, dignified, unselfish, kind-hearted, willing to sacrifice, acts with sound judgment rather than blind anger.  How many past presidents could pass that test?  How many public officials today? 

In my view it is fair to pose the “personal integrity” test, although we risk having no one to vote for.  And anyhow, it may be important to look for more.

A Moral Presidency. A presidential inauguration includes a solemn oath.  In it, the new president promises, not to be a good person, but to protect and defend the Constitution.  In other words, the oath of office pertains to the president’s official duties rather than his or her private life.  And as Weigel notes, political policies are (for Catholics, at least) rooted in moral principles—or should be.

Thus we voters must hope not just for a moral president, but also for a moral presidency.

The standards for this are not rocket science.  Catholic Social Teaching, rooted in the Gospels and shaped by papal teaching since 1891, provides clear criteria for moral policymaking.  And since 2013, Pope Francis has shrewdly employed his popularity to make these criteria the stuff of headlines.  During his U.S. visit, for example, both his White House speech and his address to Congress offered us clear guidelines for a moral presidency.

Thus we can list major current issues and compare the positions of any candidate with Catholic Social Teaching.  Here are some examples. 

Climate Change.  The official Catholic position, forcefully articulated in Pope Francis’ June 2015 encyclical letter, is clear: climate change is real, is fueled by runaway consumption which breeds economic inequality, widespread resentment, and terror.  Reversing this threat to “our common home” is a moral imperative of the highest order.

We should look for candidates, then, who make this position a key plank of their platform.

Economic Inequality.  Pope Francis has called inequality “the root of all social ills,” and concluded that peace remains impossible until the problem of inequality is solved.

Since 1970 the U.S. has emerged, under both parties, as the most unequal of all major nations.  And the gap between rich nations and poor nations has also grown wider.

Which candidates call us to break with this history? 

Open Immigration.  Catholic Social Teaching acknowledges the right of governments to regulate immigration in the interest of public safety--but it also proclaims migration to be a human right, which governments cannot violate.  Which candidates stand by this human right? 

Nuclear Weapons.  Since Vatican II, Catholicism considers the production, installation, distribution, sale, threat, or use of nuclear weapons to be an unconditional evil.  A moral presidency would include aggressive efforts to remove nuclear weapons from the planet.

Weapons Sales.  The U.S. is the world’s largest arms dealer, and Catholicism teaches that arms sales not only promote war, but they also prevent the poor from escaping poverty.  Which candidates name the arms industry as a scourge on the common good?

Defense of Life.  Before the U.S. Congress, Francis called for defending life at every stage--which means opposing both abortion and the death penalty.  A moral presidency would defend this “seamless garment” of life.

Human Rights.  The Catholic definition of human rights includes the right to Health Care, to Housing, to Migration, to a Living Wage, to Education, etc.  None of these are privileges to be reserved, inherited, or rewarded. They are everyone’s birthright. A moral presidency would be committed to the government’s responsibility for securing such rights for all citizens

This list ignores both parties and personalities.  It focuses only on moral principles.

As Americans prepare to choose a president, it makes perfect sense to seek a moral person.  It makes even more sense to seek a moral presidency.

This sets extraordinarily high standards for voters to consider.  I doubt we have a single candidate who meets them all.  Our responsibility is to get beyond the personalities and parties to determine this: which candidate measures up to these standards better than any other?

Given what I have seen of this campaign, I can only think: God help us all! 
   © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015