Democracy? Possibly. Politics? Definitely

by Ken Briggs

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Americans seem downright proud of their scorn for politics. It's all rot, they're all crooks, the fix is in. For many Catholics, the church's politics is the business of clerics and in essence the same. Power grabs, jockeying for promotion, money deals and all the rest. In both camps, the message is similar: politics corrupts so I'm steering clear of it.

So we settle for ignorance, control by special interests and money, and are less than likely to vote for anyone.

That passivity and cynicism has been boldly documented and derives from real causes. Big money and corporate power have bent democracy out of shape. There is reason to feel powerless in face of financial and political juggernauts. Dropping out is mighty tempting and perhaps prudent.

But that option overlooks both willful refusal to keep track of decisive issues regarding everyday life that can be crucially influenced by basic political knowledge and activity. 

Witness the victory for gay marriage in last week's Supreme Court Decision. While that case isolated a particular case in a legal setting, I'd submit that the decision in favor of same-sex marriage would have been impossible without a persistent, grass roots initiative by the gay rights movement to win public opinion to its cause. It was years in the making and skillfully conducted, both by talented gay and lesbian activists and their many allies

I further believe that its effectiveness was due to a stunning ability to cross economic, class, age and racial barriers. That kind of inclusiveness has become nearly impossible but because same-sex people exist at all levels and in every sector of American life, the potential was there. Hard work and shrewd strategy made it work. Elsewhere, protest moments have failed almost without exception to surmount the higher barriers that separate poor working class people from suburban affluent counterparts and rich sympathizers.  The other group that could exploit the current political vacuum has no such breadth. Poor people. By definition, they are without upper class money and clout and lack unifying national leadership. Politics is involved everywhere in determining what kind of policies, from schools to building permits, that will govern our personal lives and define the climate of the nation.

Then there is that other kind of politics in the church from which most Catholics are denied access. The pope has thrown politics among U.S. bishops for a loop. It used to be a matter of repeating the party line from the Vatican as a chorus of one, though some were nervous secret dissenters. It seems that the "talking points" memos have stopped flowing. The pope speaks his mind and often it doesn't appear to jibe with official policy, but nobody's quite sure, and U.S. bishops are pressured to respond. I'm guessing that they are being mostly left to their own devices, given latitude something like the pope adopts himself.

The responses show a good deal of squirming to find something suitable. One bishops lays the wood to the gay marriage verdict, for example, while another shows a great deal of respect for the "civil" legitimacy of the decision while another appeals for an end to judgementalism. Once again, politics. Public surveys have showed a huge gain in popular acceptance of gay marriage. A church that once weilded titular power in some regions of the country now finds itself in retreat and perhaps just a tad more sensitive about how the general population views it. When you're on the losing side, sometimes it's best to cool it. And perhaps that same trend has changed your mind. Then you have a pope who indicates that you're supposed to be Catholic, of course, but also think for yourself. What's a bishop who has been accustomed to aligning himself squarely with those higher up than him, to do? From the results so far, they are responding to these new circumstances in fascinating, diverse ways.

Finally, politics begs consistency. Pope Francis has now commendably urged Catholics to withdraw funds from gun makers (one commentator mocks this move as a rationale for not using arms to rescue Holocaust prisoners). I'm still awaiting a similar intention to take Vatican money out of oil companies in connection with his laudable environmental encyclical.


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