One of the most perceptive analyses of the moral function of politics and political parties in America was given recently at Georgetown University by Bishop Robert McElroy, Auxiliary Bishop of San Francisco.
Bishop McElroy makes clear that Catholic teaching is that the vocation of politics is a vital element in building up the kingdom of God on earth, the moral end of which is the achievement of the common good in society. The common good being defined by the Second Vatican Council as the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily. (Cf Gaudium et Spes #74)
Recalling that the Founding Fathers saw political parties as “totally antithetical to the common good” (Cf “The Works of John Adams”, vol 9, p.511) due to the danger of “the formulation of public policy around the views and interests of one segment of the people of America over another,” Bishop McElroy saw in the echoes of “the early American critics of partisanship…the perennial question of whether parties truly serve the democratic process or impede it.
Recognizing that in many national crises “political structures have transformed and advanced the common good in profound ways,” the bishop mentioned the Republican coalition “that forced America to confront the continuation of slavery, that original sin of the American constitution,” and the Democratic coalition that erected a social safety net that reached out to every corner of the land with jobs, food and electricity.”
Nevertheless, Bishop McElroy concluded that “party structures accelerate the tendency to value victory over compromise, electoral advantage over substantive accomplishment, and power over principle,” adding that “party pressures can distort legislators’ very comprehension of the common good, because of the immensely powerful human instinct that we all have to convince ourselves that what is the best option for us is really the most moral option also.”
Pointing out that “the current structure of American political parties bisects the common good,” the bishop observes that “the Republican Party better reflects the commitment to protect unborn life, reject euthanasia and promote religious liberty,” while “the Democratic Party witnesses more effectively the Catholic teaching on the issues of poverty and inequality, immigration reform, restorative justice and the environment.” Both parties reflect certain key elements of the critical question of family life, yet on the issues of global warming and the role of warfare in American foreign policy neither party approaches an acceptable commitment to achieving the Catholic vision of justice and peace in the world.
Those who seek the common good are inevitably left in a state of conditioned commitment to their party’s agenda.
Read the complete text of Bishop McElroy’s address including his suggested six principles as guideposts for fostering party structures which reflect a moral commitment to the common good.