People gather in front of the White House in Washington Nov. 7 after news media declared Democrat Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election. CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters

Political dialogue begins with humility

  • November 13, 2020

As U.S. President-elect Joe Biden puts healing front and centre in his plans, he may soon discover that his Jesuit friends got there before him.

In a document coincidentally launched the day after the Nov. 3 U.S. election, the Washington-based Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States lays out a spiritual response to the bitter political division of our times. The Jesuit guide to “Contemplation and Political Action” has been in the works for over a year under the direction of Canadian Jesuit and lawyer Fr. Ted Penton.

Rather than tackling the specific controversies dividing people into different political camps in both Canada and the United States, the Jesuit guide to politics addresses the political culture of our social media-driven times.

“One of my real concerns of where political culture is now is (that) people say, ‘Oh yes, I’m very politically engaged.’ What does that mean? It means, ‘I watch cable news and I yell at the TV,’ ” Penton told The Catholic Register. “That’s the opposite of what we want political engagement to be.”

Grounded in the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Francis and St. Ignatius of Loyola, the new Jesuit guide seeks to make humility and careful listening the starting point for any political conversation.

“We want political engagement to be speaking with your neighbours, especially with people you may not agree with — learning what are their views,” Penton said.

Penton’s team in the Office of Justice and Ecology isn’t urging Catholics to withdraw from politics to nurture a more spiritual perspective. If anything they want people more involved and committed to public life.

“Our political action emerges from discerning how Christ is already active in the world and co-operating with His saving work, as opposed to acting out of our own limited ideologies,” reads the conclusion of the 18-page document. “Without a life of prayer and spiritual practice, our civic engagement would lack the grounding that makes it Christian.”

While most of Penton’s team of Jesuits and lay people are Americans and deeply concerned about the state of U.S. politics, the guide has also been adapted for use in Canada. While Canadian political divisions may seem less stark or less dramatic than those in the United States, Canadians cannot be happy with the state of political discourse in their country, said Fr. Peter Bisson, who heads up justice, ecology and Indigenous relations for the Canadian Jesuits in Ottawa.

Bisson doesn’t want Catholics to tune out politics and leave it to others. The guide seeks “to encourage Catholics and Christians in general to not be afraid of engagement in social and public issues,” he said.

Listening and discernment are the key to a spiritual approach to politics, according to Bisson.

“Listening seriously and intelligently to each other is an important spiritual skill. It’s a way of taking each other seriously and of welcoming each other — treating each other seriously even if we differ in good conscience on important matters,” he said.

The guide prioritizes Jesuit commitments to economic justice for the poor, racial justice, reconciliation with Indigenous people, full participation for women in public life and in the Church, and climate justice. But it’s more a spiritual how-to of politics rather than a guide to specific issues Jesuits and their institutions are working on.

“We’re not preparing this document to tell you this is who you have to vote for, or this has to be the main issue that you have to spend your life campaigning on,” said Penton. “We’re presenting this document to encourage you to listen, to pray — to pray and ask the Lord, ‘How am I personally called to live out my faith in the public sphere?’ ”

Jesuit parishes, retreat centres, universities and high schools will be encouraged to take up the guide, discuss it and apply it in their own circumstances.

The guide quotes Pope Francis saying, “A good Catholic meddles in politics.” Obviously a good Catholic doesn’t insult or dismiss people they disagree with from the safety of their Twitter accounts.

“In our current culture, the political culture is so polarized that it pressures us into doing everything we can to defend our position or our camp and attack the other camp,” Penton said. “What we’re saying is, ‘No, what our faith is calling us to is to begin with humility.’ ”

For Penton humility means clearly identifying what we don’t know.

“I don’t know all the answers. My own thought may not be perfectly aligned with the Gospel. In fact, if there’s one thing I know for certain it’s that I’m a sinner and that I know that my thoughts are not perfectly aligned with God — or I would already be in Heaven.”

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