American public life needs conversion, Bishop McElroy says

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, pictured at a March 7 meeting of the National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. He offered the Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause Lecture at Loyola University Chicago April 18. (Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

There is a “sickness of the soul” in American public life, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy said in an April 18 talk at Loyola University Chicago, and to cure it, Americans must convert their hearts to embrace a series of virtues that allow civic life to flourish.

Without such conversion, the country will continue its bitter division over political issues and candidates, with Catholics falling on both sides.
Bishop McElroy was offering the second Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause Lecture hosted by Loyola’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage. The series began with a 2017 talk by Cardinal Cupich.

In “Forming a Catholic Political Imagination for a Time of Cultural Crisis,” Bishop McElroy argued that Catholics must develop the virtues of solidarity, compassion for all, integrity, hope and peacemaking as a prerequisite to evaluating political issues or candidates.

McElroy based many of his remarks on Pope Francis’ 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, in which he cited Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton.

“In Francis’ message, the core vocation of public service, and of all politics, is to promote the integral development of every human person, and of society as a whole,” Bishop McElroy said. “It is a vocation that requires special and self-sacrificial concern for the poor, the unborn, the vulnerable and the marginalized. It is a commitment to pursue the common good over that of interest groups or parties or self-aggrandizement. It is profoundly a spiritual and moral undertaking.”

While the bitterness and deep chasms between different political camps came to the fore in the 2016 presidential campaign and in its aftermath, Bishop McElroy said, it goes back longer than that.

“A central element of our national sickness lies in the bitter political divide which has characterized our political life for the past two decades,” he said. “The disintegration of partisan relationships in our political leadership, the creation of a culture where political campaigning never ends, and thus authentic governance never begins, the transformation of our news and information landscape from a broad perspective which supported consensus to a culture of politically determined and determining media silos that have their own alternative facts — these are the changes that have bred a culture that is bitter and increasingly divided.”

Those changes have broken Americans into groups that identify more with their own members than with the country as a whole, Bishop McElroy said. 

“The party has become, for many Americans, a shorthand for worldview,” he said, one that determines whom people talk to, whom they socialize with, and with whom they are likely to share common goals — even whom they want their children to marry. 

Bishop McElroy cited a survey from the Atlantic that found 5 percent of Americans would object to their children marrying someone from the other political party in 1960; in 2010, 40 percent of respondents said they would object.

As a result, Americans’ sense of obligation to one another has fractured, he said, and Catholic teaching has been hijacked by people on both sides.

While Bishop McElroy said the virtues he cited are not an exhaustive list of what is needed, they offer a starting point for an integrated view of American society, one where all members are important and no one is without value.

“As disciples of Jesus Christ, we must understand that this spectrum of human suffering in our nation calls upon us all to act jointly and consistently,” Bishop McElroy said. “Such suffering must not be the basis for social division or political identity but rather first and foremost a demand for Christ-like action. The plaintive call of Black Lives Matter and the populist impulse reflected in the support for Donald Trump are both signs of woundedness in our nation. The victims of globalization include both the undocumented and displaced blue-collar workers in the Midwest. The central challenge is whether we can meet our woundedness with care and action which are not filtered through party.”

Unfortunately, Bishop McElroy said, people on both sides are willing to excuse actions from their allies that would enrage them if they were done by their opponents.

During the question-and-answer period, Hille Haker, who holds the Richard McCormick Endowed Chair in Christian Ethics, challenged Bishop McElroy’s conclusion that the conversion to virtue must come before political action.

“There are times for bringing the country together and times when someone must make a decision on which side one wishes to stand,” Haker said. “The country has changed so much since the pope’s visit in 2015. I wonder if this is not putting the second step before the first.”

Bishop McElroy said nothing in his call for conversion of hearts precludes Christians from speaking prophetic truth. The key, he said, is to do so in an effort to bring the country together for the common good, rather than in an effort to elevate one’s own party above the other.

Politics, he said, cannot be treated like sports, although it seems as if that is what many people are doing.

“It gives us some of the same satisfaction and identification as a tribe,” he said.

Loyola senior Erika Kirchmayer, a theology major, asked Bishop McElroy how the rise of secularism and an accompanying emphasis on individualism plays into the decay of civic culture. 

McElroy acknowledged the difficulty presented by secularism, but noted that religion is not a panacea.

“Some of the most troubling voices have come from religious perspectives,” he said. “A lot of it comes from what people are willing to overlook.”


  • loyola university chicago
  • u.s. politics

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