Holiness in politics? Is that an oxymoron? Not for Catholics. In Pope Francis’ recent exhortation Gaudete et Exultate, he reminds us that the two are indeed connected.
Unfortunately, Catholics in politics and social ministry sometimes tend to fall into one of two errors.
Faith in the Public Arena
First, there is the activism “of those who separate [the] Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord, from their interior union with him” (GE, 100). It is thinking that Christianity is all about doing good things. The problem is that it separates Jesus’ commission from the deep prayer which opens us to his grace.
Second is the error of those “who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular,” as if this aspect of the church’s life were unimportant. It is the false notion that we ought to be preoccupied only with “spiritual” things, even to the neglect of our duties (GE, 101).
Both are rooted in the same belief: We must decide to be either spiritual or productive, a mystic or an activist, a citizen of heaven or a citizen of the United States. This is alien to our Catholic faith. “At such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), we can and must be present to minister and to serve others now, and at the same time remain fixed on “the life of the world to come.”
Christ commanded his disciples to be leaven in the world by preaching the Gospel (Mark 16:15), making disciples (Matthew 28:19), and serving him in the least of our brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:31-46). Therefore, Francis writes, we cannot “love silence while fleeing interaction with others, … want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, [or] seek prayer while disdaining service” (GE, 26). We who are called to the lay vocation cannot excuse ourselves from public life under a false pretense of holiness.
Similarly, the temptation to activism is also real. It is easy to treat the church like “a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism” that marked the lives of the saints (GE, 100). But consider that Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa were among the most influential people in history, yet they also “wasted” the most time in prayer. They worked hard but never sacrificed intimacy with God. Mother Teresa famously said, “If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy!”
In the Gospels, Jesus himself shows the importance of prayer, regularly withdrawing from the crowds for long periods of time spent in union with the Father. His was not an activism focused on worldly success — what could be a greater (apparent) failure than the Cross? — but a single-hearted pursuit of the Father’s will.
To imitate him, then, is not to be so engrossed in “spiritual” things that we withdraw from the world, nor is it to become so busy that we no longer rest in the Father’s heart. Rather, it is the union of action and contemplation, the “work and pray” of St. Benedict. Amid activity, we must also “recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt relationship with God” (29).
How might we apply the teaching of Gaudete et Exultate to political life? First, we should be clear that the goal of our work (at least, the ultimate goal) is not to win every battle in the public square or resort to tactics that seem to promote success. Of course, we should strive to build up the common good, but paradoxically, our true victory is not in success but in faithfulness.
We cannot see the full plan of God, the way he intends to use our “yes,” the unseen battles that are won when we are obedient — even in the face of apparent defeat or even futility. Only prayer can detach us from visible results and free us to seek God’s will with an undivided heart.
Finally, our engagement in politics is a mission, in which our holiness of life is far more potent than mere activity. Ultimately, it comes down to love. We love God by laboring for him, and we love our neighbor by pursuing what is good and just. Francis writes that when we let God fill both our prayer and our public lives, “every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes” (31). Self-sacrificing love: what a vision for faithful citizenship!
Sarah Spangenberg is communications associate for the Minnesota Catholic Conference.