Sixty years ago, America was preparing for the election that would put John F. Kennedy in the White House. It was a real breakthrough for American Catholics: We finally figured out how to make ourselves acceptable on the American political scene.
Sixty years later, perhaps it’s time to consider a course correction. Maybe “making ourselves acceptable” shouldn’t be our overriding goal. The readings this week challenge this approach and point us toward another possibility.
This week Stephen preaches the Gospel in Jerusalem, and he gets stoned. Philip preaches the Gospel in Samaria, and he’s received with joy. Jesus preaches the Bread of Life discourse, and many of His own disciples leave Him. Jesus confronts Saul on the road to Damascus, and one of the principal enemies of the early Church is converted.
In other words, when the Church preaches the Gospel, sometimes it “wins” in earthly terms — as it did with Philip and Paul — and sometimes it “loses” in earthly terms — as it did with Stephen and the Bread of Life discourse. But the commitment of the Church is to bear faithful witness to the Word, not to be found acceptable to the world. And that commitment to the Word is always a win in eternal terms, even when it costs us something in earthly terms.
I understand that politics is the art of the possible. And I’m not saying how we should weigh all the issues as we decide how to vote — I’ll offer more thoughts on that as the election gets closer. I’m only saying, at this point: there’s a 60-year-old trajectory in our thinking that needs to be challenged.
As Catholics, we’re committed to the protection of life from conception to natural death, marriage between a man and a woman, and the foundational role of the body in sexual and gender identity. But, despite those commitments, we sometimes censor ourselves to be found acceptable to the Democratic party.
As Catholics, we’re committed to generous hospitality toward immigrants, better and more far-reaching environmental stewardship, and the priority of the poor in economic decision making. But, despite those commitments, we sometimes censor ourselves to be found acceptable to the Republican party.
Our first priority as Catholics shouldn’t be a calculation about what will be acceptable to any party. Especially at this early stage of the election cycle, when the basic terms of the conversations and debates are still being shaped, what would happen if our first priority was bearing witness to the Gospel in all its features, and letting the chips fall where God allows them to fall — as the early Church did?
When Jesus bore witness to the truth, sometimes it “worked” and sometimes it didn’t — but His mission moved forward and that was the key. When the early Church bore witness to Jesus, sometimes it “worked” and sometimes it didn’t — but the mission moved forward and that was the key. Even when the first Christians were expelled from the synagogue, it only served to spread the Gospel further and faster.
As we think about political conversations, what do we think is the key: bearing witness to the Word, or being found acceptable to the world?