Divisive political climate freezes out common good, speakers say

by Lisa Eisenhauer
Jan 28, 2022


Matthew Dowd is worried about democracy in America. A political strategist, he has worked for candidates from both parties including two Texans: former President George W. Bush and the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Dowd maintains that the political system the nation has championed across the globe is at risk at home.

It has been undermined, he said, by gerrymandering, allowing limitless donations to political campaigns and other practices that have given rise to leaders more interested in maintaining their own power and that of a narrow constituency than in doing what's best for the majority.


"If you don't have an ability to get to the common good you no longer have an ability to have a democracy and I think that's the point in time we are at here in America today," said Dowd, one of four panelists who took part in an online discussion on Dec. 7 titled "Whatever happened to the common good? Divided by COVID-19, torn apart by politics, fractured by faith."

The discussion was sponsored by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University and moderated by John Carr, co-director of the initiative.

Carr paraphrased an address that Pope Francis had given days earlier in Athens in which the pontiff said the world is witnessing a retreat from and skepticism about democracy.

Pope Francis attends a meeting with members of the religious community at the Cathedral of Saint Dionysius in Athens in December. In an address on the same day, the pontiff warned that the "easy answers" of populism and authoritarianism are threats to democracy and called for renewed dedication to promoting the common good.
Associated Press/Carlos Baltas

The pope, Carr said, went on to urge: "The remedy is good politics, for politics is and ought to be in practice a good thing: the art of the common good, so that the good can be truly shared and particular attention, I would even say a priority, should be given to the weaker parts of society."

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, the longest serving woman in the history of the House, shared her own concerns that American democracy is fraying as candidates from the political extremes find the means to seize and keep power.

"Both parties are making it almost impossible for a more moderate set of members to be elected," Kaptur said.

She believes other parts of American society are growing fragmented and uncivil along with the political sector. She mentioned families breaking up, corporations turning their backs on workers and media focusing on violence and conflict.

Kaptur said that many Catholic churches in struggling neighborhoods have been shuttered and the supportive services they once provided discontinued.

"We have to think as Catholics how we connect back to the most needy, even if they're not Catholics. It doesn't matter. They're people," she added.

Kaptur called on Georgetown and other Catholic universities to work with institutions affiliated with other faiths to develop messaging and outreach campaigns around unifying themes, such as ending violence and promoting better parenting.

Vincent Rougeau, a scholar on law and Catholic social teaching and the first lay president of College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, stressed that the common good is a foundational social tenet for Catholics. These days, he said, it is clashing with beliefs by some Americans that their individual rights should not be compromised except in extreme cases.

In the Catholic tradition, Rougeau said, rights come with responsibilities. "Just because you have a right to do something doesn't mean that it's unfettered, or gives you license to push as far as you possibly can," he said.

He believes that even many Catholics aren't comfortable with Pope Francis' appeals to keep in mind what's best for all of humanity when making decisions. The pontiff, Rougeau said, is challenging American Catholics "to be self-critical about the society in which we live and whether or not it is truly reflective of the kinds of values our faith embraces."

Rougeau exhorted Catholics to "go to discomfort" by seeking out places to pray and work on common issues with people whose faith traditions and life experiences are different.

"Spend time in communities that you know little about," he urged. "That can be a great political action plan."

Tricia Bruce, a sociologist and author whose books include Parish and Place: Making Room for Diversity in the American Catholic Church, discussed her research that has shown Americans' views on divisive issues such as abortion are much more nuanced than the political debates around them are.

Debating those issues without acknowledging their nuances and complexities, she said, makes it more challenging for the nation to achieve collective goals and serve the common good.

Despite his deep concerns about the state of the American political system, Dowd isn't giving up on it. He announced a run as a Democrat for lieutenant governor of Texas but bowed out the same day as the Georgetown discussion, citing the diverse field that had emerged. He released a statement that noted: "I do not want to be the one who stands in the way of the greater diversity we need in politics."

Dowd's advice to voters is to choose candidates with integrity and with reverence for the common good, regardless of political party.

He encouraged Catholics to follow the example of Mother Teresa by serving their communities in some way. "Find your own Kolkata," he urged.

A recording of this discussion is available at catholicsocialthought.georgetown.edu.


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