Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. His current areas of research include nuclear disarmament, nonviolence and just peacemaking, Catholic social teaching, and ecumenical public advocacy. He is a frequent consultant to the Holy See and a member of the steering committee of the Catholic Peacebuilding Network. He also served on the Atlantic Council's Middle East Task Force and on the Holy See delegation that participated in the negotiation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons during summer 2017.
Not since the American Civil War 160 years ago has the United States been as divided as it has been after the 2020 presidential election. While the nation may move ahead under President Biden in addressing the pandemic and the ensuing economic decline, irreconcilable forces of division are likely to persist for many years.
Conservative talk radio, right-wing cable networks, and social media will not go silent. Extremist militias have been emboldened, and in some states, they have become unrelenting tormentors of state governments and party leaders. Following the Senate’s 57-43 acquittal of Mr. Trump, Republicans failed to purge their party of the toxin at its heart. They confirmed the anti-democratic tribalism that holds the party together and once more enabled the Trump cult of personality. In Georgia and elsewhere, partisans have already proposed measures to suppress the vote in the 2022 midterm elections. Indeed, as the once Republican-leaning commentator Anne Applebaum points out, a formidable faction of Republicans is “anti-system,” that is to say, shamelessly anti-democratic.
The majority of Republicans still believe the election was “stolen,” and state party officials have censured their own elected officials, like Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey for certifying the election and Wyoming Representative Liz Chaney for voting in favor of impeachment. With Republican extremists seemingly riding high, what reasons may there be to hope that President Joseph Biden can unite the country and heal its deeper divisions?
A De Facto Public Philosophy
With many seeing the multiple crises facing the American public demanding an expansion of the public agenda beyond the customary American political limits, one important factor in sustaining a centrist coalition may be Catholic social teaching (CST). Catholic thought has become a lingua franca for discussion of public issues. Perhaps because political warfare has exhausted the intellectual resources of both liberalism and conservatism, CST has become de facto an American public philosophy that draws thinkers from both right and left.
Catholic social teaching has become de facto an American public philosophy that draws thinkers from both right and left.
In contemporary American speech, for example, the term “common good,” a cardinal concept in the Catholic moral tradition, has become a placeholder for public goods government should be pursuing, but conventional political wisdom regarded as politically unattainable. All sorts of groups, including think tanks and philanthropies, have adopted the common good to signal their interest in advancing issues beyond the conventional political limits.
Known for his quotations from scripture and hymns, President Biden does not often quote Catholic social teaching. But his administration’s agenda parallels many of the concerns highlighted by CST and actively pursued by Pope Francis, particularly climate change, immigration reform, and asylum for refugees. Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Biden shares a belief in global solidarity, global cooperation, and multilateral diplomacy, themes Pope Francis has frequently advanced, especially in his most recent encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti.
Beginning in 1963 with Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in terris, the foundation of modern Catholic political thought, globalism and internationalism have been frequent topics of Catholic teaching. Pope John was the first to write of the universal common good and to identify the need of institutions to meet global problems that went unmet by individual states, alliances, and treaty groups. For that reason, the Holy See has been a steadfast supporter of the United Nations system.
In his encyclical Caritas in veritate (Truth in Love), Pope Benedict XVI took note of the institutional dimension of Christian love, or what he called “the political path” of charity. Political charity tends to the juridical, civil, political, and social institutions that serve the life of the polis. Writing in the wake of the 2008 world financial crisis, the pope emeritus called for the institution of a global public authority to prevent the recurrence of fiscal collapse.
Political charity tends to the juridical, civil, political, and social institutions that serve the life of the polis.
Caritas in veritate listed the functions to be met by such a global public authority in service of fiscal stability in an interdependent world. It reads: “To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority...”
Some months later the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, now the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, issued a more detailed treatment on international financial reform that elaborated on the institutional arrangements that would be needed.
Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti (On Fraternity and Social Friendship) is the latest iteration of Catholic teaching touching on global governance. Like his predecessors, Pope Francis pleads that “such [a global public] authority ought at least to promote more effective world organizations, equipped with the power to provide for the global common good, the elimination of poverty and the sure defense of human rights.” He also argues against the instruments of power being coopted in favor of “a few countries” and to “the disadvantage of the basic freedoms of weaker nations.”
The United Nations, the pope contends, should assure “the uncontested rule of law” in the nexus of negotiation, mediation, and arbitration the UN embodies and oversees. Especially in the face of the growing power of international economic and financial groups—whose power has grown in the wake of the international financial crisis—he writes like Pope Benedict that “it is essential to devise stronger and more efficiently organized international institutions...”
Pope Francis is particularly concerned about the development of “normative resources for resolution of conflict, including treaty law,” in place of the use of force with its specious assumption that might makes right. He makes the case for multilateral treaties over bilateral ones, arguing that more than bilateral agreements, multilateral ones “guarantee the promotion of a truly universal common good and the protection of weaker states.”
While President Biden doesn’t quote Catholic social thought, his diplomatic agenda conforms with the Catholic understanding of international order.
While President Biden doesn’t quote CST, his diplomatic agenda conforms with the Catholic understanding of international order, beginning with rejoining multilateral agreements and supporting multinational agencies. He has renewed commitments to the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization and resumed funding for the UNWRA, the agency that provides essential supports for Palestinian refugees. He has pledged his administration to multilateralism and re-engaged with America’s European partners. In preparation for undertaking new talks with Iran on rejoining the JCPOA, the administration has begun withdrawing sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
A Leader with Empathy
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis also paints a portrait of a public-spirited politician that fits Mr. Biden’s empathetic style of leadership. “Politicians are called,” the pope writes, to “tend to the needs of individuals and peoples. To tend to those in need takes strength and tenderness, effort and generosity in the midst of a functionalistic and privatized mindset that inexorably leads to a ‘throwaway culture.’”
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis also paints a portrait of a public-spirited politician that fits Mr. Biden’s empathetic style of leadership.
In repeated events for the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden has demonstrated concern for both the half million Americans who lost their lives to the coronavirus, as well as for their loved ones who have been deprived of the occasion to properly and publicly mourn their passing. With the same sensitivity for the suffering poor, even as the president still struggles to get vaccines distributed in the United States, he has committed $4 billion to CoVax, WHO’s international vaccine fund, mindful that the good politician looks beyond his private interest to promote the common good.
President Biden seems to embody that combination of strength and tenderness that Pope Francis associates with the president’s patron, Saint Joseph. “Politics, too,” he writes, “must make room for a tender love of others.” He adds, “the smallest, the weakest, the poorest should touch our hearts: indeed, they have a right to touch our heart and soul.” Whether spending time with a young boy who like him struggles with a stutter or visiting the retired Republican Senator Bob Dole, sorely ill with cancer, Mr. Biden exhibits the mature tenderness Pope Francis believes is a necessary balm to the cold abstractions of a technological society we should expect from our political leaders.
With respect to politics as a vocation, the Holy Father concludes, “it is truly noble to place our hope in the hidden power of the seeds of goodness we sow, and thus to initiate processes whose fruits will be reaped by others. Good politics combines love with hope and with confidence in the reserves of goodness present in human hearts.” That last sentence is a good formula for healing America from its deep distemper and consolidating the American middle.