As the election approaches, the theme I hear most is that, regardless of the outcome, there is trouble ahead. Even if Hillary Clinton beats Donald Trump, even if the steady-as-she-goes candidate prevails over the all-chaos-no-theory option, no one seems to think that our roiled national psyche will settle down.
Whether due to the rise of rapid-response social media, a growing gap between the very wealthy and everyone else, an economy that leads to isolation instead of community, and a relentlessly partisan "zero-sum" approach to governing, it has become difficult to assume that, going forward, the fundamentals of our social order will continue to work at all, much less well.
U.S. Catholics are generally civic-minded people, but we are also a product of our divisive age. Our votes will be carefully scrutinized in the days after the election, broken into those with more or less education or income, parsed by gender, race, age and zip code. While no more or less American than any other religious group, Catholics have visibility in our civic life, on display at the well-established Al Smith dinner - an event accomplished this year only by the firmly jovial buffering of New York's Cardinal Dolan, his sturdy physique broking no nonsense between the two rivals.
Catholics bring a strong moral compass to our public life, one which straddles the political divide with opposition to abortion and euthanasia joined to calls for a safety net for the poor and a place at the table for immigrants. At their best, Catholics in public life have made the common good, sharpened by the marriage of faith and reason, their watchword.
But our public conversation is broken on a deeper level; we now face challenges more fundamental than any of these issues. On the day after the election we will need to reckon with the damage: our civic process itself has been attacked, the most destructive elements of our society have been given permission to act out, the legitimacy of the United States government has been deeply undermined.
On the Wednesday after this election, Catholics need to take a long hard look at our engagement in public life, at our own complicity in the degraded narrative of this election. What can we do?
First, and foremost, we can draw upon the global reach of the Church to start talking about the value of strong and functioning subsidiary forms of governance and public life. "Subsidiarity" is a principle that recognizes that strong institutions are strong at all levels, that scaffolding matters. Rather than a two-dimensional attitude that plays to the drama of an autocratic bully and his henchmen, we need to emphasize the important roles played throughout the social order by skilled and engaged and respected citizens - policemen, teachers, health care workers, town hall clerks and civil engineers. We need a free press; we need entrepreneurs; we need unions. We need voluntary associations to come to the aid of those in need and to suggest public policy changes so that those needs are met effectively. And we need those who protest - peacefully, but loudly and with clarity - when citizens with a public trust fail to perform their duties in the way that we, as citizens, can rightly expect.
Second, we will need to re-weave our damaged social imaginary, the big shared story we have about who we are, what we want, what is possible and what we can count on. Somehow, it has become easier to imagine Armageddon than to imagine that we could use our heads, work together and solve problems. We have almost forgotten how satisfying it is to experience the bond that comes from shared sacrifice in the service of a common purpose. We need to take "us" back and, in doing so, to welcome one another into this important civic project called the United States.
Our third Wednesday task will be to face the fact that we will continue to live with a level of risk and uncertainty as we go forward. Catholics are, at the core, sober realists. We will factor in risk as we plan for the future, knowing that a dependable system can absorb extremist acts and the ongoing threat of terrorism with vigilance and calm. We will continue to mount measured responses to threats, so that we are a predictable world actor, one that stabilizes the international order by both our own strength and our numerous alliances. We will not let an ongoing threat destroy our sense of common purpose or our investment in one another. We will hold hands and turn toward the future, resolute.
Taken together, these efforts will build a "catholic" form of resilience. We will do more than suggest another round of civil discourse, we will work to build a social order that is intentionally shaped toward the common good as a necessary public value. We will insist that such a common good be deeply inclusive and at home in the many cultures and localities of our country. On Wednesday, we will find that our resilience lies not in walls and winning and whining, but in this shared project, one that is ennobling because of the breadth of its aspiration.
On Wednesday, we will not hide and we will not despair. We will walk back into the public square to offer the social insights of the Catholic tradition, making common cause with the many others whose faith traditions seek similar goals. On Wednesday, we will leverage our catholicity - our sense that a broad and inclusive public social compact is possible and necessary -- because that is the gift we can offer to our broken story now, and it is necessary for our country to move forward. We have been Sunday Catholics for far too long. Let's claim Wednesday as well.