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What weight will America’s exceptionalism carry for future generations?

Today, the Catholic Church throughout the world is engaged in a fierce struggle to define what its long-term identity will be for outside observers. Here in the United States, this ecclesial tension has reached a tumultuous boiling point. Women religious, who were the main players in erecting the American church’s primary contributions to society at large (education, healthcare, charities), now face a predicament that embodies this ideological strife in very real and personal terms.

In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, few took the Council’s exhortation to read the “signs of the times” and to be the People of God more seriously than religious sisters did. Emerging from the cloisters of convents, casting off the obscuring garb of a bygone era, American women religious embarked on their mission to live the Gospel sincerely and radically – as the charisms of their respective orders intended. When accepting and confronting “the signs of the times” meant questioning long-established theological norms and doctrines these courageous women did not waver in their commitment to following Christ. Even as they critiqued and pondered the relevance of various pronouncements and regulations, they did so in the same spirit of justice, mercy, and peace that animated the whole duration of Jesus of Nazareth’s public ministry.

As U.S. women religious throughout the nation face the prospect of being “reformed,” (or rather, put in line with Vatican-thinking) many American Catholics consider the values that have impelled these sisters for centuries to be much more central to their faith than those espoused by members of the episcopacy and the bureaucratic apparatus of the Vatican. Nevertheless, the institutional church of Rome continues to do all in its power to create a Catholic Church that stresses unquestioning adherence to doctrine, a static uniformity of theological opinion, and, in our uniquely American context, a firm alliance with the political and cultural right – for the sake of pursuing its own agenda.

With the country approaching yet another presidential election, it becomes apparent that not only are domestic issues at stake, but rather, our fundamental identity as the Land of the Free is the equation voters will be given to evaluate as they cast their ballots in November.

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. As the annals of history are examined, numerous circumstances can be found to attest to how our country would not exist without the phenomenon of immigration. Think of how our very founding was made possible, at the hands of British colonists who sought to live unencumbered lives characterized by liberty and freedom of expression. Or, on a more somber note, consider how many countless souls, mired in cloaks of uncertainty and robbed of their inherent, human dignity, were brought to these shores against their will. In a general sense, call to mind all those who have fled their native countries, seeking in America a beacon of hope, promise, and opportunity. These individuals comprise the foundation of what we know as the possibility of the American dream. In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a verdict in a case involving the state of Arizona’s law (S.B. 1070) that had been created to deal with the issue of undocumented immigrants crossing over its shared border with Mexico in great numbers. The Court ultimately invalidated most of the components of S.B. 1070 (which would have made it a criminal offense to hire, house, shelter, or transport undocumented persons). However, the most alarming provision in this legislation was curiously preserved by the Court. The “papers please” clause allows law enforcement officers to stop anybody who they reasonably suspect to be in the country illegally, demanding that they show documentation proving their citizenship. In almost all circumstances, such an action would be warranted solely based on the external, physical characteristics of the individual in question.

The right to vote is one of America’s most precious treasures. Yet, in many states nationwide, extremely onerous steps have been taken to curtail the ability of, or make it highly difficult, for certain segments of the population to exercise their most fundamental civic duty – undoubtedly, for purely political reasons. Since 2011, forty-four separate state legislatures have introduced some form of restrictive law that could potentially disenfranchise major swaths of the electorate as next month’s presidential contest approaches. In eight of these states (Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire), possessing a current form of photo-identification has been written into law as a mandatory condition for exercising one’s right to vote. Such a provision may seem to be legitimately aimed at preventing abuses or fraud from taking place at the polls. However, a realistic portrait of those who would be negatively impacted by such infringements must be taken into account when analyzing the long-term durability of these collective pieces of legislation. By and large, those who are hit directly by these repercussions are usually persons living in situations of poverty, people of color, or the elderly and disabled. For these individuals, actually getting to a local department of motor vehicles service office may be no small feat. Some may not have their own means of transportation. Especially when these offices are situated in rural or remote locations it would be nearly impossible to travel there to obtain a valid ID. The troubling aspect to this scenario is that most of these mentioned individuals would traditionally be expected to cast their ballots for Democratic candidates. All of the states that have chosen to pass these types of laws contain legislatures that are controlled by the Republican Party.

With such a plethora of threats to the very core of who we are as a democracy, it’s hard to comprehend that there could be anything else that could spell further trouble for the ideals that distinguish us, uniquely, from other countries. Yet, another recent Supreme Court decision could potentially, irreparably, alter the very ethical and civic playing field that has been faithfully maintained in our country for nearly three-centuries. In a closely-watched 2010 ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court held that any monetary donation by an individual to a political campaign ought to be considered an exercise of “free speech” guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, the Court reasoned that under this interpretation, it was unconstitutional to ban organizations or corporate entities from giving unlimited amounts of funds to various campaigns of their choosing. The consequence is that it has now become legally sanctioned for corporations, and a slew of newly crafted autonomous political entities, (“Super PACs” – Political Action Committees) to unleash as much money as they humanely can towards the candidates of their choice. In this circumstance, one’s vote theoretically no longer carries any value. No matter how many people might vote according to their heartfelt convictions, the outcome of an election could ultimately be determined by who was able to spend the most money on behalf of their candidate. Even former Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, characterized this as the high Court’s “worst decision ever.”

As frustrated Catholics, whose voices have been noticeably ignored, and utterly silenced, by the powers at be amongst the institutional hierarchy of the church, perhaps a very clear path lies before us in these uncertain and disheartening times? All of these above-mentioned initiatives that hang in the balance as America contemplates another election offer a pressing array of questions to all of us as Catholics and citizens of this nation. Who are we as a nation? What sort of values and sense of ethics do we cherish? For what purpose do we exist as the global superpower we are today?

Affirmatively answering these questions is the task that has been entrusted to each one of us as Catholics who are concerned for the fate of our church, along with that of our country. Now, we may be called upon to exercise an unforeseen role in the immediate future. Partnering with Americans of all political allegiances, who are anxious about the civic direction in which our nation will move, it will be up to us to stimulate dialogue, and work through any means possible to instill social and conscious enlightenment. Let us not shirk from this new responsibility! Only if we truly believe, and work ardently for it, will we be able to keep alive the definition of America that has withstood the test of time for nearly three centuries, and offered hope to so many beleaguered souls, the world over.

2 Responses

  1. Phillip, I was traveling when you posted this essay, and am only now having a chance to read it. I wanted to post a note to tell you that, as with everything you write, it’s a wonderfully written and valuable statement. Thank you for your witness as a young Catholic to solid Catholic values, and for the way in which you try to communicate these to your generation. I admire you very much.

    • Thanks for the love Bill!

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