St. Polycarp School in Stanton, California – from which I managed to graduate in 1970 – was a cinder block quadrangle of classrooms surrounding an asphalt courtyard where we assembled each morning before entering our respective classrooms for instruction. Over the course of eight years most of my classmates and I worked our way around the quad.
With each passing year, the perspective was different but themorning routine was the same: A couple of students would come forth from the principal’s office carrying a cross. They took their place standing in front of the tall flagpole planted at the north end of the courtyard. Together we recited a salute to the cross, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, the singing of the national anthem, and concluding with an invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “my mother and my confidence.”
Each day began with these religious and civic gestures inculcating attitudes and habits of good Catholics and good citizens on those of us fortunate enough to find ourselves embraced by the sheltering rectangle of St. Polycarp School. My classmates and I received our education during some of the most turbulent times for both the church and the nation: the Vietnam War raged on through most of the decade; President John Kennedy, the candidate Robert Kennedy, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated; Vatican II Council was meeting in Rome; race riots; upheaval on university campuses; liturgical changes; musical changes both secular and sacred; priests and religious leaving the ministry; the nuclear arms race; the race to the moon. The list could go on.
The fractious political dramas unfolding did not impinge much on the rhythm of the school. Some of this may be due to the administration of the school. The principal, Sister Franca, and the other members of her congregation serving in the school were all immigrants from Italy. They were learning English at the same time they were teaching it to their students — quite a pedagogical feat. Like many immigrants, then and now, they held a respectful awe for the United States of America. This was the prevailing proud, patriotic tone of the school, even as the trying times tore at the fabric of the nation.
Two fragments of memory come to my mind from those years. I recall the election when Ronald Reagan was first elected governor in 1966, defeating then two-term Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown. I also recall the contentious political conventions of 1968. By then we were studying American history and civics. As I began to be interested in the political process, some of the first images were the riotous confusion of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the nomination of Richard Nixon as the Republican candidate for president. The events of 1968 might have been reason enough to tune out at that early age. Either despite of or because of those events I continued to stay tuned in.
The voting age was still a few years off for my classmates and me. The nascent perception of those early years was that politics was important and worthy of attention. I credit that to the education I received. The kindled curiosity eventually led me to habits of citizenship that are essential tools for everyone living in this country. They are also morally incumbent on anyone who aspires to be a good Catholic. As disciples of the Lord Jesus, we all aspire to be citizens of heaven. This pious aspiration also compels us to be faithful citizens of this republic, working to be “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Those words, taken from the Pledge of Allegiance, are ideals that sustain us while they also prod us to re-examine and renew our common purpose.
The political climate has only become more tumultuous over the years. Over the same trajectory, the levels of voting among citizens has declined. One could speculate from many different perspectives as to why. I will only propose one consideration: The inverse trends of rising level of partisan rancor and diminishing voting are signs of the decline of the habits of good citizenship. Even as our technological age has revolutionized communication with the instantaneous internet and ubiquity of social media, these mediums have become poor proxies for the more traditional civic habits of being good neighbors.
The dual expansion of government and the markets increasingly dominate daily routines, influencing and even directing the choices we make. Arguments for the former will criticize the latter and visa versa. The position that power of the markets can only be controlled by big government is countered by the conviction that free markets are a check on big government. Both are deemed too big to fail. Each presumes to protect the personal freedom of citizens from the respective dominance of the other.
In the meantime, the more community-based, neighborhood institutions of churches, schools, charities, and other associations are declining in membership and influence. The old maxim that “all politics is local” has been eroded by a nanopolitic of what is trending on Twitter, going viral on YouTube, or “liked” on Instagram. All these technological and social innovations permeate the invective political air we breathe. They have also created their own habits that have moved public discourse and civic engagement to the higher levels of disillusionment, disengagement and division.
The Catholic tradition possesses a rich, robust moral heritage that proposes a vision for “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We have a powerful, prudent and practical antidote to the demeaning, demoralizing duel between the government and the markets. We must adhere to the sensible and saving conviction for the rights and dignity for the unborn as an essential part of a consistent ethic seeking “liberty and justice for all.” This is integral to protecting the dignity of women, ending the scourge of racism, welcoming the immigrant, housing the homeless, and creating dignified employment for families. Some will try to tear this apart. We must work to keep this sound moral message intact. As St. John Paul II insisted in Evangelium Vitae, echoing the words of the Second Vatican Council:
“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.” (EV, 3; GS, 22)
Bringing about this powerful vision of “liberty and justice for all” in the current political climate may seem daunting and impossible. Some would say it is impractical, and propose compromising with one side or the other of the partisan divide, claiming we will have no power unless we accommodate the political realities. Remember that good citizenship is more than a matter of voting or texting. The good neighborly habits of respectful dialogue and charitable community service possess a power we should not discount. To build one nation, begin with one person, one parish, one school, one neighborhood, one community, sowing the seeds of the one hope of salvation found in the one Lord, Jesus.