By Patrick Schmadeke
My personal list of “where were you when X happened?” moments got a little longer on Jan. 6. I never imagined that I would see the Capitol illuminated by the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. Yet, this exact image is ensconced in our national consciousness. We all share this and other images — a noose erected outside the Capitol, the Capitol wall being scaled by hand and by rope. The confederate flag being carried through the halls of Congress, chants to assassinate the (now former) vice president, a man outfitted with tactical gear carrying zip ties, or plastic hand restraints, traversing the chambers of the Senate. These and other images have made their mark. A central symbol of our nation’s democracy has been desecrated.
We turn to the hard work of discerning what this event means for the future. We have the benefit and responsibility of discerning this in light of the Gospel.
We can see that society at large is fractured. Conspiracy theories are becoming more mainstream. Extreme political positions have taken hold. Factionalism, division and post-Christian are increasingly the language used to describe the American landscape. Prior to the November election, polling found that one-third of both Democrats and Republicans believed “that violence could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals” (Politico). Reasonable differences of opinion have always existed, but Jan. 6 was a boiling-over point.
The division among Americans in general extends to Catholics. In September 2020, The Pew Research Center published the article, “8 facts about Catholics and politics in the U.S.” Their fifth finding states: “when it comes to specific policy issues, Catholics are often more aligned with their political party than with the teachings of their church.” Such disagreement leads us to ask whether Catholics can lead society down a path of healing and reconciliation if so many of us are formed, not by the church, but by the vicissitudes of politics.
It is tempting to think that if we just look harder at the facts of our moment in history we could all come out the other side in greater agreement. Yet, we humans have a track record of not always exercising our rationality. When we do this corporately, the common good is no longer our communal aim, and decline is inevitable.
Hope is not lost. In a lecture at Marquette University in 1965, while musing on the nature of cultures in transition, the philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan said: “There is bound to be formed a solid right that is determined to live in a world that no longer exists. There is bound to be formed a scattered left, captivated by now this, now that new development, exploring now this and now that new possibility. But what will count is a perhaps not numerous center, big enough to be at home in both the old and the new, painstaking enough to work out one by one the transitions to be made, strong enough to refuse half measures and insist on complete solutions even though it has to wait.”
No mechanism exists by which to recreate a golden age of the past — and such an age probably never existed. There is no way to pursue the common good if we allow ourselves to be distracted by every fad and fancy — and often the newest ideas disregard the wisdom of the past. A path forward is possible. Catholics can lead society down a path of healing and reconciliation. We have the sacraments and Catholic Social Teaching for our nourishment. Ultimately, it is not we who summon the strength to reroute the trajectories of social decline. It is Christ on the cross who has wrought all things new. Jesus is Lord of history. Through our radical solidarity in the body of Christ, social decline will cede. Whatever crosses will come to us tomorrow are difficult to foresee. If we root our solidarity in the body of Christ, our path will go through Golgotha before it emerges from the Easter tomb. We go with confidence. We have been promised the resurrection.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a graduate of the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame.)