By Father John Carville

We worry about our children, our relatives and our friends who begin to go down a dark path in their lives.  Whether it is infidelity in marriage, dishonesty in business or addiction to alcohol or drugs, we see the light of goodness dim in their lives, and we wonder if their souls are being lost.  Our nation too has a soul, a soul that for many years has burned brightly, as expressed so beautifully on monuments like the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”  These words on the Statue of Liberty anticipated a future world that would need a generous, big-souled America.

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have born the battle, and for his widow and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.”  With victory almost assured, in the last days of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln ended his second inaugural address pledging to bind up the nation’s wounds, the whole nation, which he had fought to keep united.  Historian Ronald C. White in his book, “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech,” wrote that “Neither vindication nor triumphalism is present in the second inaugural.  At the bedrock is Lincoln’s humility.”

From such men and women as Lincoln and Emma Lazarus who wrote the poem, “The Great Colossus,” which included the words on the Statue of Liberty, the soul of America has been formed.  That soul is now imperiled.

We are separating children from their parents in families who present themselves at our borders, fleeing from wars and death threats in Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras.  Most are begging for asylum here, not sneaking across the border.  Our draconian policy of taking children, even infants, away from their parents is deliberately designed to discourage refugees from coming at all.  The “golden door” has turned into a wall and a threat.  “You apply for asylum; we take away your children.”

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Houston, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said recently that separating mothers from their babies was “immoral.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ cited St. Paul in Romans Chapter 13 approving law and order as justification for our  border policies.  St. Paul was speaking of just laws that protect the weak; he was not giving blanket approval of every law.  Sessions should have read beyond the first five verses.  Verse 8 says, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”  Cruelty to children and their parents hardly qualifies as love or good law. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said he is not comfortable with the policy.  “We don’t want children to be separated from their parents.”

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego is certainly familiar with this particular instance of America’s shrinking soul.  The “Wall” begins in his diocese.  On April 18, he gave an address at Loyola University, Chicago.  It was entitled “Civic Virtue & the Common Good: Forming a Catholic Political Imagination.”  The bishop declared that there is  “a profound sickness of the soul in American political life … undermining the core democratic consensus that is the foundation of our identity as Americans.”  He traces this back to the disintegration of bipartisan relationships in Congress that has resulted in a culture “where political campaigning never ends and authentic governance never begins.”  Also, instead of news helping to build consensus, we have competing media giving us “alternative facts.”  Both the Gospel and the Catholic Church’s social teaching are hijacked to promote partisan thinking.  This makes it difficult for our church whose mission is to foster “a political culture that seeks and sustains the common good.”

Bishop McElroy’s solution was to go back to Pope Francis’ address to Congress in 2015.  The pope didn’t offer political analysis, but rather chose to emphasize the virtues that helped famous Americans unify us in the past. He spoke of Lincoln who fought for freedom for everyone.  He praised Dorothy Day who sought economic justice with a special care for the poor. Then he invoked the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that led to nation-wide participation in promoting racial equality. Finally, he cited the Trappist monk Thomas Merton whose life and writing fostered the conviction that only through genuine dialogue and encounter can we create a world conformed to Gospel values.

Bishop McElroy says that Pope Francis was suggesting that, before we can return to good politics, we need deep conscience formation.  We have to change our attitudes by acquiring better civic virtues.  Only then can we be unified enough to produce good laws and policies that will serve the common good of all our citizens and the other nations of our world.

These virtues are: 1) Solidarity: We are all debtors of the society of which we are a part. We owe much of who we are to our society and should pay back by being committed to the good of one’s neighbor.  The founders of our country called this “civic virtue.”  2) Compassion for all who are suffering: This is a Gospel virtue that will promote action which will unite us and promote the common good of everyone.  (I think we just experienced this in Baton Rouge with the 2016 flood.)  3) Integrity: This is a virtue always demanded in others while often neglected in our own behavior.  In our political lives we excuse hypocrisy in members of our own party while raging at the supposed hypocrisy of political opponents.  4) Hope:  Without hope we settle for all the ugliness and meanness of  what is politics now.  When we do this, the new normal is always a step down, a lessening of whatever common good there was.  And only those who hope can achieve the last virtue.  5) Being peacemakers: Democracy cannot be a zero-sum power contest.  My side gets it all; your side gets nothing.

These virtues of heart and soul, which are Gospel virtues, can make America a golden door, a leader for the common good of her citizens and for the world of nations to which we are joined.

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnnycarville@gmail.com.