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Politics is in trouble and as Christians this must concern us deeply

Dr Robert Doherty says gifted Catholic women and men are needed to carry the leaven of Catholic social doctrine into the political sphere

If I asked you to think about politics do the shutters come down? This would be a very understandable reaction today. Brexit fatigue is widespread and has contributed to an accumulated reservoir of frustration and anger towards our elected politicians.

Opinion polls on trusted professions put doctors, teachers and judges at the summit and our politicians at the bottom behind estate agents and that other perennial low ranker in the trust stakes; the journalist. Whatever your views on in or out of Europe, Brexit has exposed the frailties and fault lines of our political system and politicians.

I need to confess I am guilty of spending far more time than can be justified reading about North American politics, or to be more honest; reading open mouthed about the Trump presidency. If the Trump spectacle was a political soap we would accuse the writers of playing much too fast and loose with reality. Daily I am disbelieving as each episode plots the accelerating internal decline of the US and the weakening of its superpower status.

Globally democracy has been in decline, how rapid and deadly this decay turns out to be is an open question. There are several systems and reports that monitor the health of democracy. Most of the trends are going in the wrong direction. In 2018 one such review by the Economist intelligence unit ranked 167 countries. By its standards only 20 were estimated to be in its top category; full democracies. The UK was ranked at 14 and the US in 25th with a score that put it in the second category classified as a flawed democracy.

Rigged elections and election fraud are more common than we care to think. This is one option in the dictator’s handbook of power maintenance and comes with a corrosive impact on a nations’ political culture. There are two schools of thought; rig the election to give the incumbent party a percentage result in the high nineties and demoralise any opposition. Alternatively set the win margin at a lower level giving the impression of a contest with the additional advantage of presenting a more legitimate face to the international community.

The political technologist is the latest in a long line of operatives selling a range of evolving techniques of persuasion and perception management, including the exploitation of social media, manipulating perceptions and opinion in the gaining and maintenance of political power.

The gutter reputation of politicians and journalists, the alarming rise of popularist authoritarian strong men, the Trump project, the calculated misuse of social media data, the misleading use of statistics and the denigration of objectivity as elitist are but some of the many symptoms of a politics that has drifted far from a deep reverence for truth.

Politics is in trouble and as Christians this must concern us deeply. The Church’s teaching is compelling, we are political by nature and a healthy politics is essential for any society in which human beings made in the image and likeness of God can flourish.

From a Catholic perspective, to govern is to undertake a profound service, to hold and exercise authority is a great responsibility, a noble duty of service, in building the good society. This view is radically opposed to the strands of political thought and culture that has been produced by the conflictual logic of Marxism as it has fractured and interacted with forms of individualistic consumer society.

From the treasure of divine revelation our Mother the Church has responded to the growing complexity of society and the great questions and upheavals of modernity with the gift of her social doctrine. At the heart of this treasure are the guiding principles of respect for human dignity, solidarity, the common good, the option for the poor, peace and reconciliation, care for creation, the dignity of participation and work. Our Catholic formation as Christians is incomplete without some knowledge of the Church’s social teaching.

In matters of politics we exercise our freedom, but no matter what our political views are they must be enlightened and directed by conscience and the teaching of the Church. We need to recover the political, which by its very nature is inseparable from morality.

The political sphere can be a tough and bruising place with its own temptations and dangers. Gifted Catholic women and men with a real interior life are needed to carry the leaven of Catholic social doctrine into the most eminent political spaces of our society. This is a space that belongs to the laity, an indispensable dimension of society that requires to be sanctified by all of us.

Dr Robert Doherty is a member of the St Andrew’s Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education at the University of Glasgow.

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