In Praise of Politicians

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions and

thanksgiving be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in

authority. (I Tm 2:1)

God’s fourth commandment also enjoins us to honor all who

for our good have received authority in society from God.

Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as

representatives of God. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

Perhaps the title of this article caught you by surprise. Maybe you think it’s going to be a humorous, cynical little piece about the foibles and flaws of politicians. Wrong! And if you’re surprised by the title of the column, you’re probably even more skeptical about what the Word of God and the teaching of the Church has to say about politicians – about our need to pray for them, respect them, and even obey them.

At the beginning of the month I had the privilege of participating in several events related to the inauguration of public officials in Rhode Island – including the “Inaugural Mass” for the Governor and other General Officers of the State, their Inauguration at the State House, and the opening of the State Senate and House of Representatives.

At the Inaugural Mass at our beautiful Cathedral I made a point of thanking the State officials for their public service, I asked for God’s blessings upon their work, and I encouraged them to dedicate themselves to the task of promoting important moral virtues such as justice, peace, harmony and compassion.

At the Inauguration itself, I prayed that we would all “accept the challenge of service as surely as we accept the praise and glory that comes our way.”

And at the General Assembly, I invoked God’s presence and said, “We are grateful for the privilege of serving our community and we pray that with your help we will do so with generosity, honesty and humility.”

I have no idea if my words will have any lasting impact on our political leaders, but it doesn’t hurt to try. (By the way, some local journalists took exception to the fact that taxpayer funds were used to invite people to the Mass at the Cathedral, but it was a silly and short-sighted complaint. There’s a long tradition of the community praying for its leaders, and I can’t think of a more dignified and effective use of State funds – a very small amount by the way – than gathering citizens to ask for God’s blessings upon our leaders and motivating them to moral virtue and higher purpose.)

But, I digress . . .

“Politics” is defined as “the activities associated with the governance of a country or area.” That’s a fairly benign definition, but we know that it’s far more complicated than that. Public service is an important, difficult and challenging task, but someone’s got to do it and I’ve grown to appreciate those who have entered the political realm and are willing to share their personal gifts and professional experience with the community.

Oh, I’m keenly aware of the common perception that “all politicians are crooked” and without a doubt there are plenty of self-serving scoundrels in the political world. But let’s face it, there are scoundrels in every profession – corporate CEOs, union officials, police officers, media personalities, professional athletes, doctors, accountants, teachers, priests, and I dare say, even bishops. But that’s part of the human condition, isn’t it? And of course it’s always wrong to condemn all the members of a group because of the bad behavior of a few.

Politicians have to make very significant sacrifices in their profession. During the election season they are involved in grueling, non-stop campaigning. Often they have commitments on evenings and weekends that take them away from their families. In terms of compensation, they usually make far less than they would in the private sector. Their personal behavior is always in the spotlight, and even their family problems become a topic of intense and sometimes irrational public debate.

I have to say, I’ve had very pleasant encounters with many of the federal, state and local office holders in Rhode Island. I’ve enjoyed our discussions and have found our political leaders to be intelligent, personable and respectful, even when I’ve voiced serious disagreement with some of their positions.

And I do believe it’s a serious responsibility of religious leaders – Catholic and others – to challenge pubic officials to promote the common good, remember the poor, the weak and the vulnerable, and promote moral values in their work. It’s about “speaking truth to power” and is a tradition well-founded in the Scriptures – beginning with the prophets of the Old Testament confronting the Kings of Israel and continuing in the New Testament with John the Baptist challenging Herod, even losing his head because of his courage. The challenge of political figures has also been a proud part of the history of the Church. I think, for example, of St. Thomas More steadfastly resisting the immoral schemes of Henry the VIII.

I can tell you that I have regularly challenged political leaders of this State, in private discussions and public statements, especially about human life issues and I will continue to do so. It’s part of my job. But whenever I do, it will be with personal respect and sincere appreciation of the nature of their work.

So, how should we relate to politicians? We should be grateful for their service. We should respect them and encourage them. When necessary we should challenge them. And we should pray for them, as they seek to fulfill their good and important vocation.

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)