By Mike Jordan Laskey, Director of Communications, Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States
Rev. Pat Conroy, S.J. has a unique ministry that brings together two spheres one is not supposed to discuss in polite company: He is the chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives. As each session of debating and lawmaking begins, he leads those assembled in prayer.
“How do you follow Jesus of Nazareth in the contentious atmosphere of politics? Hopefully, you do it with great charity and great wisdom and great sincerity while respecting every voice that you hear,” Fr. Conroy once explained in an interview with America. “Impossible? Well, that’s why I’m praying.”
Fr. Conroy’s service came to mind as I worked with a team from across the Ignatian network on a new document from the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States: “Contemplation and Political Action: An Ignatian Guide to Civic Discernment.” Fr. Conroy stands at the intersection of Catholic faith and politics, a locus that can be filled with tension and misunderstanding. But the teachings of the Church and our Ignatian values invite us to make a home there anyway: to bring our commitment to social justice to the halls of power in Washington, D.C. and Ottawa; state and provincial capitals; city and town halls. It’s a blessing and a privilege to be able to cooperate with Christ’s ongoing work of compassion in the world this way. And that’s what “Contemplation and Political Action” is all about.
The document grew out of conversations that took place last year between Jesuit Conference President Rev. Tim Kesicki, S.J., and Rev. Ted Penton, S.J., Secretary of our Office of Justice and Ecology (OJE). With big elections scheduled for 2020 in both Canada and the United States, they wondered what sort of resource might the Jesuit Conference offer to voters?
From the start, we wanted to do something different from a “Jesuit voter guide.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) already publishes an authoritative and helpful Catholic voter guide every four years called, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It didn’t seem to make sense to reinvent the wheel, to go social issue by issue, and offer guidance.
But what about a reflective document rooted in Ignatian spirituality? Something that might help members of the Jesuit family discern why and how to be involved in politics? And something not focused simply on electoral politics, but one that looks at our engagement in civic life more broadly? That seemed to make more sense and to fit the spirit of the moment. So, Fr. Penton tapped me to help and, together, we gathered a broad-based group from around the Ignatian network and got to work.
One key question I kept coming back to as the group drafted and redrafted the document was: How might someone formed in Ignatian spirituality and a “faith that does justice” participate in civic and political life differently from someone who doesn’t have such a background? What could distinguish us? What gifts do we bring with us to the public square? In the document, we tried to highlight a few Ignatian concepts and resources that are relevant to civic participation. Here are three of my favorites:
Ignatian Detachment. There’s no question we are living in polarized times. Often, our political allegiances shape our faith and morals instead of the other way around. One of the great lessons of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola is that to have true spiritual freedom, we have to ask God to help us resist “disordered attachments”: attachments to certain persons, things or even ideologies that keep us from growing in faith, hope and love. In considering our document, we wondered: What if we prayed for the grace to be detached from our own partisan preference? Might that free us to enter into conversations with those who disagree with us, open to the idea that we might not always be right? That someone on the other side of the aisle could have something valuable to offer? What a huge shift in paradigm that could provide.
In a recent podcast interview that I conducted with noted Jesuit writer, Rev. Tom Reese, S.J., he suggested another way of applying Ignatian detachment or indifference to political life: What if we were truly indifferent to our own self-interest, and voted and advocated for policies based on how they would affect others, especially the most vulnerable? It’s easy to let our own self-interest drive our civic engagement instead of keeping those on the margins of society in our hearts and minds. With Ignatian detachment, this can become a regular habit.
The Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs). The Society of Jesus has adopted four UAPs to guide all Jesuit ministries across the world for the next decade. They are:
a. To show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment;
b. To walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice;
c. To accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future;
d. To collaborate in the care of our common home.
All of the UAPs have clear connections to our engagement in public life. The second one – to walk with those on the margins in a mission of reconciliation and justice – is especially important. It reflects Pope Francis’ image of a “culture of encounter,” in which we get to know persons and communities on the margins of society, develop authentic relationships with them, and then collaborate together to build a more just world. Political engagement disconnected from the reality of those who are oppressed, poor and vulnerable doesn’t live up to the Gospel values at the heart of the UAPs.
Discernment of Spirits. A hallmark of Ignatian spirituality is the discernment of spirits, which is more than just carefully considered decision-making (though discernment certainly includes careful consideration). “In discernment of spirits, we notice the interior movements of our hearts, which include our thoughts, feelings, desires, attractions and resistances,” writes Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J. (now president of Santa Clara University), in his book, The Ignatian Adventure. “We determine where they are coming from and where they are leading us; and then we propose to act in a way that leads to greater faith, hope and love.”
We can bring questions about political participation and important social issues to prayer and reflection – praying, in the words of Protestant theologian Karl Barth, with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Our decisions about whom to vote for, or how to get involved in working for a more just world, are big ones and benefit from real discernment.
As Election Day approaches here in the U.S., I hope you’re able to spend some time reading and discussing “Contemplation and Political Action.” And I hope this document helps the whole Ignatian family in our quest to find God in all things – even politics!