By Regis Martin
Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.
There is a section in Monsignor Luigi Giussani’s The Religious Sense in which he identifies various ways of escape people choose when confronted with questions of unwelcome ultimacy. For instance, the meaning of one’s own existence, about which a great many people appear to be strangely incurious. The section is called “Emptying the Question,” and in it he reproduces an exchange between a well-known Italian journalist named Augusto Guerriero, who writes a popular column on politics, and an anguished reader, who turns to him for answers to questions which have nothing to do with politics but which nevertheless painfully drive him to distraction. “I turn to you as the only one who can help me,” he writes. And documenting his difficulties, which include years spent as a prisoner of war, where he contracted tuberculosis, he pleads for a letter that “would be a great relief for me and would make me stronger. I ask you please to help me.”
How could Guerriero possibly refuse? Well, he doesn’t. But the letter he writes brings no relief whatsoever. “What good,” he asks, “would writing you a letter do? I only write about politics and what use would it be to write to you about politics? You need for someone to talk to you about other things, and I never write about those things, in fact, I never think about them, and it is precisely not to think about them that I write about politics…that, in the end, don’t mean a thing to me. In this way, I manage to forget myself and my misery. This is the problem: to find the way to forget ourselves and our own misery.”
The solution to one’s problems, then, is never to think about them, thus immersing oneself in so much aimless activity that one need never face life at all. Or death. Do not ask where your life’s going, just be sure to drive as fast and furious as you can to get there. The tendency, in other words, is to forget the end, or simply set it aside as too unsettling, in order to redouble the means. Pascal would have understood. “We run heedlessly into the abyss,” he tells us in the Pensees, “after putting something in front of us to stop our seeing it.” Thus, we tell ourselves that diversion alone can allay our miseries, not recognizing that, as Pascal again reminds us, “it is the greatest of our miseries. For it is that above all which prevents us thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to destruction.” By putting us to sleep, it anesthetizes us against having to ask real questions, e.g., Who am I? What is my life for?
Among the diversions with which we try and distract ourselves, politics is perhaps the most pressing. It is also ubiquitous. In fact, short of entering a Carthusian monastery, one cannot escape the fallout from it. “Decent people should ignore politics,” William Buckley advised back in 1965, “if only they could be confident that politics would ignore them.” Of course, he was running for Mayor of New York around then, so it obviously did not ignore him. Indeed, much of his life was consumed by politics, even as he would inveigh against it, labelling it as “the preoccupation of the quarter-educated.”
“If you can’t stand the heat,” Harry Truman used to say, “then get out of the kitchen.” And as everyone knows, the kitchen is where politics happens, so it is everywhere. What do we do about it?
The short answer is that we must not absolutize it. That is not a road we want to go down, for it is strewn with idols. No finite good, however necessary or noble, can carry such heavy freight.
Only God is worthy of sublime pursuit, only He warrants divinization. “Put not your trust in princes,” we are told in Scripture, “in the children of men, in whom there is no salvation.” Joe Biden will not save us. Nor will the whole woke apparatus he has loosed upon the nation. Only God can save us, which He is eager to do so long as we do not substitute some lesser good for Him.
If you want to save the world, which every young idealist aspires to do, it is best to begin at home; that way, having first tried to perfect yourself, you’ll then have something to offer the planet.
On the other hand, Christ having come to consecrate the whole of humanity, and politics being an inescapable part of the human world, it would be ill-advised to ignore politics entirely. Or, and this may be worse, to relegate it to others lest the exercise taint one’s soul. The fact is, religion, the life of faith, is part of the common human good, which it is the business of politics to look after and secure.
“Religion is not concerned solely with the future life,” Jean Cardinal Daniélou tells us in his remarkable little book Prayer as a Political Problem; “it is a constituent element of this life. Because the religious dimension is an essential part of human nature, civil society should recognize in it a constituent element of the common good for which it is itself responsible.” To deny this, he argues, “would be to fall victim to that most detestable form of idealism which separates spiritual existence from its material and sociological substratum.”
Politics, we are always to remind ourselves, is not God; to pretend otherwise is an affront to God. Nevertheless, politics may prove helpful in making it easier for us to get to God. Especially these days when it becomes more urgent than ever to remind the state of those things it may not do to its citizens.