It is entirely possible that we have now had a surfeit of American politics. As a Catholic, however freshly minted, one wonders if this is a good thing. One emerges from the experience (if one can emerge) feeling as if one had been cooped in a vat of molasses for too long—tarred, to all appearances, and artificially sweetened by thick rhetorical syrup. In an age when even monasteries and convents appear to be plugged into the Internet (I know this because I get e-mails from monks and nuns), where can you hide?
Not from the Nanny State. It may have been possible in other centuries to live without even thinking about our earthly lords and masters, happy in the belief that someone else was taking care of things above our station. But the paradox is now complete: Political freedom leads to democracy, democracy to bureaucracy, and bureaucracy to the loss of personal freedom. (That is not an argument against democracy, incidentally, which remains the “worst system except for all the others”; more a counsel of despair.)
Politics, politics: I have begun to appreciate those “swing voters”—the ones who don’t know a whole lot about what is going on around them, who would have difficulty reading a newspaper, who would have difficulty finding the United States on a map of the world, to say nothing of their polling station. They leave it to the last possible moment to decide for whom to vote and then probably blow it by pulling the wrong lever. But the beauty of it is: They will never know.
I used to despise such people, suspecting in my heart that they would vote for the other side. But it is per-haps a mark of spiritual progress that I’m beginning to suspect they are wiser than I shall ever be.
Prayer helps; prayer always helps, but of course one must pray for the right thing. In my anxieties before the U.S. election—which I sincerely believed to be the most consequential election anywhere in my lifetime—I found myself praying for George W. Bush, almost to excess. I would not myself have cared so much about him had it not been for what happened on 9/11. That event knocked a lot of frivolity out of all my political judgments.
But the operative expression in the Lord’s Prayer is, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done,” and it ap-plies to everything.
“God doesn’t require you to succeed; He only requires that you try,” in the higher platitude of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We do what we can in the grand project of ameliorating the mess of this world. But God has His plan, and it remains above our station.
I found myself retreating to this view while retreating into the 15th century. I picked up a copy of the first volume of Commentaries by the great humanist Pope Pius II. (It is another of the little paradoxes of post-modernity that this fine scholarly translation is coming out of Harvard, which is some distance outside the Church.)
And Pius II was another who had his “9/11 moment,” not entirely different from our own. For him it was the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. It changed his entire view of the contemporary political situation in Europe, and on his elevation to the papacy in 1458, his first act was to issue an eloquent Crusade Bull, calling upon all Christendom to link arms against the Islamic advance.
He died, in 1464, at Ancona where, though old and ill, he had gone personally to lead the Christian forces and shame the uncooperative rulers of Europe (especially the maneuvering Louis XI of France). At what was meant to be a grand rendezvous of Christian forces, he found a few faithful straggling Hungarian soldiers, and then some proud but tattered Venetian galleys came into view. The cause was hopeless. But he tried.