Looking Back and Looking Ahead

With a fulltime schedule as a pastor and professor and amidst a fraught political environment, I didn’t have the time or inclination to blog this past fall. Now, in the interregnum between semesters – having submitted my grades yesterday – I thought I would weigh in with a look back and a look ahead to 2021. I do so from beautiful Northwestern Wisconsin, which is bathed in fresh snow and kind light.

2020, what a year – glad it’s gone! There is much to hope for in 2021, including restored health and a brighter future. Which brings me to the first takeaway from 2020 and hope for 2021. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that a deep and capacious value of liberty attends our American culture and spirit – it has from the beginning. Where we struggle as Americans is in our embrace a libertarian ethic that is not coupled with an equal pursuit of social solidarity. Catholic social teaching, as it often does, helps maintain dynamic tension among seeming polarities – with autonomy and social solidarity near the top of the list of those most important for our social flourishing.

The pandemic has revealed that in many places and among many of our citizens, the emphasis is placed on autonomy, to the exclusion or diminishment of social solidarity. A pandemic is like a brisk jog on a treadmill – it reveals at times underlying issues of unhealth in the social body. The failure to wear masks and take other precautionary measures, as thousands of our citizens are dying from COVID, is but one example. The failure to acknowledge, accept or, more importantly, confront persistent racial injustice is another example of the privation of social solidarity in the United States. Hopefully, the events of 2020 will help bend the long arc of history more steadily and effectively to justice in America.

There are also countless examples of many citizens in the medical profession and front-line workers putting their lives on the line for others – their fellow citizens and those who share a common humanity. Multiple moving stories and acts of valor reveal the best of humanity and what can be, going forward. Having just taught 24 law students in my Catholic thought, law and policy course, I am encouraged and hopeful that the younger generations place greater value on social solidarity than previous generations. Then again, this may be a self-selecting group….time will tell. As I have seen this value among many young Americans and young Catholics, my hope for a brighter and more just future is not dashed too easily.

My second takeaway from 2020, is how important an integrated life is for personal happiness and collective flourishing. I was struck this past fall by how Patricia O’Hara, former dean of the Notre Dame law school, summed up her colleague Amy Coney Barrett – she said Amy Coney Barrett is a woman who leads an integrated life of mind, heart and soul. Integration has been key to her success in so many facets of her life – as a jurist, professor, wife, mother and colleague. Many commentators focused on the differences between ACB and RBG, the distinguished jurist whose seat on the Court she filled. Notwithstanding their differences, including on the important issue of abortion, I noted their similarities, which were striking – whip smart, both having graduated first in their respective law school class, each shaped by their respective faith, both placing great emphasis on the importance of family and each demonstrating great care for their role as a colleague.

In contrast to the integrated lives described above, Jesus in New Testament and the Second Vatican Council Fathers spoke of the perils of disintegration – the later, in Gaudium et Spes, calling the divided life one of the greatest errors of the modern day. This is the reason why the Greek philosophers contemplated the possibility of philosopher kings – the bet being that their well-ordered souls would help build a more just and peaceful social life. While I am not advocating this course for American life and while all of us wounded by original sin struggle with the divided life to some degree, we have all seen on full display that chaos and tumult abound when unhealthy and disintegrated people assume important offices of leadership. Sadly, this same dynamic of the divided life and attendant harm has also been seen far too often among Church leaders. Looking ahead, a healthier future requires healthier leaders.

Finally, looking ahead, brings me to a point I have made often in my preaching the last number of months at Our Lady of Lourdes. As we contemplate the aftermath of the pandemic and the need to respond to injustices that have been manifested through this season of unhealth, Catholics are uniquely positioned to lead and accompany a wounded nation to a place of healing and greater health. As Catholics, we have so much in our toolkit…. or perhaps more aptly, our doctor’s kit. The teachings and inspiration of Jesus, the grace of the sacramental life, the light and wisdom of Catholic social teaching and the leadership and vision of Pope Francis. But we will not fulfill our strong potential to help heal and restore this wounded nation without first committing to lives of holiness, prayer, integration and social solidarity.

Mary, the Mother of God, who Catholics honor today, lived these virtues and thus was well disposed to say yes to God’s audacious plan to bear the Christ child to the world. We would do well to call on Mary’s fruitful intersession as we look ahead to the coming year with hope.

Happy New Year!