Tea Party or Occupy?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

I have a friend who’s fond of saying that I have a profound grasp of the obvious. You might agree with that observation when I suggest that our nation and our state are sorely divided these days.

We’re divided between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, unions and corporations, anti-pension-reform and pro-pension-reform, secularists and traditionalists. And now, a new split: Tea Partiers and Occupiers. By now you’re probably well aware of these two contemporary social, political movements.

The Tea Party and Occupy movements actually have a few things in common. Their followers are disenfranchised, unhappy with the status quo, especially the sorry state of the economy. They’re disappointed with the nation’s political leadership and its inexorable gridlock. They’re proud of their independent status and boast that they have no single leader, no identifiable structure. From that common ground, however, the two movements part ways rather quickly.

It’s risky to generalize about these two phenomena, but it’s safe to say, I think, that Tea Party followers tend to be older, more conservative and Republican. They’re more focused than their counterparts. They lobby for smaller government, fewer taxes and less spending. They rail against labor unions and those who promote big-government solutions to economic and personal problems. They believe that a free market place, unencumbered by taxes and regulations, will allow corporations to flourish and thus provide more jobs. Tea Partiers hold their marches and rallies and go home.

Adherents of the Occupy movement, on the other hand, tend to be younger, more liberal and Democratic. They believe that effective government is the answer to our problems, and they’re not opposed to increased funding for social programs that will help the poor. They speak of everyone, especially the wealthy, doing their part for the betterment of society. They rail against corporations and banks who rake in big profits without rewarding their workers or customers. While their passion is sincere their goals are vague. “Occupiers” do just that – they hold their marches and rallies and then pitch their tents to occupy public places to make a visual, dramatic statement.

I’m sure that both groups have some valid points, and both have some flaws. Ultimately what both are seeking, however, is “human development” and on this point the Catholic Church has plenty to say. What is this “human development” of which we speak? In simple terms, it’s the process by which human beings become all that God created us to be – in freedom and responsibility, in solidarity and fraternal concern, in spiritual and material prosperity.

Here it’s especially helpful to refer to Pope Benedict’s 2009 Encyclical, “Charity in Truth.” It’s a dense document, loaded with references to past Catholic social teaching. It addresses in sometimes sublime language the practical questions of human development, including specific issues such as business ethics, labor unions, globalization, technology, human life and the environment.

The basic premise of the Pope’s Encyclical is that authentic human development needs both charity and truth. “Charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine,” the Pope states. (#2) “Charity demands justice.” (#6) At the same time, though, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way.” (#3)

Human development isn’t a vague social construct; it’s the practical responsibility of every member of the human family; it’s a vocation. Pope Benedict quotes Pope Paul VI in saying: “In the design of God, every man is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is a vocation.” (#16)

One of the problems we encounter today is that various attempts at human development – or social progress if you prefer – too often take place in a completely secular, pagan, atheistic context. Such efforts – whether defined by Tea Partiers or Occupiers – are doomed to eventual failure because they have neither foundation nor direction.

In one of the most beautiful passages of his letter, Pope Benedict says: “Without God man neither knows which way to go, nor even understands who he is. In the face of the enormous problems surrounding the development of peoples, which almost make us yield to discouragement, we find solace in the sayings of our Lord Jesus Christ, who teaches us, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5) and then encourages us, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:20) The Pope concludes, “As we contemplate the vast amount of work to be done, we are sustained by our faith that God is present alongside those who come together in His name to work for justice.” (#78)

Despite the pressing problems we face today, too many folks tend to discard God from public life, citing the oft-abused principle of the “separation of church and state.” They banish God from classrooms and courtrooms, bedrooms and board rooms, thus proclaiming the primacy of the secular city. How hypocritical! While we exile God from our normal daily lives, we have no hesitation at all about running to Him like frightened children during times of personal suffering or national crisis. How pathetic is this image of modern man – flailing about in the darkness, looking for light! I sometimes wonder if God is angry or bemused by the apparent failure of His human experiment, by the coldhearted, empty-headed ignorance of His children.

So, Tea Party or Occupy? Pick your poison. In the end it really won’t matter if God isn’t part of the solution to our all-too-human problems.