John Heard: Beware reform for reform’s sake

25 Jun 2008

By The Record

Hillary Clinton was right to mock.

In a speech delivered on February 24, 2008, she said:
“Let’s just get everybody together, let’s get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect…”
Certainly, she had a better grip of the mechanics of serious reform than her rival for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama. His supporters chanted “Yes We Can” as though they thought change might come about through sheer force of numbers, or voter intensity.  
Big changes in politics, of course, don’t just happen – people make them happen. Good people must pursue reform, and they must vote for justice. Then, once a better order is established, good people must fight to prevent any backslide to the bad old days.
This is, however, also just one way of describing a particular sort of politics. Hopeful chants belong to another tradition, one that says where people indicate that they are tired of politics-as-usual – whether because it has become particularly shrill, or it is needlessly divisive they will rally for more fundamental change.
So Barack Obama is right too.
To say that things don’t need to be so fraught, that they don’t need to be as divided as they have been; to press for individual voters to mass together, and to change the shape of things to come – this is not fantasy.
It is, rather, a general election theme now, and common to both competing presidential campaigns.
Indeed, change has become a bipartisan mantra, and John McCain – an American war hero and Republican maverick – certainly has a claim to its power too.
So regardless of the candidates’ serious policy differences, and the ambiguity of the polls, American voters appear to be heading together into a rare “change” election.
The first thing good people (and Catholics) should note, however, is that a valid mandate for reform need not lead to a valuing of change for its own sake.
As GK Chesterton wrote: “…reform implies form. It implies that we are trying to shape the world in a particular image; to make it something that we see already in our minds.”
“Evolution”, he went on, “is a metaphor from mere automatic unrolling” while progress “is a metaphor from merely walking along a road-very likely the wrong road”.
Catholic voters, in particular, should be wary of appeals for reform that might degenerate quickly into less worthy changes. They must interrogate the candidates’ claims, to see if they will really be able to secure reform. They must then monitor any developments after the election.
They must, in this way, do the hard work of reform, even while hoping for a new dawn.
For Catholics know, of course, that the basic goal of any humane politics is flourishing, and we know the shape of a just society.
When our imaginations and intellects fall short, there are authoritative statements from the Popes. These rich teachings can help voters discern what real reform looks like, and the Church’s social teaching provides a road map for the journey toward greater justice.
Further, bishops’ conferences everywhere publish simple election guides for Catholic voters, and these list key concerns, alongside the relevant Catholic moral teachings.
We know what is right, then – the culture of life, enlightened stewardship of nature, economic / job prosperity, just war, and lasting peace – and we should vote for it.
In this context, Catholic voters could do worse than to take to heart a speech on democracy given by Cardinal Gibbons. The illustrious Archbishop of Baltimore, taking possession of his Titular Roman See (Santa Maria in Trastevere) on March 25, 1877 said:
“For myself, as a citizen of the United States, and without closing my eyes to our shortcomings as a nation, I say, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection, without interfering with us in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Christ.
“Our country has liberty without licence, and authority without despotism.
“She rears no wall to exclude the stranger from among us.
“She has few frowning fortifications to repel the invader, for she is at peace with all the world.
“She rests secure in the consciousness of her strength and her good will toward all.
“Her harbours are open to welcome the honest emigrant who comes to advance his temporal interests and find a peaceful home.”
American Catholics should be able to say the same thing as a result of this election.
Indeed, after any election in which their preferences make a difference, Catholic voters everywhere should be able to describe theirs as a democracy that has moved toward this ideal.
Where no one candidate fits the bill, Catholic voters must weigh their votes carefully, but let each Catholic’s vote bring his country closer to perfection, justice, and peace.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.


John Heard