January 20, 2005
As George W. Bush takes his oath of office for a second term, the nation stops for a moment and watches. The swearing-in ceremony, the parade, the embassy receptions, the inaugural balls. All this makes for the 55th inauguration of the President as the United States begins anew. The military bands play. But their music does not silence the gunfire on the battlefield. Dressed to the nines, ladies and gentlemen of great distinction dine and dance at the receptions. And the homeless in their layered clothes continue to roam our streets seeking shelter and warmth. The world watches our extravagant outpouring of hope, even as they criticize our abundant generosity to nations and victims in need.
The media makes us so comfortably close to the President as he makes his vow before us.
"I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will try to the best of my ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." This is the only event of the entire inauguration that the U. S. Constitution requires by law. Thirty-five words unchanged from the 18th century, but always uttered in times that are different. A war continues. Terrorism breathes its angry threats. And a nation argues over values.
The right word. That’s what we want to hear. It need not be as long as the 8,494 word speech Harrison delivered in 1841. After two hours in an ice storm, he finished delivering the longest inaugural address. A month later, he was dead with pneumonia. This kind of enthusiasm we could use not just for the day, but also for four years of hard service to the nation.
We want hope spread out in deeds, vision worked out in non-partisan politics, and security at home and abroad. We gift every newly inaugurated President with the mandate Lincoln set out for himself in the greatest of all inaugural addresses—the mandate to lead us “to a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” When Lincoln uttered those words, the country was divided. We were at war. As President Bush takes his second oath of office, the world is divided and there is no peace.
Today we hold in our hands resources enough to invite all to share in God’s banquet of life and power enough to destroy life itself. We have advanced to where we can delude ourselves into thinking we can abrogate God’s place in his creation. We manufacture life for our purposes. We destroy life for our own convenience. A much different world from Washington’s 1789 inauguration in New York. The stakes are higher; the challenges greater.
Yet the next four years can make a difference. America needs to revive its fundamental “belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God” (John F. Kennedy, Jan 20, 1961).
No President enters office alone. His staff; his supporters; his party; the voters who placed him in office and the voters who didn’t---all join together to collaborate with him. Democracy works. It works well when there is honest dialogue and commitment to basic principles of justice and equality. In this regard, Catholics have a serious obligation to make a difference in the political life of the nation. Catholics as Catholic. Not every Catholic politician can claim to bring the moral values of the Catholic faith he or she professes to the serious issues facing our nation.
Some would separate politics and religion. People engage in politics and people have faith. A society where people divorce their deepest beliefs from the decisions that affect the common good is in the last stages of its life. “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserve to be counted among the more serious errors of our age (
Gaudium et Spes, 43).” We have no abiding city in this world. But it is in this world that we are called to work out those values and virtues that even now make us share in the peace of the world to come. A Catholic who neglects his or her civic duties or accomplishes them contrary to their faith is not loving God or neighbor.
Laws affecting poverty, capital punishment, health care and certainly embryonic stem cell research and abortion that kill human life are matters too serious to place politics over respect for the dignity of every human person and justice for all. No Catholic ever need be ashamed of the rich moral wisdom that resides within our tradition so well rooted in Sacred Scripture and the lived experience of the Church through the ages. Every Catholic can be rightly proud that we have something of value to give our society. Today a Catholic cannot naively follow a party line. The moral imperative cannot be labeled Democratic or Republican. When Washington took the oath of office for the first time, he added these words, “So help me God.”
May God help us all as we begin anew as a nation.