Bishop's Column

Virtue and the common good

The presidential election of 2016, I am convinced, will be remembered as one of the most dispiriting periods in American history. The last few weeks of the presidential race have been characterized by a kind of mean-spiritedness, egoism, and unvarnished ambition for power—on both sides—that would have been unimaginable even just a few years ago.

Regardless of who becomes President, the past several months have made obvious how uncivil and vicious our public conversation can become when our leaders lose sight of basic human virtues.

In a dispiriting period like ours, it’s easy to become hopeless about the future of our country, and especially about the integrity of our civic leaders and institutions. In fact, that’s exactly what Satan hopes will come from a political contest like this one. The evil one tempts us to cynicism and despondency. He hopes to undo our patriotism, our trust in one another, and our commitment to collaborating for the common good. The evil one uses bad situations to rob us of our hope.

It helps, in a political season like ours, to remember and recognize that virtuous public leaders do still serve the common good, that public institutions can provide meaningful and just assistance to our state and our community, and that our voices, and our votes, still matter in public life.

It helps, once in a while, to turn from what’s broken in order to be thankful, and grateful, for the good that can be accomplished in public life, and by government leaders.

The Catholic Church has long taught that government has the responsibility to assist families trying to raise their children and live their vocation well, and to assist the poor, the elderly, and the physically and mentally ill. The principles of subsidiarity and solidarity call us to just that.

Subsidiarity calls governments to support the vocation of parents, and solidarity calls us to “friendship” and a “preferential option” for those facing hardships and need. The Church also teaches that governments need to be good stewards: spending money wisely, and not mortgaging the future for the sake of the present.

Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is charged with many serious responsibilities of subsidiarity and solidarity.  DHHS provides Medicaid assistance and administers the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, for those without access to medical care or nutritious food. DHHS serves military veterans, living in State Veterans’ Homes in Norfolk, Bellevue, Grand Island, and Scottsbluff.

Through the Aid to Dependent Children program, vulnerable and needy children are given opportunities and assistance, most especially the opportunity to qualify for well-paying jobs, and experience the dignity of supporting themselves through work instead of long-term dependence on public assistance. The Department’s Behavioral Health Division provides resources, services, and counseling to many of the 37,000 children in Nebraska who experience behavioral health disorders, and to parents and adults struggling with mental health challenges, or addictions.

The work of DHHS is a compliment to the Church’s own work to serve the poor and the vulnerable. DHHS serves foster children, and needy families, and those who find themselves on the margins of society—what Pope Francis calls the “existential peripheries” of our communities.  Their work is an expression of the government obligation of justice: giving that which is due to one other. It is also a commitment to the common good, to serve those in need. And it is an act of virtue and justice when state governments are good stewards of our financial resources.

For several years, Nebraska’s DHHS has been criticized for wasteful spending and inefficient service. Administrative issues kept needy families from service and from opportunities. But over the past few years, I have been grateful that Governor Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Legislature have made real efforts to bring efficiency, expertise, justice, and mercy to the work of DHHS.

In the past few years, Governor Ricketts, legislative leaders, and DHHS CEO Courtney Philips have worked together to build a new plan for service to Nebraskans in need of assistance. DHHS has developed new business plans, begun tracking the efficiency and accuracy of services, increased funds available to the neediest families, and increased school attendance and performance rates among needy children, accomplishing more for Nebraska’s children and needy families, while lowering costs to be good stewards.

We should place our hope in Jesus Christ, and Christ alone. But the Catholic Church believes that governments have a mission and responsibility, which comes from Christ, to serve the common good by supporting and recognizing the dignity and rights of every human being. Where our governments, and civic officials, are working to fulfill that mission, they ought to be recognized. And when governments work to act with virtue, we ought to be encouraged. 

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Bishop Conley

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