The night of the 2010 elections was a historic one for Republicans. They didn’t just recapture the House of Representatives; they stormed the place, picking up 63 seats in the biggest rout since 1938. So when John Boehner was sworn in as Speaker a few months later in January 2011, one might have expected him to take a victory lap in his first big address.
Instead, he used the most high-profile speech of his career to talk about ashes.
Boehner quoted the words spoken when the minister marks each forehead with burnt palm: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” He wanted to compare the humility inherent in that statement to the sense of responsibility felt by Republicans who were given great power in the 2010 election. In the process, Boehner also showed the extent to which he values his Catholic faith.
These last three years have been hectic for the Republican, who represents a district just north of Cincinnati, OH. The humility he espoused in 2011 has been tested, as he’s had public spats with President Barack Obama, House Democrats, and even members of his own party, particularly over his efforts to find common ground on immigration and budget reform.
The Speaker graciously took the time to respond to questions from Seminarian Casual regarding his faith, his life, and his political career. His insights give all Catholics a peek into how the third most powerful politician in the country lives his faith in the super-charged and over-heated public square.
A read of your biography shows that your early years were defined by your family’s practice of Catholicism as well as its blue collar roots. Is there a priest, religious sister, or lay person that stands out in those years that really inspired you in your faith and in your life?
Oh, gosh, there were lots of ‘em. But I’d have to start with [former Notre Dame head coach] Gerry Faust, my high school football coach. I’ve never met an individual who was, or is, more devoted to the Blessed Mother. He drilled into us the lesson that there’s nothing in life you can’t accomplish if you’re willing to work hard and make the sacrifices necessary to succeed. But there was a corollary to that lesson, which was that by making the most of yourself, you were serving the Blessed Mother and serving the Lord.
Some Catholic academics protested when you were invited to speak at Catholic University’s 2011 commencement because they felt you didn’t adhere to Catholic teaching on economic issues. Meanwhile, some conservatives and Catholics weren’t too happy with your support of some form of immigration reform. As Speaker, how do you balance the needs of the country, your Republican colleagues, your district, and your faith, all at the same time? Is there one that takes precedence?
I just try to be myself and to do what I believe is right. My faith is just a part of who I am. I’m pro-life, but that’s never been a political position for me; it’s just a part of who I am. I’ve always said that if you do the right things for the right reasons, good things will usually happen. Same goes for my position on immigration reform. I know what I believe is right, and I try to be an instrument for moving toward those goals.
I was very honored to give the commencement address at Catholic University, the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States. I gave an address that had nothing to do with politics or policy; it was about faith. There were some folks who tried to politicize my appearance, but I wasn’t going to diminish the message by taking the bait and responding. The pillars of our approach are things like fiscal responsibility; respect for life and the role of family; the dignity of the individual. The notion that a large, ever-growing federal government should be or can ever be the moral center of our society is at odds not just with what I and most of my constituents believe, but also with what the Church teaches. Cardinal Dolan sent a letter to our budget chairman, Paul Ryan, who’s a fellow Catholic, not long after I gave that commencement speech. It was very positive about the principles we were trying to uphold in our budget. I always encourage people to read that letter and to contemplate what he said in it. (Editor’s Note: Cardinal Dolan’s letter can be read here.)
In your Catholic University commencement address, you focused heavily on the need for humility, a virtue that Pope Francis has stressed and lived repeatedly. What are the challenges to living a humble life while working in politics, a profession most people don’t normally associate with that virtue?
Humility was actually the central theme of the very first speech I gave as Speaker of the House – my speech to the House on the opening day of the 112th Congress in January 2011. That was a very personal speech for me – a big moment in my life, obviously – and the things I said in those remarks were rooted openly in my Catholic faith. I talked about Ash Wednesday – “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – because I wanted it to be about humility, and I wanted to talk about it in the most direct and sincere manner I know. But it wasn’t a speech about me; it was a speech about the obligations of service.
Every year, I and my entire staff get together once a year for a retreat, where we spend a full day talking about our vision, our mission for the year, and the principles that define us as “Boehnerland.” One of our core principles, which we affirm every year, is the principle of servant leadership – leading by serving others. You can’t have servant leadership without humility. Humility is the core ingredient.
Our country was built on the idea of government serving the people, and in my mind, the biggest mistakes have happened when government has gotten away from that notion and turned it on its head. Those mistakes are easier to make when there’s a shortage of humility.
Since entering public life, has there been a moment or a decision that stands out where you were forced to lean heavily on your faith?
Yes. In fact, the first thing I think about was my decision to run for Congress itself. It was something I agonized over for months before I finally decided to do it. At the time I was splitting my time, serving in the state legislature and running my business, which was going really well. The idea of running for the U.S. House was tugging at me, but I kept asking myself – do you really want to do this? Why would you really want to do this? I put it in God’s hands. I went to Mass every morning for a month at my local parish, St. John, trying to discern what I was being called to do. Every morning for about a month it was me and these elderly ladies in the chapel, and I could feel them eyeing me, wondering what I was doing there! Father Phil Seher was our pastor, and I’m sure he remembers it. Ultimately I decided God wanted me to do it, and I was in. It was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make. Faith is what got me through it.
You’ve been in the House since 1991. Is it easier or more difficult to live your Catholic faith in the public square now than it was then? In this environment, do you have any advice for Catholics who wish to effect change on public policy issues?
I don’t think it’s really any more or less difficult now to live your Catholic faith in the public square than it was when I entered public service. All of us can be stronger in our faith and stronger in the way we incorporate faith into our daily lives, and the biggest determinant of how successful you are in doing that is you. I do think the new pope has generated some renewed excitement in the Catholic faith here in our country, and probably across the globe, which can only be a good thing. I’m very excited about him. I’m also grateful as a Catholic for what his predecessors, including Pope Benedict XVI, gave to the world and to our faith. And frankly, I’m grateful for every person who discerns a calling and chooses the priesthood or religious life as a vocation. You talk about servant leadership…these individuals embody it. They have our prayers and gratitude every day.
Update, 3/13: Boehner today issued an open invitation for Pope Francis to address the U.S. Congress, writing that Francis’ “tireless call for the protection of the most vulnerable among us … has awakened hearts on every continent.” In a statement, Boehner also conceded that while the U.S. “sometimes fails to live up to” the Church’s teachings on human dignity, freedom, and social justice as articulated by Francis, “at our best we give them new life as we seek the common good.” See Boehner’s full statement here.
Photo courtesy of the United States House of Representatives, available in the Public Domain via commons.wikimedia.org.