In the terrible wake of the shootings in Tucson, Ariz., of 20 people and the murder of several, there has been a rush to try to explain or fix blame for the horror. It is an understandable impulse, for such an act to be virtually random in its madness seems to make a mockery of society’s efforts to impose order and reason on our world.  

The truth is, however, that as of this writing, we are hearing lots of speculation from the spin-meisters. A more considered judgment was offered by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the new head of the U.S. bishops’ conference: 

“While we as bishops are also concerned about the wider implications of the Tucson incident, we caution against drawing any hasty conclusions about the motives of the assailant until we know more from law enforcement authorities.” 

“Violence of any kind must be condemned,” he added. “When the target of a violent act is a public official, it shakes the confidence of the nation in its ability to protect its leaders and those who want to participate in the democratic process.” 

What the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords should do is provoke us as a nation to reflect upon public service and the sacrifices that our public servants, including political leaders, make. 

It was striking that, after news of the shooting broke, politicians of all political stripes mentioned how common it was to receive vitriolic threats directed not just at themselves but also at their families. Indeed, Federal Judge John Roll, a Catholic who had just gone to Mass before he was gunned down by the Tucson assassin, had received hundreds of threats in 2009 because he allowed a case to proceed against a rancher accused of assaulting 16 Mexicans who had tried to cross his land. 

This gave additional weight to the words of House Speaker John Boehner when he said that “an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.” That such threats are now seen as a routine cost of public service these days is evidence that something is seriously amiss in our democracy. 

This is all the more disturbing because we as Catholics value public service greatly. 

The Church fathers at the Second Vatican Council affirmed that “the Church considers worthy of praise and respect the work of those who, as a service to others, devote themselves to the public good and accept the burdens of this role.” Such burdens do not normally include the threat of assassination, but include the moral and civic responsibilities of representing one’s citizens in a wide variety of elected positions. 

Provocative rhetoric that “government is the enemy” too easily translates into “those who govern or who work on our behalf are the enemy.” It would behoove us as a nation to remind ourselves that political service on behalf of the common good is a vocation. While certainly there are politicians who are corrupt and venal, as there are in any profession, political service should be seen as one of the noblest professions of a democracy. Political leaders have the responsibility to defend the weakest and restrain the powerful, while at the same time giving voice to the needs and desires of their constituents. 

The Church has high expectations of our political leaders, and it encourages them to live up to their vocation by protecting the unborn, the elderly, the poor, the condemned, the immigrant and the ill. As Catholics we work to change the laws we oppose and to support the laws that further the common good. Yet our desire to change hearts and change laws will ultimately be successful to the extent that we help our leaders and our fellow citizens fully appreciate the great responsibility and privilege of public service on behalf of the common good.