Politicians and pundits of every ideological persuasion are trying to frame the Occupy Wall Street movement in cities across the country and the globe for their own purposes. Both the White House and the Republicans are watching warily to see what political advantage they can squeeze from the movement in the run up to next year’s elections. Competing cable news networks are stoking the story by highlighting the extremists, and weighing whether they’re worse than extremists from the Tea Party movement. 

Intentionally or not, they’re all missing the point. 

The extremists themselves aren’t helping. Whatever message they might have is obscured by mobs defecating on New York City police cars, or, as in Rome, smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary. Or, in the case of the Tea Party, spitting on lawmakers or chanting racist slogans. 

The future of humanity is in the hands of those who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for life and optimism..

What is more significant than the outrageous acts of extremists, or even than their specific demands, is the fact that disaffection with the political process and with the social status quo has reached such levels — in some ways analogous to the unemployed movements of the Great Depression or the agrarian populist uprising of the 1870s. 

“We’ve simultaneously got a conservative populist movement and a progressive populist movement happening at the same time,” Rory McVeigh, director of the Center for the Study of Social Movements at the University of Notre Dame, told a columnist for the (San Jose, Calif.) Mercury News. “There’s a sense on both sides that it’s us against that unnamed force out there running the world. That there’s a cultural elite who doesn’t understand the average person.” 

The vision of a healthy democratic society laid out in Catholic social teaching holds an indictment and a challenge not just for our current political, business, media and social leaders, but also for every individual. 

For political leadership, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes this idealistic definition from the Second Vatican Council: “those who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for life and optimism” (No. 1917). A majority of Americans today believe (though this is just one small piece of the formula) that their children will suffer a worse standard of living than their own. 

Political authority must be exercised, says the “Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching,” “with those virtues that make it possible to put power into practice as service (patience, modesty, moderation, charity, efforts to share) ... by persons who are able to accept the common good, and not prestige or the gaining of personal advantages, as the true goal of their work” (No. 410). Legitimate political debate is one thing; the partisan rancor and self-serving gamesmanship in which Washington seems enmeshed is another. 

But in a democracy, whose leadership derives authority from the people, individuals bear ultimate responsibility. The Catechism lists exercising the right to vote as one of the three minimum duties of a citizen. In the 2010 U.S. general election, only 41 percent of eligible voters took the trouble. 

Catholics should be entering this election year with a renewed sense of purpose. Participate in local communities, get informed about the issues, read the bishops’ document on political responsibility — “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” — contact local representatives on important issues like recent encroachments on religious freedom and conscience protections, and don’t fail to vote in 2012. 

And lend a hand to those neighbors who are struggling. 

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.