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A conversation about faith with Lt. Governor Habib

Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib surprised onlookers last week when he announced that he would not seek re-election in the fall. That a 38 year old rising star would willingly depart from the political fast track seems unique in and of itself, but his next move is the real kicker.

At the end of his term, Lt. Governor Habib will enter the Society of Jesus, the Catholic Church’s largest religious order.

I spoke to the Lt. Governor to hear more about what led him to this point, both personally and philosophically. In giving up one form of seeking, what is Lt. Governor Habib seeking?

Michael Goldberg: While the primary subject of this interview is your choice not to seek re-election, I do want to begin by asking about the rapidly unfolding public health crisis. It seems that this a unique moment for faith. On one hand, I’m sure you have people that are relying on their faith more than ever and on the other, I’m sure you have people that are perhaps questioning anything that is divorced from the frankness of what heath experts are telling us. As a person of faith who works in the realm of public policy, I want to get your sense of the marriage between both at the moment. To what extent is the moral or ethical framework that you derive from your faith informing the way that you approach policy during this crisis?

Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib: Wow, you’re getting straight to Thomas Aquinas.”

MG: I’m trying to optimize my time here.

CH: I love it. So look, my spirituality is really rooted in finding God in all things. What that means is that the entirety of the universe we live in; all the disciplines; all the things we study; the accumulation of human knowledge; it’s all good and blessed and to be celebrated. If you look at the history of the Jesuits, you’ll find that the first scientist to articulate the Big Bang was a Jesuit priest. The person who discovered Peking Man, which helps us understand human evolution, was a Jesuit priest. 

The modern era of the church has been one that doesn’t turn away from, but actually celebrates scientific inquiry. I think nowhere is that more true than in the Jesuit order. When it comes to an issue like the crisis we’re living through right now what Pope Francis has said; what Archbishop Etienne from the Archdiocese of Seattle has said; what the superior general of the Society of Jesus has said; they’re all saying the same thing which is, we need to do medical, scientific and clinical research to find a vaccine. We also need to work with civil authorities, nonprofits, NGOs and the private sector to comply with the best and most informed public health strategy to contain and defeat this threat. So, there is no tension. I would say it is actually what my Jewish friends call a mitzvah. 

It’s great to investigate through science and there’s no one I know of in the hierarchy of the church that says, ‘let’s just sit at home and pray our way out of this,’ even though sitting at home is actually the best thing we can do. But nobody is saying we should just hope that God fixes this. God has given us curious minds and the tools to investigate.”

MG: In laying out your choice not to seek re-election you wrote that the best way for you to deepen your commitment to social justice is to reduce the complexity in your life. Can you walk me through some of the complexities that exist in the life of a public officer holder, particularly those that might divert you from social justice pursuits?

CH: I’m glad you honed in on that sentence because in many ways it’s the central point of that piece, but I actually wasn’t talking about the complexity of being a public official; I was referring to the complexity that everyone faces. This complexity is what the vows that you take in a religious order seek to strip away.

You take a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience; those are the three vows I will take, God willing, after the two year novitiate while traveling the path to ordination. Those vows are there to reduce the complexity. And I don’t mean the word complexity in a bad way, complexity just means that, for example, money has its place and is good and necessary, but it can also be a cause of stress and anxiety – often just as much for those who have a lot of money as for those who are struggling, but in very different ways. The same thing is true for the vow of chastity. It’s a very powerful statement of love to get married and to have a child. One could say maybe the most powerful expression of love we can have is to bring a child into this world and to raise that child with love. And yet, to be a minister to others in this very special way; that complexity could be a challenge. Not having those attachments, which in and of themselves are neutral or even quite good, allows you to give your life over to service in a more radical way.

It is countercultural, because think about all the signals society sends to us all the time. Money is a sign of success, poverty is a sign of failure. You look at billionaires and they are held up as successful in our society and automatically worthy of praise. Our society says it’s unnatural to have impulse control in our romantic lives. It is countercultural to say, “I want to give these things up.” And it’s not to be anti-culture, but counter. 

I do think that political life poses its own complexities layered on top of that which we all experience living in society. It is a deeply honorable profession and I have so much respect for the people who I’ve worked with, elected and non-elected. So this wasn’t in any way a repudiation or a rejection of that. But it is true that if you’re looking to have less complexity in your life anyway, regardless of whether you want to join a religious order, I’m not sure I would advise you to run for office. It’s a professional vocation that by its very nature involves competition; by its very nature involves thinking a lot about edifice and appearance, spin, and messaging. That’s just the way it is. But I want to make it clear that it’s not just these aspects of political life that I want to eliminate. I feel a calling to make a more radical change.”

MG: When you were 25 you converted to Catholicism. In doing so, I imagine you were seeking something, just as you are now. Can you talk about the parallels, if there are any, between the sense of seeking that you felt then and the sense of seeking that you feel now?

CH: It’s a very good question and a great way to frame it. That began when I was 22 and carried through to when I was formally received into the church when I was 25. I think of people not as being believers or nonbelievers, but if I have to categorize, it would be between who is seeking and who is not seeking. I put myself in the category of someone who is seeking. Which is to say, I think people often think ‘well I’m not a religious person’ or ‘I shouldn’t go to mass because I have these doubts.’ People often have this sense, and I think the Church doesn’t make it easy on them sometimes, that the place of worship isn’t for them because they don’t have perfect faith. The fact of the matter is, if you look at Mother Theresa or the great popes of recent history, all of them express doubts. And these are doubts from the holiest people. I wrestle with my faith at times, just like anyone. What’s important is this question: are you seeking? 

It’s a good alignment that you made there between those two moments because I would say what makes them similar is that prior to both of them I was kind of living on autopilot, really not confronting my own spiritual and emotional wellbeing. When I went to Oxford, because it was a very different pace than New York where I went to college, I had a lot more time and frankly, at times I was bored out of my mind. When I was invited by a friend in my Rhodes class to go to mass for the first time since I was a kid, I think I was open to that seeking experience. The experience of the mass which is so beautiful – the music, the liturgy, the atmospheric transcendence of it – created an opening in me where I could delve deeper. It created a slowing down and a silence in me where I could hear God’s voice. Not at first, but I became open to hearing it. It’s not like I was a terrible person, my parents raised me well etc, but I didn’t have a moral code that I could look to and say, for example, ‘that’s no way to talk to another person.’ 

Moving to today, I had kind of been on autopilot, getting positive feedback and just kind of moving up. I was experiencing happiness but it was pretty much limited to momentary joy. It was my father passing away in 2016, a health scare of my own and the kind of toxicity that became central to the political discourse that all intersected in 2017 to cause me to feel a significant sense of desolation. By hitting that low point, I was then able to realize that this was not bringing me joy. Because already as soon as I became Lt. Governor, I was thinking about running for governor or running for the Senate. I had a book deal that was in the works and all of these things, and it didn’t feel right to me. So that question allowed me to explore the question of what God, or even the universe, wants for me. What is my natural alignment with the world around me? That’s what led me to explore what would end up becoming this new vocation.” 

MG: I want to ask for your perspective on something that Pope Francis was quoted saying in the article you referenced on throwaway culture. He says “In the end, it is not simply a matter of ‘having more,’ but ‘being more,’ which demands a fundamental renewal of hearts and minds so that the human person may always be placed at the center of social, cultural and economic life.” One take on this idea of “being more” that I’ve seen is that being more is inherently linked to having more. In other words, people need to start from a baseline of security and stability before they meaningfully pursue causes external to their own well being. As a policymaker and as a person of faith, how do you reconcile that tension?

CH: There must be a german word for the feeling I’m having right now which is the expectation that I will later, after having studied theology, look back on this and cringe at how ineptly I answered this question. But it is what it is. 

Here’s how I see it. In the Catholic faith, and in many traditions, is the idea that we are corporeal; that our bodies matter. It’s so central to theology, this question of why it is that God took on a body. Why is it that that body is then sacrificially offered in the mass. It is a very gritty faith in that sense. It’s not an angelic conception of humanity, that we are these floating souls. It’s a very earthy religion in the sense of being very rooted in our bodies. That’s one of the reasons the body matters so much in Catholic teaching. When it comes to our spiritual well being and our ability to become our true selves, the well being of the body is a prerequisite. It’s not that Jesus just sits down with people and gives them spiritual guidance. He ministers through the body, he is touching people, he is healing people, he is literally mixing saliva with clay and using it to heal the body. It is a very physical conception of salvation and grace. 

The physical well being of our bodies of course relies on being able to eat, having shelter, clothing, health care and the security those necessities provide. You need that security so you can then begin to become who it is you’re called to be. The Church’s position on war, violence, human trafficking, and even economics are rooted in that. What Pope Francis has done through his leadership, he’s also connected this to the physical well being of our planet. Our bodies are in relationship with each other and they are in relationship with our environment. Again, this is not an angelic conception of religion. This is a religion that is realistic and rooted in our lived experience. When we damage the planet because of our use of fossil fuels and all the things we do to cause climate change; we are committing grave sin, because we are damaging our homes and our bodies.”  

MG: I know you’ve said that it’s too early to know where exactly your life as a Jesuit will take you but I’m wondering how far you’ve thought ahead, and whether you can imagine yourself returning to politics in the future?

CH: Since 1980, you are not allowed to be in elected political office if you are a priest. The last politician was Robert Drinan, congressman who represented what would go on to be Barney Frank’s district in Boston. You may know that Jerry Brown was a Jesuit, he left in the middle of formation to go into politics. John McLaughlin of the McLaughlin Report was a Jesuit, left to run for Senate unsuccessfully and then went on to start the McLaughlin Report, which for good or ill has given us the round table format for Sunday news shows. Pete Buttigieg’s father began the process of Jesuit formation and then fell in love with Pete’s mom and left. You’ll find people who have left, but my hope is that that won’t happen for me. So, I don’t think I’ll go into elected life. 

One of the things I’m really looking forward to is actually avoiding the question you’re asking. What you’re asking is what I’ve been trained to do, to always think about what comes next. What will be liberating for me is to just be mindful, be present, to learn and experience. In these years ahead I’ll be working at all different sorts of ministries; in prisons, hospitals, at the border, with former gang members, the elderly and more. Later, I may go abroad and participate in the Jesuit refugee service or the Jesuit volunteer corps. On top of that I’ll be studying. There will be many different ways to live out this vocation. I am excited to not have a specific strategy and to just put my trust in God and in the process that it will lead to the right path.” 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.