The U.S. Catholic Bishops tell us that in the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is “a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do.” They also remind us that “it is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person. . . . As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life’ (nos. 1913-1915). Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.
With this in mind, John Fahy reminds us why it is our duty, as Catholics, to answer that call to Participation.
Do you detect election fatigue already? Certainly among my friends and family, I sense a dissatisfaction that I haven’t noticed in years past. It seems that no matter which candidate wins November’s election, just about everyone is prepared to move abroad and consign the country to the dustbin of history.
Our faith calls us to do better — to participate in the advancement of the common good, together with our fellow men, even in tough situations like these. This newsletter’s themes of community and participation touch on topics of great importance in a politically challenging year like this one. In this article, let’s take a look at a few myths about political participation, answered from the Catholic Social Tradition.
Myth: Our political participation is a matter of personal taste and judgment: you support your causes, I support mine, and nobody’s really right or wrong.
Sometimes, wanting to avoid political controversy, we might retreat to a kind of polite relativism. “You have the right to support that cause, and I have the right to support mine. No need to argue.” But this thinking may incline us to believe that “the voice of the people” is nothing more than the sum total of those individual tastes—a gentler version of might makes right, something akin to voting on American Idol. Indeed, even the structure of our democratic practices might encourage that kind of individualistic thinking. Private ballots and the taboo against political conversation imply that nothing outside ourselves should influence our politics—it’s my vote, my voice. Media bias may encourage us in a kind of insularity that approaches individualism. While prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (today Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) called this stance a mistaken “ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law.” On this view, “citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.” Some believe such pluralism to be the very foundation of democracy, he wrote — but it should not be so!
Reality: There are right and wrong political choices. Our political participation is a matter of understanding and applying universal moral principles. Some political behaviors are virtuous and meritorious, and others can be downright sinful. We aren’t absolved of our moral duties just because this is politics.
Ratzinger continues, “By fulfilling their civic duties, guided by a Christian conscience, in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values…” (emphasis mine). Put the other way around, unchristian values don’t get a pass because it’s election season.
The USCCB, in 1998’s Living The Gospel of Life, emphasized this point. “Today, Catholics risk cooperating in a false pluralism. Secular society will allow believers to have whatever moral convictions they please — as long as they keep them on the private preserves of their consciences, in their homes and churches, and out of the public arena. Democracy is not a substitute for morality, nor a panacea for immorality. Its value stands — or falls — with the values which it embodies and promotes. Only tireless promotion of the truth about the human person can infuse democracy with the right values… American Catholics have long sought to assimilate into U.S. cultural life. But in assimilating, we have too often been digested. We have been changed by our culture too much, and we have changed it not enough.”
Myth: Political participation is or ought to be a secular endeavor.
Some believe that the Church should play no role at all in political life. Even as individual Christians, we may hesitate to bring our religious convictions to bear on our political work. We may feel confident making personal choices on Catholic principles, but we uneasy making political choices on those same grounds. There’s certainly a pressure to set aside our religious values for the sake of public secularity. Perhaps a misunderstanding of the American value of the “separation between Church and State” is at play here; but no matter the cause, the Church insists otherwise:
Reality: Political action is a demand of the Gospel, and an opportunity to help God’s kingdom come.
The Synod of Bishops, in 1971, published a seminal text on social justice and the Church, called Justice in the World. They write that “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.” The Church has a role to play in transforming the world, but even in political life?
In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the quadrennial document on the political responsibility of Catholics, the USCCB says yes: “the obligation to teach the moral truths that should shape our lives, including our public lives, is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ… Civil law should fully recognize and protect the right of the Church and other institutions in civil society to participate in cultural, political, and economic life without being forced to abandon or ignore their central moral convictions.”
Even we individual citizens, when we participate in politics, do the very work of the Church. “We relate to the civil order as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, whose reign is not yet fully realized on earth but demands our unqualified allegiance. It is as citizens faithful to the Lord Jesus that we contribute most effectively to the civil order” (Faithful Citizenship). We don’t turn off the faith to turn on our citizenship. “This is what Jesus meant when He asked us to be leaven in society. If we are leaven, we must bring to our culture the whole Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy. That is our vocation as believers” (Gospel of Life).
Myth: All political issues are equal in importance.
In the political competition of an election, it can be tempting to try to weigh the positive and negative qualities of each candidate; this is especially true when, as now, no candidate accurately and completely represents Catholic social thinking. “Candidate X is right on three issues, Candidate Y is right on three issues, so it’s a wash.” The Church teaches otherwise…
Reality: When making political decisions, some issues should count more than others.
First and foremost are those issues which imply an irreverence for man himself. Gaudium et Spes mentioned these: “whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed.”
A similar list, with more precise policy recommendations, can be found in Faithful Citizenship nos. 63-90. This section is nearly impossible to summarize well, and is really a must-read for any Catholic wanting to conform his or her political action to the teachings of the Church.
Myth: Catholics must vote.
“If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” they say. In the early 2000s, the “Vote or die!” slogan grew popular. It seems to me that not voting is understood to be a failure of the worst kind — a mortal sin in the American ethic. I suppose that we Americans find voting an essential part of our story — a symbol of our throwing off of monarchy. To avoid voting is to somehow insult democracy, and to insult democracy is to insult America itself. To Americans, voting appears basically sacred. However, the much older and more diverse Catholic tradition offers both explicit and implicit reasons to doubt this sacralization of the democratic process.
Reality: There are times where abstaining is legitimate.
Though it would be hard to develop this line of thinking fully in the short form of this article, we should note that the Church’s magisterium has, in the past, expressed mixed views on the democratic form of government in general. While bishops have usually taught their people to vote, as ours do in Faithful Citizenship, they have also sometimes prohibited Catholics from voting in cases where their vote would formally cooperate with an evil or broken political system.
I’ll be the first to admit that these times are rare, but they are made explicit, even in today’s USCCB writings: “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
Are we in such a time now, wherein all candidates hold a position that promotes intrinsic evils? I think we probably are. The question for Catholic voters is which of those options to take — whether to respond with abstention or with careful minimization of harm. None of this is to deny that Catholics must be involved in the political and public life of their nation, as described above, but only to remind us that voting isn’t the only way — and may not be the best way — to do so.
It’s tough to sum up such a complex topic as our political participation. Participation in public and political life is our duty, because we are our brothers’ keepers. It is part of our Christian vocation to transform the world and usher in the reign of God. We cannot cease to be Catholics when we begin to be voters, or lobbyists, or Republicans, or Democrats. As election season picks up steam, I strongly suggest that we not despair! Instead, read Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, as well as other magisterial texts on the topic, many of which are linked above, and find faithful, educated, sincere Catholics to discuss the issues with. May God bless us all in our vocation as political participators, and may God bless our nation as we work to improve the common good.
John Fahy has a Master’s degree in Theology, and he is a member of the theology faculty at Strake Jesuit College Prep. With his wife Angelica and their three children, John is grateful every day to live and work in holy communities like Jesuit and St. John Vianney.
Now that we know what that call to family, community and participation entails, we invite you to reflect on the following questions. These questions are proposed by the USCCB as a method for reflecting on how each of us, as individuals and collectively, respond to that call and work towards the common good.
- Do I try to make positive contributions in my family and in my community?
- Are my beliefs, attitudes, and choices such that they strengthen or undermine the institution of the family?
- Am I aware of problems facing my local community and involved in efforts to find solutions? Do I stay informed and make my voice heard when needed?
- Do I support the efforts of poor persons to work for change in their neighborhoods and communities? Do my attitudes and interactions empower or disempower others?
To conclude this section, we leave you with a brief reflection by Father John Morfin on the Last Judgement (Matthew 25:31-46). Father Morfin’s reflection on this topic goes to the very heart of the principles of family, community and participation, answering the age-old question commonly heard when addressing this topic: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ We think that his answer happens to be spot-on:
Dare we do something about the pressing social needs of our time for the glory of God and the good of humanity? Those who helped and those who hurt had one common response to the situation in this parable of our Lord. “Lord, when? When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” Goodness is not a sudden blaze of glory. It is not an announcement in the parish bulletin or a plaque on the wall. Goodness is done for the glory of God and for the good of the people. That is reward enough. Am I my brother’s keeper? The answer is no. That smacks of manipulation and control. I am my brother’s brother, for Jesus is a brother to us all.