Four principles for Catholics during election season

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Every four years, Catholics face an intense dilemma in regard to the vote. There are ardently Catholic Democrats who wonder how their co-religionists could possibly choose a Republican candidate, and there are ardently Catholic Republicans who express precisely the opposite opinion. And both sides, typically, look with eagerness to their bishops and priests to resolve the tension. Each presidential election cycle, the Church endeavors to clarify the issue, usually to the satisfaction of very few. However, under the rubric of “once more unto the breach, dear friends,” let me try to provide some direction by articulating four basic principles.

First, Catholic social teaching clearly goes beyond the split between Republican and Democrat, between liberal and conservative, and therefore corresponds perfectly with neither political camp. Anyone who says that either of our political parties perfectly, or even adequately, represents Catholic social thought is simply misinformed. Broadly speaking, the Democratic Party advocates a number of themes and principles reverenced by the Catholic tradition: concern for the underprivileged, for the migrant and refugee, and for the environment, as well as opposition to capital punishment and to all forms of racism. And again, broadly speaking, the Republican Party sides with Catholic teaching in a number of ways: opposition to abortion and euthanasia, defense of the traditional family, advocacy for conscience protection and freedom of religion. Which of the two parties is more “Catholic?” It seems to me impossible to adjudicate the question in the abstract.

Are we left, therefore, simply in a lurch? Not quite, and this leads to the second principle I would like to explicate: among the various values mentioned, a priority must be given to the defense of human life, since life is the most fundamental good of all, the one without which the other goods wouldn’t obtain. Therefore, in the political calculus of a Catholic, opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment should take pride of place. Now, just to keep things complicated, Republicans are relatively right in regard to the first two and Democrats in regard to the last one, though, to be sure, the number of those threatened by abortion and euthanasia is far greater than the number of those under threat of capital punishment. Sometimes people will say that all lives are equally sacred, but in this context, that observation is something of a red herring. For the relevant question is not which lives are more sacred—those of the unborn, the elderly, the poor, the migrant—but which lives are more direly and directly threatened.

And this leads to a third principle: a Catholic may never vote for a candidate because that candidate supports a morally repugnant position, only despite that support and only because of balancing considerations. Thus, for example, a Catholic in good conscience could never say that she will vote for Joe Biden because the Democrat is pro-choice, and by the same token, a Catholic in good conscience could never say that he will vote for Donald Trump because the Republican is for capital punishment. Each would have to say some version of “despite his unacceptable position, I will vote for him because, in prudence, I have determined that other commitments of his and/or his own character counter-balances his objectionable opinion.” Does this lead us into somewhat murky waters? Frankly, yes, but that’s necessarily the case when we’re dealing not with matters of principle but matters of prudence.

And this last statement conduces to my fourth and final proposition: Catholics ought never to disagree in regard to moral principles, but they can indeed legitimately disagree about the best means to instantiate those principles. So, for example, I think that every Catholic in America ought to embrace the political ideals that I identified above, some more characteristic of the left and others of the right. Every Catholic ought to be for protecting the environment, serving the poor, defending the traditional family, battling social injustice, advocating for religious liberty and freedom of conscience, etc. But not every Catholic is obliged to subscribe to the same means of attaining those ends. Liberal and conservative Catholics can disagree about the Paris Climate Accords, the legitimacy of off-shore drilling, the advisability of reforming our health-care system, changes to our tax laws, the level of the minimum wage, the best policy in regard to Wall Street regulation, etc., etc. Those latter issues are open to legitimate debate and are matters for prudential judgment.

Perhaps I might, in closing, not so much propose a fifth principle, as deliver myself of a cri de coeur: Vote! Some Catholics are tempted—and I will admit to feeling the tug of this temptation—that because things are so complicated politically for those who advocate Catholic social teaching, it is best to say, “a plague on both your houses,” and keep to the sidelines. But this is not a tenable position. In the Lord’s Prayer, we petition, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Gospel message does indeed draw us ultimately to eternal life on high with the Lord, but it also has real-world implications here below. If we Catholics don’t involve ourselves in the political process, as messy as that often is, we permit Catholic social teaching to remain a set of harmless abstractions.

Featured Photo by Parker Johnson on Unsplash

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.