Four principles for Catholics during election season

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: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.