Prudential voting in bad times

Sixty years ago, Father John Courtney Murray, SJ, published what I regard as the finest Catholic analysis of American democracy ever penned: We Hold These Truths – Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. In recent decades, Father Murray has been accused of being an uncritical celebrant of the United States. That unjust charge is decisively refuted by the most pungent sentence in We Hold These Truths, which I shall cite in a moment.  

In his wide-ranging book, Murray examined the deterioration of the moral and cultural foundations of American public life, a process he thought had been underway for some time. Mainline Protestantism could no longer help buttress those foundations; its doctrinal and moral confusions were part of the problem, not the solution. Nor could the country rely on its great centers of higher education for cultural ballast; the prestige universities, Murray wrote, had abandoned the classic philosophical and moral traditions of the West,  settling comfortably into the dual ruts of pragmatism (“What’s right is what works”) and utilitarianism (“What’s good is what’s useful”). The notion that freedom was having the right to do what we ought – meaning that genuine freedom is always tethered to truth and ordered to goodness – was being supplanted by the thin and dangerous notion of freedom as willfulness.

What would happen, Murray asked, if those baleful tendencies won the contest for American culture? What would happen if Americans decided that democratic self-governance was simply a matter of political and legal machinery, rather than the cultural accomplishment of a virtuous people? If Americans decided that truth and goodness had nothing to do with politics and law? If Americans no longer believed that the laws we make are under the judgment of the moral law written on the human heart? What would happen, Murray warned, was not going to be pretty: “…the noble many-storeyed mansion of democracy will be dismantled, levelled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged.”

Anyone who hears, here, a premonition of what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism” is not imagining things. 

I am not a doomist. There are reservoirs of goodness in the American people – including a sense of mutual obligation I’ve witnessed many times during the pandemic. There are powerful sources of national renewal to be found in an honest telling of the American story and in the moral commitments and political ideas of the Founders and Framers (read Washington’s Farewell Address for a glowing example). At the moment, however, those sources of renewal are not being effectively deployed. Why?

Because academic leaders have been cowed by cancel culture totalitarians who take their stage cues from Stalin and Mao Zedong. Because too much of corporate America, including virtually the entire sports-and-entertainment complex, has not only surrendered to political correctness but actively promotes it. Because elective public office these days tends to attract the screamers and ideologues, not the men and women of reason. Because too few religious leaders have found the public vocabulary necessary to summon the nation beyond bitterness and retribution; how many times have you heard the words “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” invoked these past six months by those whose primary public tasks include calling the country beyond accusation and hatred? 

What is the thoughtful Catholic voter, who understands that the Church’s social doctrine cannot be confined in any partisan box, to do in this election cycle?

While all the cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, courage, and moderation – play a role in religiously serious citizenship, prudence is arguably the virtue most relevant to making electoral choices in 2020. The country is bitterly divided and irrationality stalks the land. Local officials are gravely defaulting on their responsibilities by refusing to maintain public order. There are two deeply flawed candidates for president, either of whose election portends more trouble. America needs time to renew itself by creating a more sober, rational and decent public square.

That renewal will be more difficult if the Democratic Party wins the presidency, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. House of Representatives – and is thus able to enforce the agenda of lifestyle libertinism and intolerant “tolerance” to which its platform commits it, especially in matters of the sanctity of life and the conscience rights of believers. As the House will certainly have a Democratic majority in 2021-2022, prudence dictates maintaining a Republican Senate, irrespective of who is elected president. 

There are moments when a unified federal government is essential. This is not one of them.

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.