How does one do the right thing, and more importantly, what is the right thing? This seems to be the dilemma many Catholics are facing during this uncertain political season.
As the United Kingdom proved on the eve of June 24, when majority voted to leave the European Union, anything, even the completely unexpected, can happen in politics. However, this historic event also proved another, more important point: voting absolutely matters. As the United States approaches Election Day on Nov. 5, the political climate is perhaps more uncertain than ever.
The good news is that the Catholic Church, historically and statistically speaking, has proven itself to be a crucial element of the democratic process. Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter, wrote in a February article titled “The Catholic Vote in 2016” that Catholics “…are important because they have voted for the winner of the popular vote in almost every presidential election since Roosevelt,” and that they are “often pointed to as the preeminent swing voters who can decide an election,” with the caveat that political parties typically don’t focus much campaigning on swing voters during presidential elections.
From state politics to priesthood
Father Ron Cattany, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, is no stranger to politics. In August 2009, at the ripe age of 55, Father Cattany retired from a long and fruitful career working for the state government as a natural resource official, but instead of retreating to an island resort for the remainder of his days, he entered the seminary and was ordained a priest in May 2013.
Father Cattany has observed that in modern culture, the civil law and moral law are growing farther apart, he said, and the reason for this is because people seem to confuse civil laws for moral laws.
“There’s a common perception in our culture right now that if you follow the civil law, you’re living a moral life,” Father Cattany said. “A lot of that is because people have gotten away from the fundamental values of a moral life.”
He stressed that in order for Catholics to be effective in the political process, they themselves must first live the moral life by means of properly formed consciences and solid faith formation.
“The deeper we get into living the moral life, the better reflection we get of our own life and where we may live a life of nuance on a number of these issues as to be definitive in terms of what’s right and wrong,” he said. “We have to come to terms with that within ourselves first because any way we live this out within the public square, we’re going to be challenged.”
‘Do the right thing’
To effectively illustrate how to do this, Father Cattany recounted an experience he had while working in the public sector. One day, he stormed into his boss’ office, worked up about a particular issue, and his boss gave Father Cattany what he called a “dad look” and simply told him, “Just do the right thing.”
This simple command, which Father Cattany acknowledged is not as simple as it seems, needs to be the basis for the way in which Catholics become involved in politics, he said.
“That’s what we’re confronted with now in the political sphere. How do we do the right thing?” he said. “The way we do the right thing is by living it first of all, and living it in a way that in living those principles, we have a joy in our articulation of these issues that shows that we’re looking at something better, that we’re looking at truth defined by Jesus Christ.
“It all becomes very personal. It’s sort of the opposite of the pharisees, who were the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ crowd. We have to apply to ourselves the principles, the beliefs, the actions and the faith that we’re asking somebody else to do as well. And we don’t do it in a wishy-washy way, we don’t do it in an accommodating way, we do it in terms of ‘this is the right thing.’”
These principles don’t solely apply to Catholic voters, either. Father Cattany challenged politicians to examine their own conscience and motivations in running for office.
That’s what we’re confronted with now in the political sphere. How do we do the right thing?” -Father Ron Cattany, former state executive and pastor of the Denver Cathedral
“Is the goal to build a career out of [politics], or is the goal to do the right thing? These become tough choices for politicians,” he said.
Ultimately, Father Cattany thinks that the goal of politics in any form is to effect real change and instill a set a values within society that properly aligns with what Christ taught, and the only way to do this is for Catholics to do the right thing by truly living their faith.
“We change lives one at a time,” he said. “We do that in ministry, we do that in social outreach, and the reality is we probably do that in politics as well, and it may very well be that faith, even at the political level, ends up being a lived experience.”
An enduring presence
Father Cattany also acknowledged that some Catholics may find themselves uneasy as they step into the voting booth this year, if for no other reason than they may be forced to choose between two controversial candidates. However, he urged Catholics not no let this sway them from exercising their right to vote, and to do so courageously and with persistence.
“Don’t give up. It’s that enduring presence that changes things over time,” Father Cattany said. “It’s the enduring presence that ultimately ended slavery. It’s the enduring presence that led to the civil rights act. There are a lot of things that happen because people endured over decades.”
Jenny Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, concurred with Father Cattany.
“As Catholics, we are called and have a duty to bring our faith and values into the public arena,” Kraska said. “The first step in exercising your faith in the public square is to rid yourself of those notions that somehow your participation doesn’t matter or isn’t needed. That is a huge barrier for a lot of Catholics.”
Kraska said that in the 2012 presidential election, many Catholics either didn’t vote and weren’t even registered to vote, and statistics appear to back this claim. Pew Research Center reported that in the 2012 election, 22% of all voters identified as Catholic, which was a drop from both the 2004 and 2008 elections, when 26% of all voters identified as Catholic. Kraska emphasized that the simplest thing Catholics can do to impact the political process is register to vote and actually exercise that right.
She also shared some practical ways for Catholics to bring their faith into politics, including getting involved in a campaign, contacting legislators via phone or email, and even considering running for office themselves (see: “Let’s Get Political”).
“There is a tremendous ability to make a huge difference just with that one vote or making your voice heard,” Kraska said. “The answer is never not to vote.”