Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. A Catholic convert by way of G.K. Chesterton and the Catholic Worker movement, Rick has studied theology at Evangelical institutions as well as Franciscan University of Steubenville. He currently serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel University, Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing at God-Haunted Lunatic.
“The least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all” (CCC 953).
This campaign season has been a wild ride so far, and it’s clearly not letting up. In fact, my working title for this essay was “Election 2016: Now What Are We Going to Do?!” (with question mark and exclamation point intact) because that seems to be what everybody’s feeling. The ups and downs, the rancor and revelations, the caustic personalities and dubious track records of the candidates – it’s all made an already difficult deliberative process well-nigh impossible. For many of us the question has ceased to be “Who can I vote for?” and instead we’re asking ourselves, “Can I vote for anyone at all?”
Nonetheless, we’re obligated to take up the challenge – which is why I settled on the title I did. It’s derived from the title of a Catholic Worker conference my wife and I attended many years ago, and we latched onto it because it succinctly captures the idea that we’re both obligated to participate in the political arena and radically detached from constricting political labels.
With regards to our obligation, the U.S. Bishops, in an updated version of their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, put it this way: “As Catholics we are called to participate in public life in a manner consistent with the mission of our Lord, a mission that he has called to share.” I love it that the Bishops follow up that statement with a quote from Pope Francis’s encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium: “An authentic faith … always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better than we found it.”
Of course, for those of us with families, changing the world and transmitting values pertains first and foremost to our children and each other. And even aside from family obligations, the primary responsibility of all of us is transforming the world by transforming our little corners of it – by “taking charge,” in the words of the Catechism, “of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility” (CCC 1914). In addition to spouse and kids, that means job and environment, our neighbor across the street and the checkout lady at Kroger’s – all these represent the proximate arena in which we exert the most immediate and lasting influence. It’s what we call the principle of subsidiarity in Catholic teaching, and these nearby – literally – concerns take priority over any of our efforts to effect change in larger spheres, whether national or international.
Even so, “as far as possible,” the Catechism continues, we “should take an active part in public life.” As baptized Christians, we’re marked out to become saints – citizens of heaven – but part of being a saint is being a good citizen wherever God has put us here on earth. And while we’re unlikely to ever even approximate a reconciliation between our Catholic values and social policy, we are nonetheless obliged to bring those values to bear on the political process – through direct involvement, advocacy, and, at the very least, exercising our right to vote, regardless of electoral success or failure. As the Bishops say, “this is not a time for retreat or discouragement; rather, it is a time for renewed engagement” (FCFC 16).
It’s reasonable and fitting that we’d turn to the Church for direction in such matters, for she is both Mater et Magistra – mother and teacher – as Pope St. John XXIII had it. She can both reassure us when the political landscape is confusing and frustrating (like it is today in spades), and guide us in how we nonetheless go about making political decisions – guide us, that is, in fulfilling our civic duty. In short, the Church tells us how we ought to vote.
Yes, yes, I went there: The Church tells us how to vote – but note the emphasis on the word “how.” Rest assured, I’m not going to come within a parsec of suggesting that the Church tells us “who” to vote for, and I’m certainly not going to do it – I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy. Of course, if you want somebody to tell you who to vote for, there’s an enormous chorus of Catholic commentators and bloggers, and maybe your own family and friends, who are bent on compelling your vote in a particular direction.
It’s happening everywhere we turn – people saying that if you’re really Catholic, you can’t vote for (fill in the blank) or you have to vote for (fill in the blank) — and we all know what goes in those blanks. Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, for sure, but also third-party candidates, Democrats or Republicans more generally, and even specific policy proposals one way or another: more gun control or less gun control; raise the minimum wage or to leave it alone; increased military intervention overseas or pulling back from nation-building.
Rubbish. When it comes to politics and voting as Catholics, the choice truly is ours! Not even the pope, let alone our bishops, will or can tell us who to vote for. It’s not in their domain. The burden for effecting social change and bettering the world truly falls on us lay people, and, while listening to the Magisterium’s counsel, we’re the ones that have to sort through the issues, make up our minds, and vote – and then deal with the consequences.
So it is that, as Catholic citizens, we can’t allow ourselves to be pressured or persuaded or browbeaten or guilt-tripped or scared into pulling the lever for one candidate or another – or even any of them at all. It’s a responsibility that we have to take on ourselves, and we must not delegate our freedom in this regard to any other persons or groups, no matter how weighty their reputation or influence.
It’s not a limitless freedom, however. We have an obligation to form our consciences about everything that relates to the common good, social welfare, and human life, and then act – and vote – accordingly. Before pulling the lever for any given candidate, we ought to consider how his intentions, policy proposals, and track record square with the teaching of the Church.
In this, I especially like how the bishops contrasted the temptation to moral equivalence – that is, putting intrinsic evils like abortion on the same level as other issues that warrant debate and disagreement – with the temptation to misuse such “necessary moral distinctions as a way of dismissing or ignoring other serious threats to human life and dignity” (FCFC 29).
That being said, let’s tackle what is unquestionably the most divisive question in this whole debate: Can we vote for politicians who do support intrinsic evils. As a way of answering that question, consider Church teaching on cremation for a minute. A long time ago, while working at a parish in Boulder, Colorado, I helped my pastor edit an archdiocesan policy on burials and cremation. As a relatively fresh convert, the process was an eye-opener for me, because I’d assumed that cremation was not really a legit option for Catholics – that it violated the Church’s teaching on the resurrection of the body.
Turns out, it’s permissible to be cremated, but only if it’s not being chosen in defiance of Church teaching. “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed,” reads Canon Law; “nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (Can. 1176 §1; see CCC 2301). Traditional burials are preferred because their sign value with regards to creedal truth, but cremation is acceptable as long as it isn’t in opposition to the same.
In other words, it all depends on intention – what those who are acting formally intend by their acts.
The same idea applies to voting for politicians who espouse some intrinsic evil or another. It would be best to find and support candidates who weren’t so inclined, but, given an imperfect world filled with imperfect politicians, we actually can vote for someone who rejects essential Church teachings as long as we’re not doing so because of that candidate’s objectionable stance. Here’s how the Bishops put it: “There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons” (FCFC 35).
Thus, after seriously and prudentially weighing options – that is, by deliberating “over available alternatives” of achieving true good and determining “what is most fitting to a specific context” (FCFC 19) – a conscientious Catholic might legitimately, although reluctantly, vote for an unappealing candidate because the alternatives are, in the voter’s prudential judgment, even worse.
For many Catholics, that would be unthinkable; for many others, that sounds reasonable and practical. That being the case, we’ll find ourselves at odds with folks in the pew next to us, which means this whole enterprise requires both courage and charity – lots and lots of charity. When it comes to Christians entering the political fray, love has to drape everything, saturate it, inform it – when we disagree with each other most of all. There’s a wide range of approaches to the myriad political and societal issues facing us. Given that prudential judgment will lead Catholics of good will to “choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems,” as the Bishops put it, then we must commit ourselves to charitably respecting the choices of those with whom we disagree.
As I pondered this idea, a striking image from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity came to mind. Lewis hearkens back to his World War I days, and he wonders what would’ve happened if he and a German soldier killed each other and then met up on the other side of the veil. “I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment,” Lewis speculates. “I think we might have laughed over it.” How can he say this? Because, for Christians, “what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.”
That seems so sensible to me, and I think the principle also applies to this election. We may vote for a particular candidate if we deem it wise or necessary, but we should do so reservedly with regards to positions they take in conflict with our Catholic values, and certainly with charity and even good humor toward those who choose otherwise. Like Lewis and his German soldier friend, if we go to our polling stations with a spouse or adult child or friend who will effectively cancel out our votes, then we should nevertheless be able to leave together with mirth and humility. To do otherwise is to open ourselves up to the sin of pride in no uncertain terms: Do we really think that we know for certain how everyone should vote? Do we really have all the answers? Does everything depend on my vote and my neighbor’s vote? This is really just the sin of pride, something that C.S. Lewis refers to elsewhere in Mere Christianity as “the complete anti-God state of mind.”
So it matters how we treat our political opponents. But there’s another dimension of charity that goes beyond mere forbearance or even affection toward our political rivals: It’s living a life of charity all the time, and not waiting for politicians, legislation, and government to address our social ills. This is the day-to-day implementation of what Pope Benedict XVI labeled “eucharistic consistency.” In Sacramentum Caritatis, he wrote, “Worship pleasing to God can never be a purely private matter, without consequences for our relationships with others: it demands a public witness to our faith,” and this doesn’t only pertain to the big cheeses of the world, but all of the baptized – you and me – as well (SC 83; cf. FCFC 38).
In this, we do well to recall our newest canonized saint: St. Teresa of Kolkata. Among other things, she was famous for saying something along these lines: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Whether those are her exact words or not, it’s certainly a sentiment that she lived. Mother Teresa was the living image of direct action, and her legacy is one that reminds us that, politics aside, we’re always required to address social ills where we find them – and do what we can to resolve them ourselves.
Another more authoritative Mother Teresa quote with special relevance to voting is this one: “We are called upon not to be successful, but to be faithful.” We can be enthusiastic, even passionate about our political opinions and commitments, candidates and parties, but as Catholics, we can’t get too worked up over political failures. Our foundational loyalty always has to be to Christ, which means embracing his Cross – the epitome, you could say, of worldly failure, and yet the path to a different, more lasting kind of success.
The point of voting and political action has less to do with how we, as individuals, might contribute to shaping the world than how we ourselves are shaped. It’s like Ammon Hennacy, the longtime Catholic radical and associate of Dorothy Day, who was once asked by a journalist if he really thought his anti-war protests would change the world. “No,” was his response, “but I am damn sure it can’t change me.”
Let that (or some gentler paraphrase) be our motto as well. Let’s educate ourselves on the issues; deliberate passionately yet charitably with friends and family; rigorously form our consciences; fast and pray; boldly cast our votes – and then get back to work, whatever it is.
Such a course is all the more important for parents and teachers and others who influence the young. Allow children to observe how you wrestle through issues with other adults, even (and especially) when you differ – particularly with your spouse. Let them see how you handle that, and how you still love each other and respect each other despite even marked disagreement.
An as kids get older, invite them into your deliberations to give them practice hashing things out, applying Catholic moral principles to the political realm, to grapple with the ambiguities and frustrations of an imperfect system, an imperfect world. Let them see your intellectual humility and moral fragility. Give them a picture of what it’s like to go ahead and move forward with action (that is, voting at the very least) despite a lack of total confidence or moral assurance regarding your chosen path.
Most important of all, whether our candidates win or lose in temporal terms, let them see that the whole enterprise results in our being ever more adhered to Christ – and re-energized with regards to making him present where we are. Our duty is to conscientiously vote, yes, but then forget about it. God will deal with the aftermath – our attention and energies are required elsewhere.