Sunday, December 29, 2019

They Say “Things are Too Urgent to Deal With THAT”

As the silly season (AKA the Presidential Elections) approaches, some American Catholics seem to be celebrate by throwing aside the timeless teachings of the Church for the ephemeral values of politics. “Yes,” we’re told, “these teachings are important. But we have to be realistic.”

“Being realistic,” apparently means sacrificing certain Church teachings that go against our preferred candidate because these individuals are outraged when the bishops speak out on the moral teachings that go against their party§. Oh, they say they accept those teachings. But they’re angry when these moral issues get mentioned. At the same time, when Catholics on the other side of the political divide get angry, these Catholics point to it as “proof” that the other side are bad Catholics because they refuse to listen to the Church.

The problem with that is: if one cites the authority of the bishops when it suits them, then they have no excuse to refuse obedience when it suits them because they have shown that they recognize that the authority exists.

It is true that both major political parties are in the wrong on some major issues if one recognizes that the Catholic Church teaches with God’s authority. It’s also true that—barring an unforeseen seismic shift in political views—one of the two major parties will gain control of the White House. That means one of the two parties will be able to implement evil policies and the other will be temporarily hindered. One of the parties will control the appointment of judges who will green light or block the policies of the party in charge; will sign bills into laws (or veto them). So, obviously it will matter which one gets in… even if both are at odds with Church teaching in different ways. So, how do we choose?

First, against the bullies who argue you must vote for Party X or you’re guilty of sin#, I would remind them of Archbishop Chaput’s wise words in a 2016 column:

It’s absurd—in fact, it’s blasphemous—to assume that God prefers any political party in any election year.  But God, by his nature, is always concerned with good and evil and the choices we make between the two.  For Catholics, no political or social issue stands in isolation.

That doesn’t mean “vote however you feel.” All of us will need to answer to God over how well we seek to form our conscience in accordance with the Church teachings and whether we follow it. Now there are certain evils that we must oppose without equivocation. If the issue involves an intrinsic evil, we had better have a justification proportionate to the evil enabled if we choose to vote for somebody who favors it. We had better be prepared to fight the “lesser” evil we endured to block the greater one. But if we stay silent out of fear of hindering “our” candidate’s chances, we become complicit in this evil.

It’s undeniable that the Catholic teaching on defending life is the key issue in America. Indeed, in Christifidelis Laici, St. John Paul II taught:

38. In effect the acknowledgment of the personal dignity of every human being demands the respect, the defence and the promotion of the rights of the human person. It is a question of inherent, universal and inviolable rights. No one, no individual, no group, no authority, no State, can change—let alone eliminate—them because such rights find their source in God himself.

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fínds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.

We can’t pretend that the sum of other issues can outweigh the right to life. But some Catholics believe that as long as they vote for the candidate who claims to oppose abortion, they’ve done their duty. Others think that if they support a candidate who (often superficially) seems to agree with them on issues A+B+C, they are okay with the fact that the candidate openly supports abortion and euthanasia as good. But these Catholics of both sides fail to act on the fact that the Church defines the Right to Life far more broadly than they obey.

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (#27) tells us:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

Pope Francis reminds us of these things in Gaudete et Exsultate when he writes:

100. I regret that ideologies lead us at times to two harmful errors. On the one hand, there is the error of those Christians who separate these Gospel demands from their personal relationship with the Lord, from their interior union with him, from openness to his grace. Christianity thus becomes a sort of NGO stripped of the luminous mysticism so evident in the lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, and many others. For these great saints, mental prayer, the love of God and the reading of the Gospel in no way detracted from their passionate and effective commitment to their neighbors; quite the opposite. 

101. The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ,” with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude.”

103. A similar approach is found in the Old Testament: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21). “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33–34). This is not a notion invented by some Pope, or a momentary fad. In today’s world too, we are called to follow the path of spiritual wisdom proposed by the prophet Isaiah to show what is pleasing to God. “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn” (Is 58:7–8).

Tragically, factional Catholics seem to fall into one error or the other that he describes. Either they reduce the Church to a lobbying organization for certain laws and policies, or they reduce the important issues to what suits them. I can hardly think of a politicized Catholic who, while insisting, “you must vote for Party X”  even begins to acknowledge those issues of life their own party is at odds with. Instead I see sneering comments accusing the other side of hypocrisy, while being equally hypocritical themselves. Too many say that the issues their party fails at are “lesser” and say that this election is “too important” to sacrifice by holding their party accountable for them.

But while we can choose to live that way, we can’t pretend it’s authentically Catholic to do so. In the same letter I cited above, Archbishop Chaput wrote:

God created us with good brains.  It follows that he will hold us accountable to think deeply and clearly, rightly ordering the factors that guide us, before we act politically.  And yet modern American life, from its pervasive social media that too often resemble a mobocracy, to the relentless catechesis of consumption on our TVs, seems designed to do the opposite.  It seems bent on turning us into opinionated and distracted cattle unable to gain mastery over our own appetites and thoughts.  Thinking and praying require silence, and the only way we can get silence is by deciding to step back and unplug.

This year, a lot of good people will skip voting for president but vote for the “down ticket” names on their party’s ballot; or vote for a third party presidential candidate; or not vote at all; or find some mysterious calculus that will allow them to vote for one or the other of the major candidates.  I don’t yet know which course I’ll personally choose.  It’s a matter properly reserved for every citizen’s informed conscience.

So the question is: Will we think about what we must do, with God as our judge, to rightly form our conscience—to the best of our ability*—according to Church teaching? Will we determinedly oppose the evils that are unwillingly enabled by our vote? Or will we shout slogans and ignore the evils we enabled?

However we do vote, we need to remember that God will be our judge. We cannot deceive Him. He will know our sincerity or lack thereof.

I am merely a member of the laity. I have no authority to order you to vote a certain way. So I won’t even try to persuade you to do so. All I can do is point to the Church as the authority to follow, whether you agree with my own views or not. In doing so, I also urge you to beware of those who do try to pressure people (with no authority to do so) into accepting their political preference as Church teaching 


(§) During the 2008 and 2012 elections, the US bishops were condemned as “the Republican Party at prayer.” In 2016, they were accused of being “obviously” pro-Democrat. Their teachings had not changed in that period.

(#) Sadly, I’ve seen Catholic partisans of both sides try to strong-arm other Catholics into voting for their side regardless of any concerns of conscience.

(*) God does not hold us accountable for what is impossible for us to do. We’re all fallible human beings and can err without intending to break God’s law. But if we don’t make that effort, we can’t make that excuse.

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