Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Lazarus is at Your (Political) Door

42. As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate's position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter's support. Yet if a candidate's position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support. (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship)

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You pose me a question where you describe a difficult choice, because, according to you, you have difficulty in one and you have difficulty in the other. (Pope Francis on the 2016 election)


Over the last two days, I was involved in a Facebook discussion with two Catholics over the upcoming elections. One was absolutely convinced that Biden§ was the only moral choice for the Catholics voters. Another was equally adamant that Trump was the only moral choice. Both of them thought that their interpretation was correct and both of them thought that the issues their candidate supported was more important than the issues they were at odds with the Church over. Both of them miscited Church teaching and made false claims—I suspect unintentionally—about the orthodoxy of certain things (one insisting that the Seamless Garment was doctrine, the other that it had been condemned). 

Both of them were absolutely convinced—no doubt in my mind that they sincerely believed this—that they were properly applying the teachings of the Church and the other was wrong. But both of them pointed fingers at the other about tolerating an evil that the Church had condemned while ignoring the fact they were doing the same thing.

That’s a serious problem in Catholic social media debates, and it’s exacerbated in election years when we confuse our political wants and fears with what the Church actually teaches. We become so polarized that we think any deviation from what we want is aiding “the enemy.”

Part of the problem is, our political system is so damaged that the only political parties with any chance of getting elected areseriously at odds with one part of Catholic moral teaching or another. Tragically, many Catholics are willing to call those teachings their party is in the wrong over as “less important.” That term strikes me as a weasel word, that seeks to avoid outright calling those teachings unimportant (which would be denying the authority of the Church) but also imply that Catholics who are morally disturbed by them are focusing on the wrong issues.

Let’s be clear here. When the Church teaches that something is morally wrong—whether intrinsically, in intention, or in consequence—we don’t get to say that it doesn’t matter compared to someone else. We might have to struggle with an election of bad choices, where all candidates support moral wrongs and our only hope is to lessen the impact of the coming harm. But when we act, we must act in a way that lessens the impact as much as possible, not one that kicks the can down the road for four to eight years.

We also see Catholics misuse Church documents to justify what they were planning to do in the first place. For example, the oft-cited and oft-miscited‡ Ratzinger Memorandum. In speaking on the issues raised in the 2004 election, he wrote in part:

[N.B. A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.]

The memorandum, which was intended to help people understand whether they were acting for the right reasons, led to people misusing it, trying to prove their vote was proportionate (if they supported the pro-abortion candidate) or arguing it was a mortal sin to vote for the pro-abortion candidate (if they supported the other side). 

Moreover, certain Catholics like to use the term “single-issue voter” in a false sense. It is meant to say, we cannot argue that as long as a candidate is in favor of X, it’s okay to vote for him regardless of every other position. That’s true of course. If X was “law and order” (for example) but the rest of the party platform was totalitarian injustice, voting for the candidate over X would be grossly out of line with Catholic teaching. But if a Catholic were to treat it as saying “I can ignore X and vote for my candidate because of these other issues,” that is a mistaken—possibly dishonest—reading of this warning.

Let’s face it. St. John Paul II spoke clearly on the issue of life being first. In Christifideles Laici, he pointed out that some other social justice issues—while important—can never replace the right to life:

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, fĂ­nds 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.

The Church has never yielded in the face of all the violations that the right to life of every human being has received, and continues to receive, both from individuals and from those in authority. The human being is entitled to such rights, in every phase of development, from conception until natural death; and in every condition, whether healthy or sick, whole or handicapped, rich or poor. The Second Vatican Council openly proclaimed: “All offences against life itself, such as every kind of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, undue psychological pressures; all offences against human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons; all these and the like are certainly criminal: they poison human society; and they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator” (137).

Note that the Church equates abortion with murder, genocide, and euthanasia. So, one cannot argue that they can end abortion by “other means” any more than he or she can argue that they can end genocide by other means. But the Church also makes clear that subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment and unjust deportation are to be condemned. So, we cannot write them off as “less important” either.

This is why the Catholic who argues that Party X is the only moral way to vote is grossly misguided. Both parties are against life. Catholic Democrats say that Republicans are pro-birth, not pro-life. Catholic Republicans say that Democrats only care about children that survive to birth. Both are mere slogans that hide their own complicity through tu quoque fallacies.

This is why I have been saying that the Catholic who sides with one party or the other must be clear about how they will fight the evil within their own party. Are you a Catholic Democrat? What will you do to stop the promotion of abortion, same sex marriage, and the attacks on religious freedom? Are you a Catholic Republican? What will you do about the unjust treatment of migrants and economic injustice? You do not get a free pass for turning your back on those evils just because you vote against the party you dislike more. In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the Rich Man went to hell for neglecting the plight of Lazarus at his door. For Democrats, Lazarus might be represented by the unborn. For Republicans, Lazarus might be represented by the plight of the migrants. 

Regardless of what party you think will do less harm, Lazarus is at your door. If you ignore him because you think the other issues are “more important,” you will need to answer for it before God. 

Remember that, and do not be so quick to assume you are righteous because you ticked the box you think is right on your ballot.



(§) As always, candidate and party names, as well as ideologies are put in alphabetical order to avoid accusations of bias.

(†) Breaking the dualistic political model might benefit America. But I don’t really see any third party as having a chance unless it should address an issue neither major party addresses.

(‡) I wrote about it HERE in 2016.

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