Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Just a couple of things, prompted by some interesting and reasonable remarks by various readers. First, one reader objects to my proposition that how voting changes the voter is vastly more significant than how the voter’s vote changes the outcome of an election:
If everyone thought about voting the way you do, then the worst candidates would always win elections. The pure of heart would never vote. Would the sacrifice of the widow in any possible scenario end with that result?
I don’t see how my reader’s logic makes any sense. First, of course, it relies on the perpetual straw man being advanced throughout this argument: that the refusal to support grave intrinsic evils worthy of the everlasting fires of hell is to demand “purity of heart” from a candidate. That is, I repeat, rubbish. It is not “perfectionism” to demand that we not be asked to support grave evil. It is absolute bare minimum human decency. I’m not looking to elect St. Francis of Assisi. I’m looking to not be asked to put my soul at risk for everlasting damnation. No matter how it’s spun, I do not believe I should take my puny penny of choice and give it to the service of grave evil that Mother Church warns is worthy of the fires of hell. And frankly, if everyone thought the way I do, we would not be stuck with the utterly dreadful Ruling class we have because we would not stand for being manipulated into a perpetual choice between two parties who try to force us to support their preferred grave evil, all while scheming to strip the rest of us of our most basic civil rights. It is nonsense to say that an electorate intolerant of grave evil would produce a political class committed to grave evil, just as it is nonsense to say that a political class committed to supporting grave evil will produce a virtuous or happy civilization. Good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit, as our increasingly corrupt civilization attests with eloquence.
My reader continues:
You can’t pretend that voting is just about your soul, Mr. Shea, though it undoubtedly is about that. You make a good point. But focusing on yourself in this situation is not the Catholic way. And getting involved in societal change at the grassroots, or whatever you believe to be the ‘real’ way society gets better [perhaps some presumption there on your part?] is not a reason to elide doing your part to make it better in a ‘macro’ way, so to speak, also.
I believe the catechism urges us to vote as part of our responsibility as citizens.
I don’t pretend that voting is just about my soul. It is, obviously, a public act ordered toward our relationship with the state. But to characterize voting one’s conscience as “focusing on yourself” is a radically poor understanding of the act. The focus is not on self when voting one’s conscience. It is, at least for a well-formed Christian, on God as all moral acts are. The counsel of Christ to a paganized world seeking such things as power, winning, control, food, shelter, money (which is largely what politics concerns itself with) is this:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)
Seeking first his kingdom means, among other things, not allowing the desire for power or winning to predominate over anything God absolutely forbids—such as grave moral evil. Per Cdl. Ratzinger’s 2004 letter, it is clear that we cannot under any circumstances support a gravely and intrinsically immoral act. What we may do, according to Ratzinger, is support a candidate who supports a gravely and intrinsically immoral act if, in doing so, we are not supporting the grave evil he supports, but trying to support some proportionate good. We are not bound to support such a candidate and, if there is no proportionate good, we are bound not to support such a candidate.
So here’s the deal: I see no proportionate good in supporting candidates from either party who support grave evil. I do, however, see a proportionate good in refraining from voting should no candidate appear on the ballot who does not advocate grave evil. Why? Because while my vote, as a public act, does have an infinitesmally small effect on the outcome of an election (much as an air molecule has an infinitesmally small effect on an oncoming train) the overwhelmingly large impact my vote has is on me. That’s not “focusing on myself”. That’s focusing on God and my duty to obey him. The notion that politics is the “real” way a society gets better, and that the actions of individuals acting in obedience to God is somehow vaguely self-centered, or narcissistic, or unrelated to the common good is one of the more curious ways that Catholic teaching has been supplanted by the groupthink and power politics of the postmodern era. The world was not changed by the early Church jockeying for political power and disobeying their consciences in order to play ball with corrupt powers and “win”. It was changed and healed by people who sought first the kingdom and refused to play ball by doing such “minor” compromises as offering a pinch of incense to Caesar—even at the cost of their lives. When Caesar stops asking me to do things that are directly repugnant to the teaching of the Church, I will happily play ball. Lots of life is negotiable. But grave intrinsic evil is not negotiable and I will have to give an account of my soul for how I acted when some political player asked me to back him as he sought to do things I know are evil.
Another reader remarks:
When a dear, pious, and prayerful friend of mine in the throes of very nearly this same discussion threw up her hands in exasperation and said, “What should we do? Just sit at home and pray?” I knew I’d found a worm in our hearts.
I hear you. Just as I find it extremely ominous that Christians keep talking as though “not wanting to go to hell” is the height of fussy prissy perfectionism, so I find it astounding to hear Christians talk as though politics is the primary way of salvation while prayer, trust in God, and obedience to conscience are the last, not the first, resort. We don’t come out and say it (partly because we aren’t fully aware we think this way and partly because we dimly sense that if we said it out loud we would realize how faithless it really is) but many of us have deeply internalized the conviction that piety is fine for ineffectual types without the ruthlessness to get dirty and get the job done, but the *real* action is in the political arena. In the same way, all the stuff which suggests that voting one’s conscience and refusing to cooperate with evil is narcissistic makes it clear that the whole concept “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you” is, at bottom, disbelieved by not a few Christians. The pressure to play ball with corrupt power and not make waves with “selfish, perfectionist” desires to not commit sin worthy of hell is portrayed as “realism”, when in fact, it is the height of unrealism to think one vote out of 50 million has any more power to change the outcome of an election. My vote will not change a national election, but it will change me. That’s hard-headed realism. And if enough voters start to embrace that realism and seek first his kingdom, instead of seeking first “winning”, we will see a real change for the better in our political climate.