The final stretch to the 2016 presidential election marks a new and disturbing experience for many faithful Catholic Americans.
In past years, the activists among us have embraced our preferred candidates with gusto, especially when their political records confirmed an unequivocal support for life, marriage and religious freedom and a desire to address immigration reform and other social and religious issues of critical importance to the Church. We trusted our candidates to do their best to promote the common good and defend our national interests. And if in hindsight our faith in their characters proved a bit naïve, their legacy never led us to question the process that sent them to the White House.
This time around, as opinion polls and many Church leaders have acknowledged, things look very different. “One candidate, in the view of a lot of people, is a belligerent demagogue with an impulse-control problem. And the other, also in the view of a lot of people, is a criminal liar, uniquely rich in stale ideas and bad priorities,” noted Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia in a lecture at the University of Notre Dame in September.
Even more worrisome, the stakes have never been higher for people of faith who seek to protect the unborn and to defend their own freedom to advance a holistic vision of marriage and family life that affirms the dignity of the human person and the biblical meaning of the conjugal one-flesh union. George Weigel gave voice to the growing sense of dread that the next president will see Catholic moral teaching not as a gift for the nation, but as a threat to social progress. “What’s coming is an administration in which the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services will argue in the federal courts that religious freedom in full — religious communities conducting their affairs and providing needed care for the weakest in our society according to their religious convictions about the moral life — is misogynist and homophobic, a mask behind which lurk irrational biases that cannot be countenanced in law,” said Weigel in a Sept. 28 column in First Things.
We yearn for a national leader of high character who shares our misgivings and can set the nation on a better course. Instead, we confront two problematic candidates with profound limitations. Accordingly, some question whether it is possible to discern the better choice, while others are tempted to sit this election out, and still others want to give up on politics altogether. Some people might reduce the choice to the candidate’s statements on the life issues, such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, contraception and assisted suicide — which the Church makes clear are objectively evil. Here, a clear contrast is visible: One candidate calls for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, while the other believes in its continued support, even by U.S. taxpayers. However, in considering the remaining issues, many become exasperated because they are not so clear-cut.
The Church doesn’t envision the faithful retreating from civic engagement, nor does it ask us to hold out for perfection in matters political. Our faith makes clear that politics is not ultimate, and so we should never invest all of our hopes in a partisan leader, party or movement.
Yet with profound Christian realism, the Church does offer moral and social principles that help us make the best choice available to us. “The Catholic Church teaches that the purpose and obligation of our government is to support the common good,” noted Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a Sept. 30 column in the Southern Nebraska Register. “The Second Vatican Council said that the common good is ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.’ Our common good has three elements: respect for the dignity, rights, obligations and freedom of the human person; respect for the well-being, development and flourishing of the entire community; and peace, in the stability and security of a well-ordered community, governed by the rule of law.”
At the very least, careful study of these teachings will help us to cut through the shallow sound bites and acrimony that often pass for genuine political discourse and get to the heart of the matter. Love of God and country demands that we take our voting responsibilities seriously. Pope Francis gave his own advice about the U.S. election during his flight back to Rome from Georgia and Azerbaijan on Oct. 2. “I never say a word about electoral campaigns,” the Pope said. “The people are sovereign. I will only say: Study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience,” formed integrally by Church teaching. The cynics among us insist that politics, by its very nature, is a corrupt business, and we shouldn’t expect much from our elected leaders. But it is a great mistake for religious believers to forsake their political responsibilities. If we take that route, how can we complain when our government, in the name of an allegedly enlightened secular progressivism, advances a very different notion of the common good?
“Without a transcendent orientation, secular progressivism makes a god of politics. Christianity, by contrast, recognizes that politics, while important, is not ultimate. Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’” observed R.R. “Rusty” Reno, the editor of First Things and the author of Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society. Reno’s larger point is that this distinctive vision of politics — “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17) — offers an antidote to our overheated campaign season and provides a healthy check on government overreach.
This legacy of faith should guide our evaluation of all political candidates. It also should inspire an examination of conscience. Are we driven to desolation by this election cycle because we have invested too much in the political order and too little in our relationship with God? Did we mistake our political party for our Church? Indeed, as Alexis de Tocqueville once observed in his prescient work, Democracy in America, the survival of our great experiment in ordered liberty depends on a thoughtful, prayerful and virtuous people much more than on party platforms and donor databases.
“The task of renewing a society is much more long term than a trip every few years to the voting booth,” said Archbishop Chaput. “And it requires a different kind of people. It demands that we be different people.”