Authority and the Catholic Vote
So far, there has not been a mass display of penitence by Catholics who voted for Obama in 2008. Joe Biden hasn't gotten knocked off his horse, and Nanci Pelosi hasn't started wearing Sackcloth by Armani. And heck, I hope and pray that Romney wins, but he's not exactly Leo the Great. As far as religious liberty is concerned, I think that we can expect him to stop the bleeding if he wins, but not much else.
But here is one thing that tells me that the tide is slowly turning: On Sunday, American bishops around the country required all of the priests under their authority to read a letter at Mass, to remind Catholics of their moral responsibility to vote to protect human life in all its stages, and to defend religious liberty.
That in itself -- the fact that bishops were requiring priests to be discernibly Catholic -- was startling enough. The last several decades have seen American bishops do almost every other thing besides lead, guide, teach, and speak with authority. But things are changing.
I've been thinking a lot about authority -- where it comes from, and what it's for.
Remember the term "public servant?" It doesn't get used much lately, but once it was a common phrase, used to remind elected officials that they get their authority from the people -- and that if they no longer wish to use their power to serve the people, then they could kiss their authority goodbye.
The authority that bishops have is also something that is given to them, something that is to be used in service to others. The Pope himself, let's not forget, is known as "The Servant of the Servants of God" (which means us). When priests and bishops speak to us, their authority to do so comes from God. Their authority rests with God. This means that they have authority only because God gave it to them; and that the sole purpose of their authority -- the only reason they have it -- it to turn people toward God.
And so we must be careful -- very careful, indeed -- when we reject what bishops say just because we chafe at the idea of being under their authority. We must be careful that we're not simply trying to get off the hook.
Because we laymen, we citizens? We have the power and burden of authority, too: authority as voters. Like every other kind of authentic authority, our power comes from someone else; and it is intended to be used for the good of others. This is how we are to vote. We dare not use the power of our vote for any other purpose -- not for free call phones, not for free medical procedures, not for brownie points with our progressive friends, and not (God help us) for revenge.
Our new bishop in New Hampshire, Peter Libasci, spoke in his letter with a true understanding of authority -- one that points toward God as the source of all power and truth, and as the ultimate judge of our actions here on earth. He reminds Catholics that they have a tremendous amount of power not because of our intellects, or because of our strength, or because of our cleverness, or our independent ways, or because of our exquisite creativity. Our power and our importance comes solely from the fact that we have been given life by God.
He opens his letter, not by chance, with a prayer reminding us of who we are:
May God, who has brought us into being, given us life, and sustained us to this very hour, fill your hearts with the Holy Spirit's gifts of Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Right Judgement, Courage, Reverence, and Awe in God's Eternal Presence.
In other words: we are here today only out of a sheer gift from God. We're sitting in our pews and considering our vote so carefully because we were made by God, and because we're supposed to do God's work to serve each other. That's where our authority as voters comes from; and that's what it's for.
Bp. Libasci reminds us in New Hampshire that, as citizens in a swing state, our actions will be especially meaningful and especially closely watched:
If the eyes of all are to be turned toward us, then let those eyes be opened to the identify of the one in the womb, who is just beginning to enter the journey of life -- the innocent one who has a name and a parentage and an immortal soul. If the eyes of all are turned toward us, then let them be opened to see us caring for the poor, the weak, the frightened, the disabled, the marginalized . . .
If the eyes of all are turned toward us, then let them see that the Church is engaged in those works that are ordered toward the common good of society. Let the eyes of all not be closed to the many Catholic hospitals, schools, homes for assisted living, soup kitchens, and clinics. Let them see the many institutions and works that are jeopardized, though they continue to be sorely needed and depended upon by so many government agencies who refer their needy cases to us. Let the eyes of all see the truth.
Twice, he reminds us that we are "citizens of heaven and of earth" -- "citizens who always stand before the awesome judgment seat of Christ Himself, who will ask for an accounting of our stewardship in this life."
Bishop Libasci, God bless and keep Him, knows what it's like to have authority. It means you are constantly aware that you will be judged someday. This is where authority comes from. This is where voting power comes from. This is how Catholics must vote: after thinking long and hard about judgment day.
Where does our power come from? And what is it for?