When Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize, a reporter, cameras rolling, asked her if she was a holy person. She looked right at him and said, “It’s my job to be holy. It’s your job to be holy, too. Why do you think God put us on this earth?”
We were made to be holy. It is our job to be holy in everything that we do, including when we vote. How can we be holy when we vote? How can we transcend this world, which is what holiness calls for, and at the same time remain immanent, be a part of this world—which is what voting is all about? We know we can do it because our faith teaches that the Lord whom we worship is himself both a transcendent God and an incarnate human, and he asked us to follow him.
How Would Jesus Vote?
On a very basic level, we know that holiness requires the imitation of Christ, day in and day out. What is the mind and heart of Jesus, and what does it require me to do in these circumstances? That prayerful conversation with Jesus is essential to holiness.
What does it mean to be holy? We know Jesus’ answer: “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul and your whole mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus defines holiness in terms of love. If you want to be holier still, “Sell all your goods, give the money to the poor and come follow me.” This is completely selfless love.
A first characteristic of holiness in the voting process is that it does not think that there are easy and readily apparent answers to complex political questions. This does not mean that complex issues should paralyze us or lead us to believe that every answer is equally correct. That is not the case. It does mean that we have to strive to be holy in discerning those answers.
Holiness requires us to inform our consciences in weighing complex political choices. As our bishops have said, “Conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil.” Or, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.”
So consciences must be informed. Untethered feelings are not conscience. Conscience is based on truth—the Scripture, the church’s traditions and teachings, the guidance of the Holy Spirit. All of these we are obliged to apply to moral choices like voting.
No Easy Answers
Because holiness is not a matter of readily apparent answers to complex political questions, we cannot use our church as a political question-and-answer machine. When the scribes and the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus into a political debate about Roman power, he, knowing there was no good answer, refused to offer a specific response. Instead, he said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s; and to God what is God’s.”
It is a good lesson. When the church has made openly partisan political choices in the recent past—that is, when it has acted more like Caesar than Christ—it has been as often wrong as it has been right. The consequences have led us away from holiness, away from the imitation of Christ.
The church has to preach, even when that preaching has a political aspect to it, as many moral issues today do. But in holiness, when our sacred pastors speak to the morality of an issue, they should not choose political sides. The church must leave the political answer, the “how” of solving political problems, even when those political problems have a moral component, to the informed consciences of the laity. Political strategy is not a question of holiness or even of faith. It is a question of effective political means, not simply political ends. And here the church cannot speak in specifics.
It follows then that the church cannot legally or morally tell us which candidates to vote for. We may on occasion vote in a referendum on a specific issue: We want a new sales tax or not; we want to revise our state constitution to say something or not. Those are single-issue votes, and their moral value is perhaps more susceptible to discernment than when we are choosing among candidates for public office.
In the 2007 edition of Faithful Citizenship, the guide to Catholic participation in the political process the U.S. bishops publish every four years, the bishops write about the single-issue voter: “A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil” (No. 34).
If you accept the premise that a candidate takes a position in favor of outright evil and that the only reason the Catholic voter chooses that candidate is in order to advance that evil, then the bishops’ conclusion follows: the Catholic voter has done something terribly wrong. But how likely is the prospect that a voter chooses a candidate for one reason only, and that reason an evil one?
Normally the basis on which we choose one candidate over another is multifaceted, just as life is multifaceted. We weigh the candidates against each other, evaluating their character as well as their stances on particular issues, agreeing with some of the candidate’s positions, perhaps not agreeing on others, but preferring one candidate over another after weighing complex alternatives.
Watch Your Language
Holiness does not let us demonize the other, those candidates we do not like, those people on the other side of a political issue with whom we disagree. True, Jesus called some of his opponents “whitened sepulchres” and used some other choice phrases, but he had to be extremely agitated to do that. It was not typical of the Lord, who said more than once, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” who rarely demanded but almost always suggested and who forgave his murderers from his cross.
Holiness should lead us to question the tactic of condemnatory labels that are used in the political process. Many labels are particularly troubling, but let me use one as an example. I do not know anyone who belongs to the “party of death,” that is, someone who honestly as a matter of political choice prefers death to life, who joins a political party because that party sees death as a social good to be pursued. It is an ugly phrase and it should be used only in situations where it applies, which is almost never. This does not mean that a criticism of the “culture of death” is inappropriate, but on the list of “life issues,” like abortion, racial discrimination, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, capital punishment, unjust war, divorce, lack of chastity and lack of marital fidelity, no one political party has it all right or all wrong.
As believing Catholics, it may be difficult for us to accept that some people do not agree with our church’s teachings on life issues. But the people who disagree with us are not, simply because of that fact, supporters of death. And demonizing them is not holiness. The use of such inexact, deprecating terms coarsens the political dialogue and creates situations in which some people consider it acceptable to do things like carry guns to political rallies or even kill those who disagree with us because, after all, they belong to the party of death. Jesus would weep. He specifically said, “God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.”
Faith, Not Coercion
Holiness does not seek to control others, to take away their free will, their rights of conscience. We can seek to persuade them, to convince them; but holiness does not disrespect the religious and civil liberties of others. Our church used to teach that error had no rights; and that may, as a philosophical proposition, still be true today in the abstract. But rights inhere in people, not in propositions, and people are never abstract. People in error have rights, rights that Catholics, especially Catholics seeking to be holy in the political process, cannot ignore. In doubt, we bring faith, not coercion. And we bring faith primarily by example, by our respect for those who disagree with us, who do not share our faith or our values or our conclusions. “Truth can be only proposed. It cannot be imposed without violating the sanctity of the individual person and subverting the truth itself,” as one of our bishops has said.
This is the classic dilemma for U.S. Catholics. We are committed to religious principles that we hold to be absolute truths. But we are also committed to our Constitution, which not only guarantees our freedom to hold and practice these beliefs but also guarantees to others the right to disagree with those beliefs.
Voting With Freedom and Holiness
In sum, holiness does not lead us to think that there are easy or readily apparent answers to complex political issues; it does not make our church into a political answer machine; it does not let us demonize the other; it does not let itself become a tool used to control others.
Where does that bring us? To a final proposition: This world is imperfect and imperfectable. The kingdom is here and not yet here. The transcendent interacts with the immanent, but the immanent endures. Holiness understands this and puts up with it. This is perhaps the devil’s greatest tool: He has brought us to a place in our politics where the only choice is a Hobson’s choice, where no matter what we do, there is a risk of being wrong. We either participate in a political process that allows wrong choices—some might even say immoral choices—or we withdraw from our democracy. Trying to control someone with a morality they do not perceive is not holiness. It certainly is not reflective of the Lord who calls but never compels, the Lord who said, “Take the log out of your eye before you tell your brother to remove the splinter from his.”
Human freedom, given us by our Creator, is the proper intermediary of holiness. In the political process holiness endures actions by political society that might be wrong, perhaps even evil, because to do otherwise requires that we violate the consciences and the God-given freedom of others.
Be wary of anyone who claims to know exactly what political choices God wants you to make. Our pastors can tell us the ethical and moral principles that should govern human behavior; they can tell us the values that should be defended; and we must learn from them on these matters in order to inform our own consciences. We also have an obligation to look at Scripture, the teachings and traditions of the church, the people of God, over the centuries. And we need to pray, to ask the Spirit for guidance. None of this can be dodged. You cannot be holy in voting if you fail to do these things.
But once your conscience is properly formed, then, to paraphrase St. Augustine’s saying, “Love and do what you will,” I would say, “Love” —which means to be holy—“and vote how you will.
Listen to an interview with Nicholas P. Cafardi.