Participating in electoral politics in the United States can be challenging for a Catholic citizen. Church teaching provides helpful guidance on many public policy issues, but that guidance does not align with the policy positions of the two major parties. It is rarely obvious in a particular election, for example, which party or candidate is more pro-life across a wide spectrum of issues. There is rarely a “Catholic side.” As a result, voting can be both an internal moral struggle and a source of division among Catholics.
Affecting the outcome of specific elections, however, is not the only way Catholics can influence the social and political direction of the nation. Electoral politics focus our attention on a small set of contentious issues and a narrow range of policy options, albeit ones that are important at the time.
Elections are important, but deeper cultural values, which usually lie outside the scope of a political campaign, can also powerfully influence the nation. Such values can determine how particular issues evolve and the very nature of our politics and the health of society. Looking beyond the electoral politics of the day to consider the values that guide our nation offers additional opportunities and obligations for Catholics to contribute to government and society in the United States.
Paying attention to cultural values does not mean ignoring public policy; evolving cultural values provide a foundation for policy change and carry it through to its completion, so the two are closely related. With the end of the Civil War and adoption of the 13th Amendment, for example, the prohibition of slavery became national policy. But values of white citizens did not change overnight.
After the war, Southern states began to pass laws, known as Black Codes, that established economic arrangements intended to retain slavery in all but name. Over time, however, minds and hearts continued to change such that today slavery, at least in the form recognized by the Constitution, is not only illegal but, almost unanimously, morally repugnant.
There has also been progress in achieving full citizenship for African-Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are landmark examples of policies aimed at ending racial discrimination, and most everyone now agrees that racial discrimination in employment and voting is unacceptable. Of course, racial segregation and discrimination persist.
In my own home town, Baton Rouge, La., the problem was manifested recently in the tragic shooting of an African-American by police officers that resulted in civil unrest, compounding the tragedy. It is heartbreaking to see one’s own city at war with itself, but such events shed light on a reality that many would deny, a cold war that is still there below the surface.
A priest of the diocese recently spoke directly to these events and the injustice that they indicate. He suggested that there is no political solution to this problem. He said, “We will only learn to live together when we admit that we are nobodys, so that we can all become somebodys in Christ.” Though this community and many others will continue to debate the need for additional policy changes—better use-of-force training for police, for example—ultimately he is right. Changing the law will not make us one community. Our values as a society must change; the law cannot do that for us.
Policy and attitudes regarding abortion may follow a similar pattern. Many Catholics invest a great deal of themselves in political campaigns aimed at changing the law with respect to abortion. If such legal changes are achieved, however, and prove to be as effective as our laws prohibiting drug use and as costly to enforce, will those who work so hard now be satisfied with the outcome? As with slavery, the law is only one facet of the change that is required. Abortion will become history only when the nation fully recognizes the sanctity of the life of the unborn.
Converting Hearts and Minds
Electoral politics provide an opportunity for citizens to participate in setting priorities and in the debate about policy changes to be made in the short term. But if policy change was not sufficient on the question of slavery, has not been sufficient on the question of racial justice and will not be sufficient on the question of abortion, our obligations as citizens do not end at the ballot. Converting hearts and minds on such issues is just as important.
We must, for example, bring our “nobodyness” to encounters with persons of other races in order to share the love of Christ and overcome separation. We must bring compassion to those who are considering abortion in order to demonstrate that mother and unborn child have a home and a family regardless of circumstances. We may even need to recognize the legitimacy of other points of view on these issues in order to grow together as a society. Picking a side in an election is not a substitute for establishing human connections.
The dominant cultural values of our time are not suited to sustaining a healthy society or effective representative democracy. Catholic values and traditions provide an alternative to these dominant cultural values and can contribute to improvement on both fronts.
The dominant cultural values of our time are not suited to sustaining a healthy society or effective representative democracy.
For many years I was a part-time college instructor in American government. Some of my students, like many of their age group, questioned the need to vote because, they argued, “My vote is not likely to make a difference in an election nor to achieve any tangible result for me personally, so why bother?”
This question is revealing. Phrased in a slightly broader way, the question is: “Why should I be concerned with anybody but me?”
This, to my mind, is the lynchpin to understanding the weakness of the dominant cultural values in the United States. In too many settings and in too many ways, the prevailing answer to this question is: “There is no reason why you should.”
Traditionally, a belief that human beings were naturally bound to one another created a sense of obligation to a community because of a belief that the community was in some critical way more important than the individual. When social bonds and obligation to community dissipate, a willingness to sacrifice for the well-being of others in the community is replaced by a tendency to act in ways that place others at risk.
Texting while driving, the illegal gun and drug trades, irresponsible investing, failure to end racial segregation, excessive consumption that depletes planetary resources and lifestyles built around technological isolation—all these place others at risk and are manifestations of this dissolution. Certainly some of us still dabble in communities on a superficial level or babble about their importance in shallow, patriotic utterances; but actually making life choices that place the well-being of a community above the well-being of oneself is no longer a reality in most of our lives.
A common misconception among those who recognize some version of this problem is that the unraveling of the social fabric began fairly recently. But the disease that is debilitating the American body politic is not the result of an infection picked up in the last few decades. The nature of the disease is more akin to a genetic disorder, with its origins in the sociopolitical DNA of the nation.
For most of the nation's history, as the political theorist Patrick Deneen describes it, the United States benefited from a reservoir of inherited communal attachments and ancient conceptions of the social nature of human beings. But this reservoir has been depleted. Catholics need to draw from the church’s values and traditions and do their part to replenish that reservoir.
Beyond elections and beyond particular issues, we are obliged to consider the broader cultural crisis of our time and the possibilities for contributing to the overall health of government and society. There are many ways to do this, and each of us should consider how our talents and circumstances can be applied to this obligation, but some common obligations are applicable to all citizens.
We are obliged to recognize the importance of civic government and support its effectiveness. We see how the church’s government holds a global network of disparate communities together; we could not be a catholic church without it. The same is true of the United States.
Supporting effective civic government in the United States requires voting for candidates who are interested in governing and capable of doing it. That in turn requires consideration of more than a candidate’s positions; it requires an understanding of their motivations for pursuing office.
For example, a professed willingness to work with others to move society forward together may reveal an attitude conducive to governing; a desire to destroy opponents is an attitude detrimental to governing. The latter attitude has come to dominate U.S. elections.
The first consequence of this is, not surprisingly, poorly functioning government; and poorly functioning government in turn makes policy progress on any issue nearly impossible. To support candidates simply because they claim they will fight for certain policy positions is self-defeating. To support candidates who support the institutions that make governing possible is our obligation.
We are obliged to be ever attentive to commonalities and shared purpose. There is far too much concern among officials and voters with winning the next election. As a result, we obsess over our differences and lose all sight of our shared values and goals. If partisan politics dominate our civic activities and convince us that we are always engaged in combat with each other, we have given up all sense of national unity in favor of victory-oriented division.
We are obliged to take our values into all facets of our social lives, including the economy. I have heard practicing Catholics suggest that popes and bishops should not comment on economic issues. Presumably this belief is encouraged by the belief that the forces that make up the free market system are content-neutral and therefore should be kept separate and apart from moral judgment. There may be perfectly sound arguments supporting this conclusion, but they are not Catholic arguments; indeed, segregation of this sort seems to be the essential form of worshiping two masters.
The invisible hand works without government interference, but it works much better for everyone, and with less government interference, if moral principles guide the actions of its actors. The obligation to make morally sound economic decisions applies to both producers and consumers.
Admittedly, doing this makes economic decisions much more difficult. For an executive, balancing the needs of current employees with the obligation to the sustainability of the enterprise for the sake of future employees is harder than just answering to the fiduciary obligation to shareholders; and consumer choices that confront materialism and acknowledge ecological and fair trade concerns demand decision making more challenging than simply maximizing the buying power of our income. We are obliged to commit ourselves to these difficulties as a way of committing ourselves to something bigger than ourselves and reversing the exploitative and destructive forces of purely self-interested economic activity.
We are obliged to retain commitment to authentic community. Authentic communities nurture the individual but also demand that the individual make commitments and sacrifices for the sake of the community. They create a sense of belonging but also a sense that such belonging is expansive, not insular, directing attention of each member outward to the human community rather than to the differences between “us and them.”
The family provides the foundational experience of belonging and sacrifice for most of us, and we are obligated to ensure that family is experienced by everyone. The structure of the Catholic Church, with local parishes united in dioceses that are in turn united globally, is a very distinct example of how local communities can be united in a much larger community. Theoretically, the nation’s county, state, and federal governments could function in the same way, but even the levels of government seem more focused on division than on unity.
Catholic communities of vowed religious, in their subjugation of the individual to the community’s principles and in their service, provide a striking counterpoint to contemporary values in the United States as well. One of the great developments of recent church history is the expanding opportunity for more people to more intimately experience some form of the commitment of vowed religious. For some this occurs in small faith communities; others become associated lay members of one of those communities of religious.
In my own religious community, the Congregation of St. Joseph, the sisters speak often about how much they appreciate having new members who can share their charism, but what strikes me is how much our world needs what the sisters have. Authentic community is living proof that the political philosopher John Locke, whose thinking deeply influenced U.S. civic culture, was wrong about human beings; we are innately social creatures who achieve our purpose only through living out an obligation to others.
Religious people have an important leadership role to play in changing secular values
We are obliged to join with members of other faith communities who are also mining the depths of their traditions for a response to excessive individualism. There is nothing uniquely Catholic or even necessarily religious about obligations to the community. Indeed, the goal is for communal obligations to become a universal norm.
Religious people have an important leadership role to play in changing secular values, just as they did regarding slavery and civil rights, and for the same reasons. Sectarian differences should not distract us from our shared purpose.
Simply put, Catholics should manifest in every aspect of civic and political life a belief that we are bound to our fellow citizens and responsible for them, all of them. This statement is so uncontroversial and so essentially Christian that it seems it should not need to be said. It would not be but for the fact that the statement is so radically at odds with the prevailing values of the culture in which we have been long immersed.
That culture was founded in part on a rejection of the idea that human beings are naturally conjoined in favor of a view that the free exercise of self-interest is the basis of all relationship. Tragically, what was originally a peripheral principle has become the hallmark feature of the society that evolved. Now American Catholics need to accept the responsibility to redefine, even reinvent, a culture that esteems life and community.