There seems to be a lot of anger in our society today, from the streets of our cities to the darkest corners of the Twitterverse. This anger at times appears to be tearing our nation apart. John Adams, our second president, famously said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” As faith seems to fade in our culture (sometimes because of our own inability to live up to the standards we proclaim), we are becoming less able to engage in self-governance under our Constitution because as individuals we cannot govern ourselves—our passions rule us. We have difficulty making reasoned arguments because our emotions lead the way.
We are therefore susceptible to sloganeering, the bumper-sticker assertions of our partisan views, the meme-driven approach to outwitting our opponents. “Black Lives Matter” is a true statement, but it has also been used as a cover for radicalism. And it draws a response: “Blue Lives Matter.” “All Lives Matter.” Many pro-lifers would add, “Unborn Lives Matter.”
We need to work on the grassroots level to start transforming opinions in both political parties.
And they all do matter. Because beneath all the slogans there is a real argument going on: Who truly belongs to our society, and who is shut out? The Catholic view is that, essentially, everyone belongs, no matter their race, color, ethnicity, country of origin, sex, income level, ability or age—whether newly conceived or at the point of death. And, we should add, no matter their religion. As Catholics, we should remember that there was a time when we were not considered to be “real” Americans, that it was assumed we had dual loyalties, with our greater allegiance being to the pope.
Our first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, sought to overcome this bias by attacking it directly. Speaking to the Baptist ministers of the Houston Ministerial Alliance in 1960, he made it clear that he believed in an absolute separation of church and state, and that his faith would have no impact on his decisions as president.
It seems to me that he won the battle—or at least the election—but lost the war. He implicitly accepted the notion that any view thought to be based on religious faith should be kept out of political debate. His brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, would take this to heart when, despite his belief that abortion was a grave wrong, he changed his public view of the matter. This approach was taken up by others, including Governor Mario Cuomo, who, in a widely noted speech at Notre Dame in 1984, claimed that while he was “personally opposed” to abortion, he could not “impose” his views on others through legislation.
The Catholic view is that, essentially, everyone belongs, no matter their race, color, ethnicity, country of origin, sex, income level, ability or age—whether newly conceived or at the point of death.
Here we see the withdrawal of reason from public debate: An issue—the question of when human life begins—that can be evaluated with the help of empirical science becomes a merely private opinion held because of the irrational dictates of religious faith. Such a view underlies some of the debate concerning the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
The result of this process is, unfortunately, that a party that has many policy priorities that appeal to Catholics has declared that one class of human beings, the unborn, is not entitled to the protections of the U.S. Constitution. This situation has posed a terrible dilemma to many people of faith as even the few remaining pro-life officeholders in the Democratic Party are more or less shown the door.
We have been down this road before, refusing to recognize the full humanity of one particular segment of society, in that case because of the color of their skin. And despite the undeniable successes of the civil rights movement, despite the election of a president of African descent, this summer has shown that the wounds of centuries of racism have not yet been healed. So the argument about who fully belongs to our society continues.
First, we have to recognize not only the dignity of the human person, but also the reality of sin, which affects all of us.
Given this fierce debate, what are we to do, as Catholics called to serve the church in the United States? How can we be instruments of peace while seeking to broaden appreciation of the dignity of each and every human person—born and unborn, of whatever race, sex or class?
In “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops of this country have made some recommendations.
First, we have to recognize not only the dignity of the human person, but also the reality of sin, which affects all of us. In St. Paul’s words, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23, emphasis added). As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, though, we tend to sin under the aspect of good; that is, no one does evil for its own sake. What often happens instead is that a true but limited good that we desire can blind us to other values worth protecting (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 29, a. 4). We should therefore avoid demonizing our opponents and rather seek to reason with them, even if we need to correct a mistaken understanding—while recognizing the limitations of our own perspective. By refusing to see those who disagree with us as persons first, created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, we risk contributing to the poisonous tone of our politics.
Second, we are indeed a people whose convictions are based upon both faith and reason. Catholics therefore have both a right to engage in debate in the public square and the ability to do so calmly, charitably and with an appeal to all people of good will. We can do this, however, only with the help of solid catechesis, which will help us develop sound arguments that can persuade those who have often never been exposed to the rational foundations underlying our beliefs. As St. Peter tells us: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet 3:15).”
As the bishops point out in “Faithful Citizenship,” “the right to free expression of religious beliefs protects all other rights.”
As defenders of the role of reason in matters of faith, we should be prepared to defend as well the right to religious freedom, not just for our sake as Catholics, but for the protection of everyone’s conscience. As the bishops point out in “Faithful Citizenship,” “the right to free expression of religious beliefs protects all other rights.” Unfortunately, there have been challenges to this right in recent years; indeed, the bishops note, “the longstanding tax exemption of the Church has been explicitly called into question at the highest levels of government, precisely because of her teachings on marriage.”
Questions about marriage and sexuality, of course, are at the heart of many of our contemporary divisions. Despite the fact that the teachings of the church on these issues are grounded in a coherent worldview and an authentic anthropology, we have failed to bring these resources to bear in the public square. The result has not only been a tendency to view our position on the matter as somehow “bigoted” or rooted in “animus,” but a deepening confusion in our culture about what distinguishes men and women, exemplified in the ascendancy of gender ideology.
This confusion has its source in the instability of the family over the past several generations. Both law and culture have undermined the value of the stable two-parent family, despite overwhelming sociological evidence that this is the best environment for raising children. It has also led to the view that the individual, not the family, is the basic unit of society, leading to a sense of alienation and the fraying of the bonds of community. The challenge for us as a church, then, is how to encourage family formation and a culture of marriage when so many people, having experienced the pain of broken families, avoid commitment out of fear.
The loss of the sense of security that family breakdown has engendered has led as well to people seeking meaning through various forms of tribalism and identity politics—here, at least, they seem to discover meaning and a sense of self, even at the cost of further divisions in our society. This division has been further exacerbated by a concern among the working classes that an elite, composed of members of both political parties, has pursued a policy of globalization that has forgotten those left behind. While it is true that the global market system has lifted millions of people out of poverty, nothing in this fallen world is an unmitigated good. Here in this country, the result has been increasing inequality, the hollowing-out of once prosperous communities, a massive opioid epidemic and the rise in what are now called “deaths of despair.”
All of these changes in society and culture present a tremendous challenge to Catholics that transcends the election cycle. As the U.S. bishops make clear, our first task is forming our consciences about what our political system needs to address: “We recognize that the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience, and that participation goes well beyond casting a vote in a particular election.”
The key words here in relation to conscience, of course, are “properly formed.” Too often, Catholics are told to vote their conscience but are not given a correct understanding of what that entails. Quoting the catechism, the bishops’ document states:
Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1792).
We must first see it as our duty to form our consciences about what the church actually teaches, and the reasons for it.
In addition, the bishops remind us that politics is about more than elections—it is ultimately about our ongoing life as a community. Too often, we look at these questions only when Election Day draws near. In my life as a priest, parishioners have asked me every four years whether they can vote for someone who supports abortion rights. The answer, the bishops tell us, is that, no, we typically cannot:
As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support.
There are occasions, however, when a Catholic who rejects an intrinsic evil can support such a candidate, but only if there is a truly grave moral reason for doing so. The question of what other reason could justify abortion or acts of racism is certainly open to debate. It also raises the issue of the degree to which one is thereby cooperating in evil.
There is also the possibility, the bishops tell us, that a “voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.”
But if politics is about more than elections, perhaps we need to reframe the debate: Why, rather than agonizing every four years about supporting a party that claims abortion to be a fundamental right, do we not try to change the party? In this regard, the bishops state:
As citizens, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts.
This is a challenge to all of us, Catholic or not, who are concerned about life issues and other moral questions. Both major political parties have taken certain groups for granted: The Democrats presume that even radically pro-choice positions will not alienate those who support them on other policies; the behavior of the Republicans, meanwhile, often suggests that it is enough to declare themselves pro-life during the campaign while focusing on other policy priorities when it comes to governance. We need to work on the grassroots level to start transforming opinions in both parties, while also making it clear that our votes will not be taken for granted.
Finally, we should remember the wise words of Psalm 146: “Put not your trust in princes.” There is a strain of messianism in our politics that verges on idolatry. Every election now is presented to us as “the most important election in our lifetime,” as the parties try to whip us into a frenzy in which we cast our reason aside and allow our passions to lead us into further division and anger.
We need to deepen our understanding of our own faith so as to properly form the consciences of those who will look to us for guidance.
We need to remind ourselves that the first thing to know about politics is that politics is not the first thing. God is. We need to pray, to learn to trust in his Providence and in his lordship over history. We need to deepen our understanding of our own faith so as to properly form the consciences of those who will look to us for guidance. And we should recall the words of one of our wisest presidents: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
To act without malice, and with charity, means that we should see those who disagree with us, even on the most vital of issues, as brothers and sisters who, like us, are in need of the mercy and love of God—and who, like us, are continually offered the gifts of grace and conversion.
While holding always to the truth, we are meant to be instruments of peace and reconciliation, primarily by drawing as many people as possible to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ: “For he is our peace, he made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity,…that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God” (Eph 2:15-16). May he now work through us to help bind the wounds and heal the divisions of our nation, and so unite us as beloved children of our merciful God.