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Kathleen BonnetteFebruary 16, 2024
Young men and women stand in line outside a polling place with a "Vote Here" sign.(iStock/AndreyPopov)

Here we are, into the election season in earnest. We are tasked with bringing new energy to this political melee, while trusting that God is unifying and energizing the world. As Catholics, we have the responsibility to model this reality of unity and energy, which Jesus modeled for us: nonviolence and humility, even to the point of self-sacrifice, as a counter-witness to empire, narcissism and domination. A relational approach to democracy is critical to our efforts.

Democracy, Pope Francis reminds us, “demands hard work and patience. It is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory, and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.” In a column published by America in 2022, Bill McCormick, S.J. (referring to Tocqueville), notes that democracy can “[seek] to train one’s focus on self-affirmation without self-sacrifice.” But our faith calls us to adopt a political posture of humility, one that affirms and empowers others, especially the most marginalized—not in a paternalistic way but in recognition of the other as a bearer of the image of God, an equal participant in divine creativity and goodness. Catholics could offer a powerful witness of democratic solidarity over individualism.

As we think about our political engagement, we should dispense with superficial responses shaped by fear and adopt instead a framework for political engagement based in reality and relationship. We must reject false narratives and talking points, and attend intentionally to the voices of those who have been marginalized or exploited. As Pope Francis writes, “You have to go to the edges of existence if you want to see the world as it really is.” Privileged perspectives will not suffice.

We must reject false narratives and talking points, and attend intentionally to the voices of those who have been marginalized or exploited.

I recognize that privilege is nuanced—many of us hold privilege in some ways and are marginalized in others. As a woman, for example, I experience my share of misogyny, but my status as a white American assures me security and access to power in ways denied to others. This is why protecting democracy is critical this year and beyond: Democratic participation is not about seeking control—as we are wont to do when we are scared—but about fostering participation so that all can make their voices heard and share equally in determining what the common good might look like.

If our political engagement is intended to control our neighbors rather than foster greater participation—for example, if we are willing to ignore voter suppression in minority communities because we fear that ineligible voters will cast ballots, despite evidence that this is rare and inconsequential—we are choosing domination and self-concern over authentic love.

Indeed, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Octogesima Adveniens” instructs the faithful who hold privilege and power to “renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.”

As Catholics, we should witness to democratic solidarity, which uses whatever political influence we hold in service of the common good, informed primarily by the experience of those who have been marginalized (including the earth and our nonhuman neighbors). If we are using the political system to protect our own interests at the expense of the most vulnerable, we are not following the example of Jesus, who traded his life for that of a poor man on death row.

If we are using the political system to protect our own interests at the expense of the most vulnerable, we are not following the example of Jesus.

In some Catholic intellectual circles, the pursuit of the common good takes the form of integralism, and it is affirmed by some as a way to ensure that the political sphere is functioning according to its divinely ordained purpose. At a 2022 conference titled Restoring a Nation: The Common Good in the American Tradition, Chad Pecknold, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America, argued that “a perfect society has elevating power to unite us to our final end, which is God.” At the same conference, Scott Hahn, a professor of theology and Scripture at Franciscan University, took this further, saying, “the idea that a civil society should be neutral between authentic sacraments and their parodies, between the life of grace and the life of vain self-reliance, is incoherent, amoral and ultimately self-defeating.” Because Catholic faith fully affirms human dignity and flourishing, these arguments go, laws based on its values should structure political life, even if they run counter to the will of the majority—for they are for the good of all.

Insofar as these Christian values are conflated with Western patriarchal cultural norms—and not with the instructions Jesus gives us in the Beatitudes or Matthew 25—this is a dangerous ideology, even if its immediate effects seem beneficial to some Catholics. We have seen theerrors of a church tied to empire, explicitly sanctioning grave injustices through bad theology—the Inquisition, colonization and slavery come readily to mind. And on Jan. 6, 2021, as I have reflected in my book (R)evolutionary Hope: “I was sickened as I watched self-proclaimed Christians violently storming the Capitol building to disrupt a democratic process.... [If] we are concerned more with maintaining our own power, then we are not following Christ.”

Jesus lived his life in solidarity with the marginalized, but he never bullied or belittled; when we see him flipping tables, it is to dismantle the systems that oppress the poor. And still—he invited all to participate fully in the peace and unity that comes from living into our eternal, relational reality.

Because the Trinity is loving relationship, we image God as relational beings, through love that is invitational and participatory, not dominative. We are invited to share in the creative goodness of God and called to be peacemakers, to heal the divisions in the world through witnessing to this love, not to impose our will on others—even if we think it is aligned with God’s will. As the Leadership Conference of Women Religious recognizes, “the drive to be in relationship lies at the center of our being.” We are in relationship with all that is, whether we recognize it or not—whether we want to be or not. We know, as Pope Francis emphasizes, that “everything is interconnected,” and our flourishing is tied to that of our neighbors.

How to foster right relationships?

For Christians, the primary question always must be, how do I embody and foster right relationships? We must ask: What does the embodiment of God’s love actually look like in my personal behavior? On an interpersonal level? A systemic level? At the level of consciousness? The L.C.W.R. leadership team urges us to “set aside our individuality, that egotistical self-protective shield, and begin to exercise true personhood—openness and transparent honesty in relationships with others” during times of crisis. They suggest that “humility and openness, curiosity and patience, fidelity to the process and one another, resilience, courage, and generosity of person” are markers of a relational response to conflict.

Insofar as democracy itself requires some level of concession on the part of those temporarily in the minority voting bloc, we have the responsibility to consider who we are asking to bear this burden when we vote. Our metric always must be how well our policy positions align with the needs of the marginalized—how well others have been heard and empowered by our own political engagement. But that should not make us forget that we are in relationship with even our political opponents. Indeed, if we encounter others in this relational light, and listen openly and with compassion, we might find legitimate concerns at the heart of all of our disagreements—disingenuous and unfounded claims notwithstanding. Our relationships with one another always add nuances we cannot see or appreciate when thinking abstractly.

We have to be willing to encounter others in humility, leaving space for their insights to enrich—and even transform—our perspectives.

Certainly, as Catholic integralists worry, moral relativism is dangerous since attending only to what we ourselves feel is right or good reifies our lust for domination. But a relational paradigm reminds us that to have integrity, to live authentically, we have to be willing to encounter others in humility, leaving space for their insights to enrich—and even transform—our perspectives. Democracy does not demand that we abandon truth in order to avoid or minimize social conflict, but our Catholic witness should be one of integral relationship.

Acting on the reality of invitation and care over autonomy and dominance requires incredible vulnerability—for this reason, it requires incredible courage. Certainly, there is little reason for either side of the political or ecclesial aisle to trust the other to eschew domination and reciprocate care for us. Still, by practicing a relational posture and eschewing authoritarian, exclusionary and oppressive paradigms, we can walk in our authentic dignity as persons with integrity, inviting others into the grace of relationship, too. For as Catholics, we do not place our hope in any power or principality or person, in themselves. We place our hope in the relational God, and we trust that God is ever present, loving us all to wholeness.

[Read next: “Trump, the ‘religious right’ and white Christian nationalism.”]

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