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Five Things Catholics Should Learn from This Election Season

The most significant question for me today has nothing to do with who won the election or what will happen on the American scene now.  The most significant question for me is, what will we do as a church?  We are fortunate to live in the US, but American politics is not our final goal toward which we are working.  What can be said about a vitriolic election in which Catholics fought against Catholics – in which Catholics came down very keenly split across political parties?

I have been so sad (perhaps even distraught) about the ways in which I have seen the church divided against itself this election season.  That only harms us – because when we are divided, we cannot very well witness Christ to other people.

What is worse: I do not think the situation will be much changed in 2014 or 2016.  Yet I think Catholics – on both sides of the political aisle – do, in fact, have enough in common to come together (we’re the Body of Christ, after all) and be – not a Republican or Democratic voice – but a fully Catholic voice, one capable of witnessing the Gospel.  I offer here five thoughts for going forward:

1. To be baptized is to be Catholic enough.   In this election, we lined up and chose sides, based on American ideologies and not Catholic doctrine.  In public discourse, it seemed we were either FOR the “Nuns on the Bus” or FOR the “bishops”.  We began election arguments by deciding that “those” people are not the truly pure Catholics, and therefore we don’t have to listen to their arguments.  But an inextricable part of Catholic doctrine is this: if we are baptized we are part of Christ.  We may still be mistaken, we may still sin, but we cannot simply dismiss each other.  And at the least, the virtue of humility would suggest that we ought to wonder if some part of what my brother or sister in Christ is telling me is an appropriate chastisement of my own soul.  Listen up!  We don’t want to go down the Donatist road of thinking that there are groups of pure Christians.

2. Libertarianism looms as the new Communism of the twenty-first century.  It is the new great ideological opponent of Christianity, alongside the closely related cousin of moral relativism.  I see trends in both the major parties that suggest a wholesale focus on individual autonomy and freedom of choice from both the government and society in general.  These libertarian impulses take on different foci (abortion, economic policy, etc).  But no matter where the focus begins, the architecture of the argument itself makes it very, very easy to capitulate to all kinds of evils – even coming from “the other side”.   Individual choice and conscience are important – but taken to extreme, a focus on individual choice means that I can always dismiss my neighbors’ concerns because “they made their own choices and have to deal with the consequences”.

3.  Don’t  underestimate the concern for the “least of these” in teachings against abortion.  Abortion is a litmus test precisely because it is concern for the smallest among us, for the “least among” us, who have the least power.  The teaching against abortion comes, in no small part, from the same teaching that guides Catholic thought about economics and politics.  Which is to say: the case against abortion cannot be made in isolation of the fullness of Catholic teaching, including social teaching.  I think that when we treat abortion as an isolated issue, we’re only hurting ourselves.

4.  But likewise, don’t underestimate the power of “the option for the poor.”  One of the most appealing and yet difficult Gospel texts is where Jesus baldly says: “Go and sell all you have, and give it to the poor; then come and follow me.”  But it has been so central to Christian witness in the past 2000 years and it remains one of the key aspects of Church teaching that Catholics hold dearly (it’s a close second to the resurrection according a 2011 NCR survey).  In an era where income disparity is high and the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 patently did NOT lead to a rise in middle class incomes, and in an era where unemployment is still high and people often have neighbors who are on the brink, if they themselves are not, Jesus’ discussion of poverty especially comes to the forefront.

I think Right and Left have much to say to each other on how best to care for the poor… but I also think that the Right’s argument very much got submerged by abortion and religious freedom – without also showing how all of those are intertwined.  And the Catholic Left often treated poverty as a standalone issue, which means it functioned like abortion as a galvanizing issue.  The result is that we Catholics were too willing to separate pieces of Catholic teaching and those teachings got snapped up as soundbites for political parties.  But it didn’t do the Church any bit of good.

5.  Don’t underestimate the power of evil.  I am very worried about the ways that (from both the left and the right), we have often carelessly thrown around terms from Catholic tradition like “conscience” and “intrinsic evil” and “prudential judgement” and “solidarity” and “subsidiarity”.   Our uses of these terms have enabled each “side” to give themselves carte blanche on supporting political parties that hold explicit and implicit positions that are gravely (if not intrinsically) evil – things like torture and acts of aggression  and abortion and racist policies.

Not to get too maudlin, but we are the Church.  Do we believe enough in Christ, our Head, to come together – or will we continue to be disparate voices blowing with the political winds of American culture?



  1. Thank you for this insight, and the reminder that we as church have a responsibility to seek communion. We are going to have (and already do have) enough of a battle from “without”. The election has certainly highlighted our failings, but perhaps we might take hope that we can change – in the way we dialog, in the ones to whom we show care and protection, and in the way we love.

  2. Great post, Jana.

    I have been thinking a lot today about why I’m not thrilled, even though my “side” won. I think it’s in part because the division (in the church and in society) upsets me so much. One reason I supported Obama in ’08 is because he gave me hope that we could go beyond red and blue. That didn’t happen. Both sides deserve blame. But much as I am still inspired by MLK’s “beloved community,” I’m far less optimistic about how much progress we can make toward it.

    So I went to evening prayer on election night and, like you, I’m wondering much more about what the church can be and do.

    As I taught “Centesimus Annus,” today, I was again struck by how profound its understanding of the human person really is. I asked my students whether it was a liberal or conservative vision. At the end of class, one student said, “It’s not really right or left; it’s more like up and down. It’s not anything like anything we’re used to.” Exactly.

  3. Professor Bennett, thank you for an interesting post. It raises a few questions for me. In the beginning of the article you seem to imply that a divided Church cannot effectively witness because Christ was/is not divided. Am I understanding that right? Secondly, was Christ ever conflicted? If he was, then does that make room for the Church to experience internal conflict without placing the Church in some state of deviance? Seems to me internal church conflict has the potential of being a natural and or beneficial process in certain conditions. Thirdly, if Christ was never conflicted, does it necessarily follow that the Church should never be conflicted? My initial reaction is that I do not think it follows. Even if Christ was never conflicted, I think there are legitimate grounds for the church to experience conflict while being a legitimate witness. The grounds would be the fact that the Church on Earth is always in the middle of a process of improving its Christ-likeness. If it’s true that this process is never completed on Earth, then holding the Church to a moral standard of conflict-absence because Christ was never conflicted seems to be setting the bar too high. Instead, I think the best witness the Church can accomplish will be accomplished in how the Church deals with its conflict, not in avoiding conflict altogether. If the Church successfully avoided conflict, people outside the Church would likely be suspicious of it. So, I guess all of this leads to a final question. What would be the value of a single Church voice, even if such a thing could be achieved?

  4. Jeremy – thank you for the very helpful questions. In the above post, my divisiveness/witness point is more a comment on that I see Catholics too easily playing to the dichotomies political parties place them in, rather than most fully articulating Catholic teaching – than it is about whether or not Christ can be divided. But let me come back to that in a minute.

    I think you’re right to suggest that the best witness the Church can give is in how it deals with conflict… and I think in this election, we would have best shown that if we had assumed that we are participating in a common conversation to some extent. The way to do that is to begin, I think, with the fact that we are Catholic and that at the least, we therefore hold a shared telos (e.g. fellowship with God; witness to Christ). This is why my #1 point was about baptism – that we did not witness to Christ precisely in the ways we were accusing each other of not even being Catholic (which I think is additionally a theologically problematic point a la Donatism as I mention above).

    In the context of having that same share in Christ, we may well have disagreements about how to have fellowship with God, or how to witness to Christ. But we are then at least assured that we are not (intentionally) trying to lead each other astray from God. Catholic Church teachings do presume this, but the arguments we often use on the ground do not acknowledge this. I found myself annoyed, over and over again – on both sides – at people using terms like “solidarity” or “conscience” or referring to Catholic social teaching without ever stopping to actually do the work of making an argument using those things. It is when people do start doing that – start justifying what they think in relation to substantive discussion of, say, Pope Benedict’s encyclical, that I think we are best placed to demonstrating good arguing. So all five of my points here are aimed toward that.

    That said – the question you raise about divisiveness in Christ is a good one to consider, though it’s not quite related to the points I (try to) make above. I don’t know if I could say that Christ is divided. But I do wonder: given what you say – what do you make of, say, Jesus’ prayer that we be one – or Paul’s letters to a divided church at Galatia or Ephesus, which clearly enjoin on them not to be divided?

  5. Professor Bennett, thanks for clarifying. “I see Catholics too easily playing to the dichotomies political parties place them in” — this makes sense.

    You asked about Jesus’ prayer and Paul’s letters exhorting the Church to unity. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Ch 2-3, established what ought to be strong grounds for peace. Paul taught that Christ broke the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, establishing Christ as peace, cornerstone, and access to God. “You too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:22). I am not sure about the Greek, but the English tense here is present, and I am assuming the Greek, as the Ephesians read it, was also in present tense. The Ephesians, and probably all believers at the time, had not achieved full unity although they had already received Christ as their peace, access to God, and grounds for their eventual full unity.

    In Ch 4, Paul wrote that church leaders were intended to “equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we reach unity in the faith…” (vs 12-13). Here, again, is reference to one type of unity already possessed by the believers–unity in the fact that they were already the body of Christ (also in Gal 3:26-28)–and to an additional unity still to come–unity and maturity in the faith. This yet-to-be-achieved unity in the faith is the unity that will keep them from being “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (vs 14), which also seems to be of concern in Gal 1:6-9. I read these as relevant to your comments about contemporary Church members playing into the dichotomies set by our political parties.

    Paul went on in the next few verses to say that the unity the Ephesians already possessed should be sufficient for speaking truthfully to neighbors, resolving anger, forgiving each other, and working hard to provide for the poor. So, while the Church’s unity in the fact of their current membership in Christ, is sufficient for healthy interpersonal relationships and service to the poor, there seems to be a future unity and maturity which will protect them from deceitful teachings (and political party divisiveness, perhaps?).

    Jesus prays for believers “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me…so that they may be brought to complete unity…” (John 17:20-23). This prayer seems to suggest that the membership-in-Christ type of unity is sufficient for being a witness, even though a complete unity is still in the future.

    In Galatians Paul wrote that the “only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6). He wrote this in the context of describing what is most important about membership in Christ. In the context of our presidential election, and our participation in its divisiveness, Paul seems very clear that no matter what differences Church members may have on account of not yet being fully mature and unified, they do presently have enough in common, i.e., membership in Christ, that they should be behaving toward each other, and toward the poor, with love.

    I have to ask that you be patient with any naiveté in my questions and comments. I am not a Catholic and have had very little contact with the Catholic church in my past. I am a former Evangelical Protestant who is now an atheist, but I maintain an appreciation for religious practice and theology in various religious traditions. In fact, it was my leaving Evangelical Protestantism that enabled me to honestly pursue and appreciate theological understandings in other religious traditions. I was a pretty closed minded Protestant. On a happier note, I have recently returned to school to get a degree in philosophy and sociology, which keeps my interest in and appreciation for religion alive. So please don’t think that my remarks are coming from a position of petty criticism. I am insatiably curious and always sincere.

    And please fee free to set me straight if your interpretation of theological doctrines is different from mine.

  6. I appreciate very much your thoughts on this subject, and I am in agreement with much of it. But I believe you are mistaken in your understanding of libertarianism. Libertarianism doesn’t trump all other values. It doesn’t mean that I may dismiss my neighbor’s concerns, or abandon my children or leave people to die in the streets. It only means that I reject the idea that I should be compelled at the point of a gun to abide by government policies that go against my conscience. It is just freedom, and God built freedom into this entire universe. We should never look at believing in freedom as villainy. There will always be selfish people who adhere to any political ideology, conservatives, liberals, socialists, greenies, etc, but to single out libertarians as somehow especially villainous is to overlook the fact that libertarians are adherents of the only ideology in this country that respects the overall right of the individual to abide by his own conscience over and above the dictates of the State. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything that people do, or that we should not continue to persuade people to live a holy life. But if we want people to allow us to be free to live our Catholic Faith, we have to allow others to be free to follow their own path. Libertarianism is not moral relativism, nor is it libertinism. It is merely freedom. Please do not judge libertarianism by its worst adherents, much as I would ask you not to judge liberal or conservative ideologies by their worst adherents. It would be unfair and result in basic untruths about what these ideologies mean. I am a libertarian, and I am not now, nor will I ever be a moral relativist. No good comes from tyranny, but great good comes from freedom, and we should not limit people’s freedoms because we are afraid that our society will degenerate. If you look at the history of the last hundred years, the most degenerate societies were the ones with the least amount of freedom.

  7. Melianthus –

    Thanks for these thoughts and for calling me out on this because I really do want to learn where I’m not “getting” libertarianism. To that end I have a couple comments and would appreciate your further thoughts, if you’re willing. I’m realizing (coming back to this paragraph having written out the rest of the comment, that this is actually worth much more of a full blog post someday… apologies for the length)

    First: I’m not, in #2 above, trying to single out any one particular person here – such that when you say you’re not a moral relativist, and when you say that you care for your children and neighbors, I very much imagine that is true. It is impossible to be a moral relativist on one’s own, and I think, further, most people grapple with several versions of what it means to be a human, and what the most important components of human life are, so that I don’t think any one person is purely any one ideology. Further – when I say “libertarianism” I’m referring to something that is broader than any one party – so that what I see is that “conservatives,” “liberals” and “Green Partiers” are inculcating a particular focus on individual freedom over against – not just the state – but a broad range of both public and communal groups and institutions, including the church, though this sensibility may first have been learned in relation to American politics and its political parties. Second, I would just add: human freedom is important, especially freedom from coercion. I am not interested here in denigrating freedom so much as discussing what the limits of individual freedom might be.

    So one of my key concerns with libertarianism is not, in fact, with its apparent single worst adherents (I’m not entirely sure who that would be, myself) nor with a particular party, but rather how the idea of the “overall right of the individual to abide by his own conscience over and above the dictates of the State” influences broad swaths of human communities.

    For example, I discuss moral relativism in my post because I don’t see where the boundary is for human freedom in libertarian mode, except that I may not encroach on another’s freedom. Well – who decides what counts as their freedom over against mine? It is often not me – it is often adjudicated not by my conscience but by whoever in that relationship holds the most power. And that ends up not being free, though we would have started with that as the surmise. Further, if the sole boundary is preservation of an individual’s freedom, then there is no reason or authority I can give that can ultimately be convincing toward curtailing individual freedoms – which means that it is up to each individual. That strikes me as closely related to, if not directly, moral relativism.

    I add to that my concern that quite such an exclusive focus on individual freedom ends up defaulting to “the individual must be right” – when, in fact, that is often not the case. We are often not able, on our own, to seek good solutions to problems… our ability to make choices is very much socially assisted, and indeed, the choices we perceive that we have are often socially dictated in one form or another. (On this point, I’m thinking both of Aristotle’s understanding of the development of habits leading to virtue – that this is communal – , and I’m also thinking of S. Iyengar’s book The Art of Choosing – that we often can’t make choices, especially when faced with too many choices, and so we end up struggling, without ever actually living, progressing, moving forward. Both these points obviously need more development, but I’ll have to do that in a later post)

    As a group of humans, we are both struggling together to understand what the good is, especially the common good, and we are shaping and forming each other toward that good, in a variety of ways. One of those ways is via the State – which is not its own unmitigated good, either (of course!) For Christians I think it is ultimately God’s gift to us of the Church, Christ’s Body, that hopefully ends up forming us against the tyrannies of both radical individualism and also groups (like the State) that often lead us away from God. There is more I could say but I’ll end with those thoughts for now.

  8. Jana,
    I just read your initial post and your response to Melianthus about libertanianism. Leonard Cohen once said: “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” I think in discussing libertarianism, or any ideology, it is important to keep such a faith-filled overview of how the Holy Spirit guides us in our small intellectual constructs climbing towards truth. I have alot of libertarian in me, and also have a charismatic Catholic faith that pulls me at my heart toward the things my ideological leaning lacks.
    I completely agree with your insight that sees ” Catholics too easily playing to the dichotomies political parties place them in, rather than most fully articulating Catholic teaching “. I also hear in your discussion a fear towards libertarianism, rather than an embrace of the truth of human freedom as a part of the picture. If I may make an an analogy to a good soup, libertarians are one ingredient in the soup, and are simply expressing the part of the truth which they see everyone else ignoring. Without this ingredient the soup will taste very different. Without this voice toward freedom of the individual, you go in the direction of China, or even worse, North Korea. These 2 countries have gone much further in the direction of “the State” being emphasized as primary. I noticed in your last paragraph to Melianthus, that you checked yourself in this regard. If the soup has too much “state” or “common good” in it, and not enough individual freedom in it, then the soup will taste less like Catholic Social Teaching, and thereby not be leading people to greater unity through shared experience of the Holy Spirit.
    I think what libertarians have is a greater trust in the “common good” of a different sort, and that is the common good-ness of people when the government leaves them alone. The libertarians I know all work, and are all very active people in their communities. They do not believe in large government, and believe more that things should be done on a local level than a federal. If given the choice between 2 ways of helping the poor: 1) a federal machine of state that allocates for the poor from the top (which is pretty much what we are about to go towards) and 2) free individuals who provide for themselves and also help their neighbor from the local level of churches and charities………..which would you choose? I would choose #2, but I do think that those who say that people aren’t that generous yet, and must be forced to give at this point in history may be right. So the push toward government based solutions may simply be the natural consequence of our current moral level towards the common good, but in the future when people are more generous, and people are tired of everything being government, I do think libertarianism will have its day as well. A libertarian based society would require locally generous people to be a just society.
    I recall a story that a Mormon missionary shared with me about his time as a missionary in Austria. When he approached one lady to talk about her faith, the woman’s response was: “in Austria, people don’t need God, because they have the government.” Perhaps this is our time in human history to try the experiment of reliance on the state, but libertarians will be a voice saying what they see, that we believe it is not the best way. The best slogan I heard to understand libertarianism so far is “fiscally responsible, and socially tolerant.” It is not morally relative, but it does practice a subsidiarity type of understanding in morals, that social issues are best decided at the smallest and most local level (for example going from federal to state regarding abortion and drug use). I do not see libertarianism as an ideological opponent of Christianity at all, any more than being democrat or republican is. In fact, I would argue strongly that Christianity is NOT an ideology, but rather a deeply individual personal relationship sealed with the Holy Spirit in us through baptism, which we all share in the communion of saints. I have loved the discussions since the election ended, and see us being called to a greater righteousness as a people through our inner response to the Holy Spirit, and our understanding and acceptance of things as they are now. It seems to be a movement toward charity, at least in a mechanized way, and not quite as based on individual monetary rewards as before.

  9. Jana, thanks much for this excellent article. I’ve been thinking and writing about Catholic unity a good bit lately, and hope I can add a few useful thoughts.

    First, for fans of quick and easy, here’s a bumper sticker slogan.

    We can fight each other, or we can fight the devil.

    That’s a choice we make every time we rise to speak, put pen to paper, or type that next blog post. It seems reasonable to ask why we have the time to fight our fellow Catholics, given all the devils loose in this world.

    Second, we might observe that we’re fighting over ideology. We aren’t fighting over love. If any of us want to spend the day handing out sandwiches at the homeless shelter, none of our fellow Catholics are going to get mad and debate us.

    This suggests a common sense path towards Catholic unity. More love. Less ideology.

    As example, if we want to argue about something (it’s in my Catholic DNA too), why don’t we debate the best ways to raise funds for Catholic Charities?

    I’m coming to believe that passionate ideological arguments are actually expressing a lack of faith in the power of love. Arguing about ideology is really a way of saying, love isn’t enough.

    What if love is enough? I sense that’s what Jesus has been whispering in our ears for 2,000 years.

    We’re slow learners I guess… :-)

  10. Phil, I could not agree more. I do think ideologies play a part because the ones we embrace indicate “where we are” spiritually. We need to listen to and be tolerant in dialogue of other’s ideological leanings and emphasis, but if any ideology causes a person to lose their connection to love, then they have lost their “spiritual internet connection”. Discernment of the spirits and a posture of humility can lead to connection and unity with others, whereas focus on pure ideology puts your vision of Catholicism in a mental box.

  11. I am posting quite late in this series but I do have a concern.
    Your very first statement says that to be baptized is to be Catholic enough. I am concerned because as Catholics we tend either to set the bar too high or to set it too low.
    I know too many people baptized and never raised in the church as well as many people who left after only a few years of CCD or Catholic school as children. They don’t claim Catholicism and I am cannot think of a good reason to include their viewpoint as valid. That doesn’t mean I should disrespect them or their ideas, but it seems we could raise the bar a little. How about people who at least claim to be Catholic whether progressive, liberal, conservative, or traditional, have been baptized and are attached to a Catholic worshiping community however loosely?
    With the bar too low Baptism becomes more like a magical rite. Just use water and the right words.

  12. Elena – You’re right to press against baptism becoming a magical rite – but on the flip side, if we put in caveats to what names us as Catholic beyond baptism, we’re in danger of belittling God’s grace in that sacrament. It’s not a magical rite – but God does work in it, even in those people that us mere humans never ever see any kind of effect at all.

    Alongside that, I’m not saying that all viewpoints by anyone who is baptized are equally valid. “We might be mistaken, we might sin….” But we don’t get to say that the other person is not a member of the Body – even when they’re not participating in the life of the church, as in your example.

  13. Denny,

    I’m not sure agreeing is allowed on the Internet but I won’t tell on you. :-)

    What if the Pope called for a year long fast from ideology?

    The only way any of us could try to prove that we’re “the real Catholic” would be to out love and serve those we are competing against.

    POSTER ONE: “I worked 12 hours at the homeless shelter this week!”

    POSTER TWO: “Ha! I worked 14 hours! I win! I win! I’m the real Catholic!” :-)


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