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?