Several months ago, I started writing a post about how difficult it is to be Catholic during the peak seasons of political campaigns. Here’s how I started it:
While I’ve admittedly not been paying a great deal of attention to the political ruminations of the GOP, I have noticed the absolutely overwhelming press attention that Donald Trump has been getting lately. I missed the debate a few weeks ago (this was the first debate of the entire campaign), and I’ve tried not to read too much into any one candidate at this point. On the other side of the political aisle, everybody’s pointing toward Hillary Clinton as the default candidate and so, that should settle the question, right? Not so fast! There’s a growing community of folks rallying behind Bernie Sanders, painting him as the anti-political candidate who will bring sanity to the Democratic party. They’re even giving us handy graphs to show us the differences, and clearly, Sanders is the way of the future.
I never did finish that post, but I think I can say that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Six months ago I never imagined we’d still be talking about Trump. But I also wasn’t so sure about whether Sanders was going to hang around.
In any event, one thing is clear: when it comes to politics, the press seems to focus on buzzwords, sound bites, glitz, and glam much more than any nuanced discussion or sober analysis.
No matter what your political affiliation or leanings, trying to determine the best person to become President is a very complicated decision, and the way the media covers the process makes it even more difficult. However, as a Catholic, the process becomes even more convoluted. Why? Come, let us reason together.
Catholics are in a particularly difficult spot when it comes to politics because we are decidedly members of a faith which calls us to a both/and, not either/or approach. For instance, when our tradition reflects on the developments of the modern world, we’re not given the choice of faith or reason, theology or science. We’re called to embrace both, which is very hard sometimes! It also gets messy. So then in politics, it should be no surprise that we have a challenging call: embrace the largest vision of the common good that we possibly can.
So what kind of difficulties does this lead to? For one, it automatically means we can’t just tie ourselves down to a particular party. We have to evaluate candidates in a much more considered fashion. What are their ideals, what is their platform, and what do they have to say about the most important issues? Further, we are called to pay attention to the web of connections among the various items.
These are the questions and considerations that face us, and I for one am often conflicted about how easy and simple most people in general, and also most Catholics, make things seem overly simple. It’s easy to say “Well, Democrats officially favor abortion, so we have to vote for Republicans.” It’s true that abortion rights factor in as a major part of their party’s views. But it’s not so simple to just decide that one, as a Catholic, has to vote Republican.
I say it’s not so simple as voting Republican because a major reason for automatically going toward the Republican side is that the Democratic view is decidedly not pro-life. That’s good reasoning, as far as it goes. But it ignores the complication of other life issues like the death penalty, war, immigration, etc.
Of course, we also can’t pretend that all Republicans are pro-death penalty, love war, or have medieval ideas about immigration policy. There’s always third party options, right? Sure! But none of them are likely to meet all of the goals of the Catholic view on the world. And, in a certain sense, it might be silly to expect any politician to truly run on 100% Catholic ideals. If they did so, while it might be super easy to vote for them, it’s almost a surefire fact that they’d never be successful in getting elected, or working within the political establishment to accomplish anything advancing the common good.
Now, with all of this said, many are led to the idea that the best option is to just forget about the whole thing. The most popular vision of this is the “Benedict option” named for St. Benedict who, seeing the writing on the wall of the Roman Empire, decided to withdraw from that society and found a monastery to pursue the fullness of the Catholic faith. This was a heroic act of virtue in the middle ages and is, obviously, much more difficult to really pursue today.
Yet many Catholics have made notable attempts, and perhaps some modest success, in forming their own communities and removing themselves from the world as much as possible. They home school, cultivate jobs which allow them to work from home, grow their own food, attend daily Mass, etc. Let me be clear here: this is a tremendous good, and there is nothing wrong with it. Without a doubt, many are called to that type of life, and great blessings for the world can flow from that.
Still, there are also clear teachings within the Catholic tradition that we are not required to leave the world behind. In fact, Vatican II was painfully clear about the way Catholics are called precisely to engage with the world, in order to be salt and leaven:
“They [the laity] live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life, from which the very web of their existence is woven. They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven…Therefore, since they are tightly bound up in all types of temporal affairs it is their special task to order and to throw light upon these affairs in such a way that they may come into being and then continually increase according to Christ to the praise of the Creator and the Redeemer.” (Lumen Gentium #31)
From my perspective, it seems that the key for Catholics, lies not in the actual political season itself. Sure, we need to voice our opinions about the major issues, and we need to make clear what our faith demands. But more than that, we need to be having conversations of consequence, making the truth beautiful, and showing what it looks like to live the life of the Gospel. When we do that, and I mean when we all do that, the political arguments will be much easier. We can only effectively transform a culture by being witnesses, not by winning debates. And there’s no way to expect Catholics to vote with a well-formed conscience if the only time we’re trying to form consciences is in the few months leading up to an election. That’s a full-time job.