Friday, March 18, 2016

Faithful Catholics Divided on the Election. Reflections on a Passage by Archbishop Charles Chaput

There is no doubt that this election is going to be a difficult one for people who are appalled by the statements made by our major candidates. They are asking questions along the lines of “who can I vote for in a good conscience?” Unfortunately, these people are often being accused of bad faith to the point of not caring about the issues the accuser finds important. Confusing the issue is the fact that some people are supporting candidates for reasons contrary to Catholic teaching or are supporting a candidate for reasons which seem superficial and flippant. It is easy to confuse people in the first category with people in the second. Another problem is that some confuse questioning one candidate with supporting another. This results in many people feeling on the defensive over having their orthodoxy challenged while also believing that people with different views are not orthodox Catholics. It’s a vicious circle.

I think that a passage from a book written by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in 2008 is especially relevant here. 

One of the pillars of Catholic thought is this: Don’t deliberately kill the innocent, and don’t collude in allowing it. We sin if we support candidates because they support a false “right” to abortion. We sin if we support “pro-choice” candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so— that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn. And what would such a “proportionate” reason look like? It would be a reason we could, with an honest heart, expect the unborn victims of abortion to accept when we meet them and need to explain our actions— as we someday will.

Finally, here’s the third question. What if Catholics face an election where both major candidates are “pro-choice”? What should they do then? Here’s the answer: They should remember that the “perfect” can easily become the enemy of the “good.”

The fact that no ideal or even normally acceptable candidate exists in an election does not absolve us from taking part in it. As Catholic citizens, we need to work for the greatest good. The purpose of cultivating a life of prayer, a relationship with Jesus Christ, and a love for the church is to grow as a Christian disciple— to become the kind of Catholic adult who can properly exercise conscience and good sense in exactly such circumstances. There isn’t one “right” answer here. Committed Catholics can make very different but equally valid choices: to vote for the major candidate who most closely fits the moral ideal, to vote for an acceptable third-party candidate who is unlikely to win, or to not vote at all. All of these choices can be legitimate. This is a matter for personal decision, not church policy.

Chaput, Charles J. (2008-08-12). Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (pp. 229-231). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

I think his insight here is wise and worth heeding even though he makes clear he is not exercising his episcopal authority in this book. He makes clear that to support, without a reason that outweighs the evil, a candidate who supports an intrinsic evil is to sin. But, if the Catholic finds both candidates support the intrinsic evil, he must still make a choice. That decision might be different for each person, but if it is reached by being faithful to the Church teaching, another Catholic cannot condemn him just because they reached a different conclusion than the first.

What has to be avoided is legalism, paying lip service to Church teaching as an excuse to justify a vote one was going to make regardless of what the Church said. One has to seriously consider the evils of both sides and what consequences follow from one’s vote. Are we sure that the reason we vote for one candidate over the other really outweigh the evil that candidate will do?

It’s understandable to be skeptical. In previous elections, we have had people argue that voting for a pro-abortion candidate was actually the more “pro-life” activity because of their stands on other social justice issues. But, in refutation, St. John Paul II made clear that support for those “other issues” was meaningless if the candidate was pro-abortion:

The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, fĂ­nds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.


 John Paul II, Christifideles Laici #38 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988).

So, we see that a Catholic can’t say “well, he’s sorta pro-life even though he supports the right to kill unborn children."

The problem we have in 2016 is that on one side we have candidates who actively call good what the Church calls intrinsically evil while, on the other side; we have candidates who support other issues the Church calls evil due to the motives and circumstances. There are also reasons to question the sincerity of some candidates. If a candidate has a reputation of oscillating back and forth on the issues, how do we know that the commitment will remain? It’s like the play A Man For All Seasons where Sir Thomas More says:

Listen, Roper. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you’re a passionate— Lutheran. We must just pray, that when your head’s finished turning your face is to the front again.

Bolt, Robert. A Man For All Seasons (Modern Classics) (Kindle Locations 580-582). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

It’s not wrong to ask which way a candidate is going to wind up if they should get elected. But we do need to remember that there are faithful Catholics who have different views on which way things will wind up and, provided they follow the Church teaching sincerely in doing so, they are not choosing to endorse evil if their discernment turns out to be wrong.

But that is the key people are forgetting. Yes, there are Catholics who support a candidate for unworthy reasons. Yes, there are times when we do have a clear choice as to who is better. But if it turns out that neither situation applies, then we have to recognize that one faithful Catholic may feel that only choice A is acceptable while another may feel that only choice B is acceptable. In this case, I believe our task as Catholics is to reach out to those voting because they support an evil position or have a insufficient reason for voting for the one who supports evil. We do have the Church teaching to point to.

But, when the decision is not clear, Catholics can try to explain why they think their own position is better, but they cannot elevate that opinion to Church position to give that opinion authority it does not have (the reason why I do not offer my political opinions on my blog is to make sure nobody thinks I am usurping the authority of the Church to justify my own position).

So there’s our task. We seek to correct people (charitably) who hold views contrary to the Catholic teaching. We can seek to persuade people to do what we think is a better position when there is room for different opinions and we must pray that we are open to the truth and do not deceive ourselves or misjudge others.

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