Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On Placing Church Teaching Above Partisan Interest

While some Catholics forget that Matthew 7:1-5 does not forbid speaking against evil, others forget that it does forbid—it forbids rash judgment in judging motives and writing people off as a lost cause. Some even go so far as forgetting both, judging people as judgmental because they speak about evil. Our Lord forbids us to make ourselves the standard for judging others. He warns us that God who judges will judge us with the same standard we use to judge others. Pharisees and hypocrites do not fare well in this system because they judge people harshly for things they do themselves. But He will deal with wrongdoing in His time, and we will answer for those people who we did not warn:

When I say to the wicked, “You wicked, you must die,” and you do not speak up to warn the wicked about their ways, they shall die in their sins, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, but they do not, then they shall die in their sins, but you shall save your life. (Ezekiel 33:8–9).

That brings us to our problem. In this election year, Catholics are becoming pretty partisan in how they carry out this task. We’re focussing much more on the wrongdoing of those we disagree with, and not those we agree with. In some cases this involves Catholics who are equally faithful in keeping Church teaching but find different ways of being faithful—yet one group condemns the second group of being faithless. In other cases, Catholics only rebuke one side when there is wrongdoing by both—for example I have seen some Catholics rebuke one political faction of ignoring Church teaching, while ignoring the other side’s guilt in the same evil. They may believe both sides are wrong, but they only focus on the wrongdoing of one side and make excuses for the other.

After stating the problem, I see two common negative reactions. The first assumes I’m talking about “the other side.” The other assumes I’m talking about them and ignoring "the other side.” The results are self-righteousness and resentment respectively. But we have to look at this dispute openly. We have to ask whether we are discerning our behavior rightly and we have to ask if we are judging the behavior of others wrongly. That means we need to see if we are guilty of partisanship in how we see things.

Being partisan means prejudice in favor or opposition to a particular cause. So a partisan Catholic might point out the wrongdoing in something he opposes while ignoring it in something he approves of or in an ally of convenience. For example, condemning Candidate A for holding positions against Church teaching while not mentioning that Candidate B also holds positions against Church teaching could be partisan if the person was aware of this fact and deliberately hid it.

I want to make clear I’m not using the “he did it too” argument (tu quoque). A candidate or party that acts against God’s law does wrong. We have to make certain we’re not whitewashing one faction while smearing another. If X is wrong, we can’t condemn it when it benefits us and stay silent when it does’t. We’re supposed to promote good and oppose evil at all times, not just when it is convenient to a cause. I’ll admit it’s hard. When we recognize a candidate or party promoting evil, we want them stopped permanently if possible. If we see a tool to bring that about or if we fear a moral objection will harm their opponent, we may tolerate an unjust means to achieve it.

But that’s what we have to watch out for and avoid. Justice obliges us to give a person their due—which includes speaking truthfully. Sins against truth include rash judgment (assuming the worst in a person) and calumny (speaking falsely). So, if someone accuses a candidate about lying about his position on an issue, justice demands we prove our claim. If we assume the candidate must be lying that’s rash judgment. If we know the candidate’s not lying but we say he is, that’s calumny. So when we hear a charge like this, we have an obligation to verify it before repeating it.

I believe we have to be Catholics first and vote from our Catholic formation. We need to know what the Church teaches and why. If we don’t know, we need to find out. We can’t just decide for ourselves that “well it doesn’t bother me, so it must be OK.” But Scripture warns us “Sometimes a way seems right, but the end of it leads to death!” (Proverbs 14:12). We believe the Church is mother and teacher, and Our Lord commands us to obey her (Matthew 18:17-18, Luke 10:16). So we learn His will from her (Matthew 28:20). That means we not only keep the rules, but we follow out of the love for God and don't look for loopholes. As Vatican II taught:

[14] He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.


Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).

So we accept the special grace of God to live as He calls us, accepting His Church as a gift to guide us and form our conscience. This grace calls us away from legalism and indifferentism. It should guide us to live as He wants, not as we want. If we feel “called” to live as we want, that’s not grace.

Applying Church teaching to voting—where we make Church teaching the reality we live by—means we have to look at how our vote reflects what we believe. Our vote needs to promote good and oppose evil as best as we can manage. Since this election involves the worst choices, and one of those bad choices will be president in January 2017, we need to discern what each choice says about the importance we give Church teaching. If we vote in a way that treats a serious issue as a minor one, our witness will mislead people to think we don’t care. Unfortunately, many partisan Catholics do give that impression. We need to change our attitude in how we approach voting.

For example, let’s look at abortion. The Church teaches abortion is an unspeakable crime (Gaudium et Spes #51), and the right to life from conception is a fundamental right (see Christifideles Laici #38 and Evangelium Vitae #58). Since we’re called to make known how to follow Our Lord, our actions must show our opposition to abortion both in our private lives and in our response to laws and politicians who promote them. So, we can’t treat abortion as one issue among many. Nor can we argue this point away by saying X+Y+Z outweighs abortion.

I’m not saying that we can ignore other issues so long as we check the box on opposing abortion. That’s the first step among many moral decisions. But it is the first step, and without it, a person is not voting as a Catholic. There are other moral teachings we have to follow.

So if we have a candidate opposed to abortion but the candidate is wrong on other issues, then we have to make clear from the beginning we will oppose him on those issues, should he be elected, even if we do vote for him to limit evil.

But if we cast a vote for a pro-abortion candidate, we have a problem. We’re saying that we think some other issue is more important than abortion. So the person who witnesses our act can ask just how seriously we take Church teaching when the Church says the right to life from conception onwards is the fundamental human right. A Catholic might say “We intend to oppose him on this issue too, even if we vote for him to limit evil.” But people will ask:  Why does the Church believe differently than you on what is the fundamental human right? After all, If we believed as the Church did, we wouldn’t be voting for that person. We’d find another option like a third party vote or write in (if none of the major candidates were truly opposing abortion) to show our opposition. We would have to explain what possibly could be so evil that we would sacrifice opposing abortion to stop it? That has to be answered by the Church, not by our personal preferences—and it has to be an answer that will satisfy God.

That’s why we need to be clear on what the Church teaches and the reason for her teaching. We need to vote in a way that witnesses to our faithfulness, even if that means we vote differently than our personal and political preferences. In my opinion, the choices are so poor this time that we shouldn’t lightly jump to a choice. One candidate supports torture and unjust immigration policies and says he opposes abortion. One openly champions abortion and other intrinsic evils as a right. And if we vote for a third party (the two largest support abortion), we abdicate choosing one of the first two candidates to limit evil.

These are all negative effects associated with each choice. There is no choice free from these dilemmas. So keep that in mind, and vote as a Catholic, and not as a partisan supporting a party. If we lose sight of this principle, we’re voting to satisfy ourselves, not to serve God.

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