Thursday, October 20, 2016

Martyrdom and a Pinch of Incense, 2016 Style

The proconsul then said to him [St. Polycarp], “I have wild beasts at hand; to these will I cast thee, except thou repent.” But he answered, “Call them then, for we are not accustomed to repent of what is good in order to adopt that which is evil; and it is well for me to be changed from what is evil to what is righteous.”10 But again the proconsul said to him, “I will cause thee to be consumed by fire, seeing thou despisest the wild beasts, if thou wilt not repent.” But Polycarp said, “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.”


 Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., “The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 41.

I think I finally figured out what really bothers me most of all about the 2016 elections: Catholics insisting we must vote for their candidate, and if we will not, we are responsible for all the evils that happen as a result. In doing so, these individuals are, even if they don’t realize it, arguing that we have to sacrifice certain moral teachings as “less important” so their preferred candidate can protect us from the evils of the other side.  That means, depending on whom they support, either pretending that abortion is not as important as the issues we happen to be concerned with or pretending we can ignore other issues we dislike so long as we support abortion. Such Catholics insist concern over the moral issues they downplay are really too unimportant to take a stand on with other things at stake . . . especially if you live in a swing state.

I hear this, and it seems reasonable, except for one thing. Many saints went to their deaths despite being told that it was a small thing to offer a pinch of incense to state gods—they didn’t even have to be sincere, so long as they would go through the motions. The martyrs chose death because they realized it was not a small matter. It was a witness that they recognized the authority of the state gods, which meant they denied the full authority of God over the universe. Even an insincere witness could lead people astray. To be faithful to God, the martyr knew he had to give up His life.

St PolycarpPolycarp declared, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury:
how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” 

As I see it, the problem is the arguments saying we need to support Candidate X to oppose Candidate Y, and that concerns for other issues is putting lesser issues first is a misrepresentation of the Catholic teaching on double effect. Double Effect means that we do not will an evil so good may come of it. In fact, if it were possible to prevent the evil we would do everything possible to avoid it. Also, the unwilled evil must be less than the desired good. So, for example, we endure side effects from medicines for the good of making us well. But if the medicine had a greater than 50% chance of killing the patient for a good like healing a minor illness, we could not choose to prescribe that medicine.

In this election, the evils are avoidable. We choose not to violate our conscience and we choose not to vote for a candidate who will bring about evils. That’s the part people forget when they do a moral calculus. Yes, the Church is quite clear that the right to life is the most fundamental right. We can’t do things that support such a candidate who favors that evil without a proportionate reason (i.e., a reason which outweighs the evil done). Yes, that teaching is well known. The problem is people wrongly think, “Unless Catholics vote for this candidate, this evil will happen, so they need to stop worrying about conscience and vote for this candidate.”

But doing what the conscience forbids is evil, even if we hope to achieve a good end. Saving our lives or our freedoms are good things to strive for. But if it comes at the cost of sinning against God, we cannot choose the sin to save ourselves. That’s true whether we are told to burn a pinch of incense at the altar or whether we’re told to ignore our conscience and vote for a candidate so good may come of it.

So, how should a Catholic vote? I’m not going to tell you, “You must vote for X.” All I can do is urge each person to consider the evils each candidate promotes and how to respond in light of Church teaching. Because the Church rejects abortion so emphatically, I do not believe a Catholic with a proper understanding can invoke “proportionate reasons” in 2016. But does that mean we must support the other major party candidate by default?

No, we can’t accept such a candidate by default. It is possible that both candidates are morally offensive. A hypothetical “Hitler vs. Stalin” shows the flaws with “either-or” thinking in elections. What we have to do is consider a candidate’s positions independently and see how they compare with Church teaching. Of course, we have to avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good (i.e., insist on not voting for any candidate who is not flawless). But we can’t say that we can ignore a candidate’s unjust positions on the grounds of “he’s not as bad as the other guy.”

See, the Church is quite clear that we may not do evil so good may come of it (CCC# 1789). That obligation doesn’t change if we live in a swing state, or if we think that the stakes are vital. The Catechism also says:

1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

So, even if one wants to claim that this election is an “emergency” and we have to stop one candidate by voting for the opposite major party candidate, an emergency does not justify doing evil. The problem is. I’m seeing many supporters saying, “That issue isn’t important in an emergency!” But it is. Sins that cry out to God for vengeance include abortion and same sex marriage, yes. But it also includes oppressing the poor and the alien, and defrauding the worker of his wages. In my opinion, if one thinks they must vote for a morally bad candidate to limit evil, they must speak out against that moral evil and make clear that, while they think abortion is the greater evil, they still intend to oppose the moral evils of their candidate. Then, if that candidate is elected, they must publicly follow through. But that’s not what’s happening in the social media I’ve seen.

Regardless of how we vote in 2016, we need to put our Catholic faith first. That means we don’t pretend moral evils in a candidate don’t exist or aren’t important. It means we evaluate our choices in light of being a Catholic. We study the faith and form our consciences in accord with it. We also must pray so we will accept God’s will even if it is not our will. If God wills 2016 to be a sort of “Babylonian Captivity” which forces American Catholics to grow in our faith through some level of government harassment or even persecution, we must not compromise to avoid it. We should remember the witness of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste:

Forty Martyrs of SebasteThe Forty Martyrs of Sebaste.

After they had been torn by scourges and iron hooks they were chained together, and led to a lingering death. It was a cruel winter, and they were condemned to lie naked on the icy surface of a pond in the open air till they were frozen to death. But they ran undismayed to the place of their combat, joyfully stripped off their garments, and with one voice besought God to keep their ranks unbroken. “Forty,” they cried, “we have come to combat; grant that forty may be crowned.” There were warm baths hard by, ready for any one amongst them who would deny Christ. The soldier who watched saw angels descending with thirty-nine crowns, and while he wondered at the deficiency in the number, one of the confessors lost heart, renounced his faith, and, crawling to the fire, died body and soul at the spot where he expected relief. But the soldier was inspired to confess Christ and take his place, and again the number of forty was complete. 


 John Gilmary Shea, Pictorial Lives of the Saints (New York; Cincinnati; Chicago: Benziger Brothers, 1887), 128–129.

If we would save our lives or our security at the cost of compromise, there is no guarantee we will succeed. So, let’s stop bullying others who will not vote for your candidate. Let’s stop pretending a sin is “not important” when our preferred candidate is guilty of it. If we vote in a way which compromises our faith, or leads one to think our Catholic faith is an ideology that can be set aside when convenient, we do evil like the one who would burn a pinch of incense at the altar of false gods in exchange for safety.

So, no matter how we vote in 2016, let’s be sure it’s a vote that witnesses what our Catholic faith holds to be true. And, let’s also make sure that our actions after the election continues to bear witness—especially if the preferred candidate wins.

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