The political divide in America seems to only get more polarized each year. Given the moral trajectory of our nation’s people and the “progress” away from historical Judeo-Christian values and traditions, this is likely only to continue. I see the polarization among well-meaning Catholics as well, whose spiritual instinct to stay more neutral and policy focused is frequently overwhelmed by the desire to pick a side and fight from that side for what we think is most right, even if that side is flawed. It happens to the best of us. But which side is better? Should we be on a side at all?
I am not actually going to explain which party is better than the other regarding Catholic issues. To informed Catholics in tune with the tenets of their faith, especially the non-negotiables, it should be self-evident. Rather, I plan to express some ideas Catholics should perhaps consider in their political thinking. This will likely displease many who subordinate their faith to their political leanings, but hopefully resonate with those who are firmly rooted in neither traditional political camp, but who instead try to be Catholic first in all things.
Separation of Church & State
Before I go further, though I think it’s important to state that Catholics cannot reasonably separate Church and state, as it has come to be misconstrued in America. If one is Catholic, they are to be Catholic in family, business, and politics – all things. As Pope Pius XII stated, “The moral order and God’s commandments have a force equally in all fields of human activity. As far as the fields stretch, so far extends the mission of the Church, and also her teachings, warnings, and the counsel of the priest to the faithful confined to his care….The Catholic Church will never allow herself to be shut up within the four walls of the temple. The separation between religion and life, between the Church and the world is contrary to the Christian and Catholic idea (emphasis mine).”
With that clearly stated, let us start with the low hanging fruit if you will, the non-negotiables, which every Catholic should oppose. They are: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and so-called homosexual “marriage.” These are all intrinsic moral evils which no Catholic can purposely vote in favor of nor support. Catholics are on the wrong side of the cultural “progress” on these issues, it is true, but we are on the right side of morality and history. And despite vehement opposition to our values – or Christ’s teachings – we have the moral high ground and must remain steadfast in our protection of all human life.
Now, whether a Catholic can still vote for a candidate who supports one of these, as long as the Catholic him/herself does not support it, and there are no better and also electable alternative candidates, is another issue for another time. But no matter what, a Catholic should not be in favor of any of the above, nor support a candidate simply because they support any of the above. To do so would be a grave sin.
Immigration is an extremely hot topic among most voters, so hot in fact that it in large part led to the demise of the Marco Rubio presidential candidacy, arguably one of the most devout Catholic candidates to run in generations. Our Catechism is clear in that we are indeed allowed to have secure borders that protect our nation’s citizens and sovereignty. But it also states that we should “love your neighbor as yourself,” and protect and sustain lives of our neighbors in need and especially in peril, and not let them suffer simply because they reside on the opposite side of a man placed fence.
God gave all of us the world, and what’s in it. He did not establish borders between all nations, nor divide resources to favor certain countries. They are all of ours to use, and we have an obligation to share them. Catholics need to give deep thought to this issue and seek a solution that protects our nation but also helps neighbors in need. Turning a blind eye, kicking the issue further down the road, and not helping at all due to security fears, are not solutions. We should not be foolish and open our borders, of course, but we must also not be indifferent to the plight of others. If you have not read Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Message of Pope John Paul II for World Migration Day, 1996,” I highly recommend it. It is a very balanced approach, illustrating that the Catholic position is somewhere in between the platforms of the American political parties.
Health care is another major issue where many seem to get caught up in the talking points of party politics rather than carefully pondering viable solutions. First, we must ask ourselves if we are really pro-life, or Catholic, for example, if we do not support universal healthcare. Our own Bishops have supported one form or another since as far back as 1919, when the National Catholic Welfare Council promoted healthcare coverage for all. But it also opposed government meddling, such as is found in the Affordable Care Act, when it stated,
The administration of the insurance laws should be such as to interfere as little as possible with the individual freedom of the worker and his family. Any insurance scheme, or any administrative method, that tends to separate workers into a distinct and dependent class, that offends against their domestic privacy and independence, or that threatens individual self-reliance and self-respect, should not be tolerated.
And of course over a millennia ago, the Catholic Church founded the world’s first hospitals with the understanding that all people are entitled to medical services. But supporting universal healthcare does not mean supporting the very flawed Affordable Care Act, which has many provisions that Catholics rightfully oppose. Catholics, rather than simply opposing our existing law though, should instead be working with leaders to provide a better solution. Such a solution would respect religious freedom of individuals and companies and protect the dignity of every person from conception to natural death. It would keep provisions that cover pre-existing conditions while ensuring that coverage for repeated occurrences for diseases are not considered strikes against a person’s future coverage. We, as Catholics, should support policies that promote the health and welfare of all of our fellow citizens.
Economics is a tricky area, and one where many Catholics are deeply divided, not so much as to what everyone would like to see, but rather how to get where we all want to go. I think I can safely stipulate that Catholics agree that we would all like people to have good jobs so they can support their families and provide for their children. Where we disagree, often vehemently, is just how to achieve those goals.
Simply put, one party’s approach is more of a Laissez-faire approach to economics, allowing the free market via the private sector to create jobs, with more dependence on individual effort than government assistance. The other party’s approach, historically, has more government involvement.
Starting with the FDR’s New Deal and encroaching further every decade since their ideal is having government dictate minimum wages, job creation, time off, maternity/paternity leave, for whom benefits apply – often by creating nearly permanent government jobs, and imposing regulations in an attempt to ensure fairness and equality. The reality is that both parties’ solutions have been inadequate.
The one party’s idea of relying on the goodness of wealthy people to invest in those less well-off rather than horde trillions for their own pride and pleasure was lofty perhaps, but ineffective in practice.
Similarly, the other party’s belief that high tax rates do not impact families, nor discourage investment, and that government can be the solution to most problems, is equally ineffective. Lost in the rancor, is the Catholic ideal of subsidiarity. According to the principle of subsidiarity, human affairs are best handled at the lowest possible level, closest to the persons most impacted. In practical application today, for example, it would mean local school boards would direct education, not the federal government. It would mean that individual towns and states could handle issues that impact only them, often at a much lower cost. But too often we see the federal government stepping in to apply “fixes” with unintended consequences that often only break things further. As Pope Pius XI explained in Quadragesimo Anno:
With the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties…Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.
He wrote that in 1931. Let that sink in a minute. The historical approach of one party does not go far enough to help, and the other approach hurts via misdirected hyper-interference. National solutions, both in an effort to provide opportunity and jobs and as a means to best protect those at the bottom, too often miss their marks. Catholics should implore their political leaders to again consider the principle of subsidiarity as one solution to what ails our economy. In addition, those who are corporate shareholders should engage to ensure economic justice in the companies in which they hold shares. This is because government and business are woefully intertwined, and too many companies are using their financial power to threaten religious freedoms and drive economic policies, as we see today in North Carolina and Mississippi, and saw recently in Arizona and Indiana.
Clearly the major political parties in this country disagree about both the existence of, and if it exists, the causes of man-made global warming, or climate change as it is referred to today. And while the answer to whether it exists or not, and the potential fixes, is not something I will address, what is clear is that we are stewards of this wonderful planet God gave us. As such, we should do all we can to ensure we do as little damage as possible to it. Perhaps clear-cutting rain forests, for example, should be one of the more obvious things on which we could agree is not good stewardship. Polluting waterways through poor handling of waste is also a danger to all life on earth. As Blessed Pope Paul VI warned in 1971,“Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming, in turn, a victim of this degradation.” He also stated, “the most extraordinary scientific advances, the most amazing technical abilities, the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man.” What comes to mind quickly are Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis expresses support for protecting our planet, but also highlights the importance of job creation and innovation. He states,
Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.
No matter which side the political parties take, as usual, somewhere in the middle are Catholics. We must find ways to balance stewardship of the earth with mankind’s need to sustain itself.
Neither viable political party in the United States is inherently or identifiably Catholic. And while the policies of one seem to align better with Catholic doctrine, it is certainly not Catholic and indeed still has flaws. And the other, while more problematic regarding non-negotiables and social lifestyle issues, does give more weight to engaging for the purposes of economic justice. But as Catholics, it is not incumbent upon us to align with any party, but instead, align with the Magisterium, the Catechism, and our doctrines. We should not care to be labeled Republican or Democrat as much as we should strive to be labeled, and, more importantly, be visibly Catholic. In doing so, if we do so properly, we will find adversaries on both political sides. Ultimately, most faithful Catholics are better politically identified as independent, or unaffiliated.
In voting in any election, we should not support someone merely due to polls, popularity, and especially some emotional appeal. And we would be wise to understand that there is never a perfect candidate running. But we must first have a truly informed conscience – informed by objective truths and the teachings of our faith, not gut feelings. And then we should strive to support candidates who thus more closely represent our Catholic values, but vote we should. As Pope Pius XII stated,
In the present circumstances it is strictly obligatory for whoever has the right, man or woman, to take part in the elections. He who abstains, particularly through indolence or cowardice, commits thereby a grave sin, a mortal offense.
Catholics are indeed called to participate in the political affairs of the nations in which we reside, but we are not obligated to belong to any particular political party while doing so.