By the time you read this blog, the voting will be over, but the counting will still be going on—perhaps for many days more. But whoever is President for the next four years, Catholics and their church need to do some serious soul searching as we look into the future. And I suggest we begin by abandoning all party affiliations and reregistering as independents.
A few weeks ago, I got some negative responses to an op-ed piece I wrote for the local newspaper (and many more positive ones) by suggesting that we all should be independents, but that this time we just had to vote Democratic. Even, I said, this time “Jesus would vote Democratic.” I suppose the remark could be considered a little inflammatory. It certainly wasn’t intended to cheer up Democrats or enrage Republicans. But all Catholics are independents, right? Jesus would have been an independent. And one of the notable things about almost all independents is that they vote and, almost inevitably, they vote Democrat or Republican. So, I wasn’t saying that Jesus is a Democrat or that he is opposed to Republicans. Just that an independent is going to vote one or the other, and this time it would have to be Democratic.
That we all should have been voting Democratic follows from Pope Francis’s critique of ideology. The only acceptable ideology, he has written, is the ideology of the gospel. All other ideologies straitjacket our thinking. But the ideology of the gospel enlarges thinking and calls on us to believe there are no limits to the message of life that is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel is prolife in all its many manifestations, prolife in the broadest possible sense of the phrase. If you put your head in the sand and deny climate change, you are not prolife. If you don’t wear a mask and practice social distancing, you are not prolife. If you live quietly in a country that profits enormously from the sale of arms, you are not prolife. And on the question of abortion, those who are not prolife can be found in both the prolife and prochoice camps. There are what we Brits call “headbangers” at both extremes. In the middle, we face the awful challenges of moral choice. But not because we are Democrats or Republicans.
Now that the voting in this most contentious of elections is over, it is time for the Catholic church and the community of faith, evidently not always exactly the same, to ask ourselves what should be the relationship between our Catholic identity and issues of political choice and civic virtue. And there, of course, is the heart of the issue. Political choices need to be made to promote civic virtue, not xenophobia or short-term personal gain. This is the core of the difference between calling someone a politician or a statesperson. In recent years, we have seen the worst of politicians putting their own egos or their own party’s advantage ahead of the national and global common good. If politicians belong to one party or another, it has to be because they see that party as promoting the common good. And when it doesn’t, well, you vote your conscience.
What is true for our elected representatives is equally true for those of us who elect them, and those in our community of faith who have more power or influence over Catholic public opinion. First to the bishops: If they cannot agree on ethical priorities, as apparently they cannot, then they need immediately to abandon the hoary old “Guide to Faithful Citizenship” in favor of something better. Perhaps silence would be better than a document that carefully explains how Catholic voters should not be single-issue people, but which is now prefaced with a statement that clearly says abortion is the pre-eminent issue for voters. This judgment is a commercial for the Republican party that contradicts the teaching contained in the document, and one that is so blatant that I would like to think that the next administration will take a long hard look at the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church. In fact, it was made pretty clear in recent months that some bishops and many clergy have been using the pulpit to contradict their own USCCB document, and there may be a price to pay.
But what of us, the people in the pew who vote? The first requirement for the exercise of an informed conscience, and here I agree with the bishops, is that we learn what is at issue and what is the quality of the arguments martialed on both “sides” to try to convince us. Bishops have no claim to our allegiance if they argue badly. (That is one reason, by the bye, that the Catholic faithful is largely not with them on issues of clerical celibacy and quite divided over the role of women in ministry.) So, bishops need to argue differently from politicians. No ego, no personal gain. No, they need to turn to the advice of Pope Francis and stick with the ideology of the gospel. As also should we voting faithful.
The gospel demands our commitment to the message of the Incarnation, that God so loved the world that the divine entered into history to the fullest possible extent, that of suffering and death. Our task as Catholic Christians is to love the world for God, to be a loving presence of God in history. And it is this and nothing else that should inform our commitment to civic virtue. Of course, we all can argue about what is the best course of action for civil society to take to make the world more like its God gave it the freedom to become, to become more like God, to be more loving. But we cannot argue about the gospel principle itself. There is no Christian argument for choosing the less loving course of action, whatever the cost. The cross is the Christian proof of this, and the resurrection into new life is the reward.
Our political choices moving forward require us to embrace the cross, to tackle the difficult civic and human issues in the service of bringing new life to the world. The only single issue that we should stand for is the single issue of a more contented life for all of humanity in a world that is our home, a home we share with the rest of God’s creation. This has absolutely nothing to do with party affiliation. So as a first step, let the Catholic community make a public commitment to status as independent voters. Our vote has to be won, and it will be won only if the political platform promotes the fullness of life. Which is indeed the ideology of the gospel.
Paul Lakeland is a teacher, scholar and director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.