In the King's Backyard, "We Cannot Be a One Issue People"
As a nation we are currently involved in the process that will lead to the election of the next President of the United States. The debates between the presidential candidates and the vice-presidential candidates have been aired. Sides are being taken based on party lines, or on issues of particular interest. Within the past few weeks, some denominations have taken on the task of challenging the policy of the IRS concerning the Church and politics. They are deliberately endorsing candidates and urging people in their congregations to vote for those persons in order to force the IRS to determine if the current policy of forbidding such endorsements is proper. (I disagree with this approach because of my deep respect for the non establishment of religion clause in the First Amendment to our Constitution.) A number of Catholics have been asking their bishops to endorse candidates. In the past two weeks, I have received letters from well-meaning people telling me for whom I should vote and how I should inform parishioners regarding the candidates for whom they should or should not cast their ballot. However well-intended the writers are, it is not my duty nor is it my role to tell the members of the community of faith in the Diocese of Memphis how to vote. My ministry is to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ as announced in Scripture and articulated by the Church so that our people can make good and wise decisions in their lives. My ministry is to make certain that all Catholics in the Diocese of Memphis cast their vote using a well-informed conscience as a guide.Home to 73,000 Catholics, the Memphis church started this academic year with a contingent of 25 seminarians -- its largest group in formation since its founding in 1971.
We Catholics are vested into the very fabric of our society. Within the fabric of society, we participate in the public life and we vote because it is part and parcel of being baptized. Our faith teaches us that participating in the public life of our city, state and nation is a moral obligation. If we are going to bear witness to Christ in all that we do, then we must bear Christian witness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states boldly: "As far as possible, citizens should take an active part in public life."
In the letter, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops said, "We Bishops have the … responsibility … to provide moral guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life. In fulfilling these responsibilities, the Church's leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote." I am in agreement with this statement which was issued last November. Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, said, "The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must nor remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice."
According to our Holy Father, we disciples of Jesus cannot remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice; this means that we must be part of the game. However, politics is not just a game; it is instead a part of the commonwealth of our lives. Just as we cannot avoid drinking water in order to live, so also, as faithful Christians we cannot avoid being involved in the political process and remain good Christians. But if we are to be involved in the political process by voting, then we must have formed our consciences well.
How do we do that? First of all, we must have a desire to embrace goodness and truth. That means basically that we must study and understand the scriptures and the teachings of the Church as her teachings relate to the many issues we face as a nation. Secondly, we must carefully examine the facts and the background information that are available to us about the various candidates. Thirdly, we must prayerfully reflect on what is the will of God for us in this particular set of circumstances.
Voting with a good conscience is not an easy task. It is much easier to give in to the sound bites and the catchy phrases. It is much easier to go the party line blindly and mindlessly. It is much easier to choose because of personality rather than the content of character. It is easier to say "I just like him or her; he or she is one of us" rather than to ponder, reflect, and pray for our choice prudently.
As we form our conscience, we must be aware of the need for prudence. Prudence is not easy to define, but according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, prudence helps us to "discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it."
So, when we are presented with candidates whose views do not reflect the full teachings of the Church, what are we to do? The spiritual writer, Father Ronald Rolheiser, OMI, has written in his book Secularity and the Gospel: "In an age of increasing violence, fundamentalism, and the myth that God wishes to cleanse the planet of its sin and immorality by force, perhaps the first witness we must give to our world is a witness to God's non-violence, a witness to the God revealed by Jesus Christ who opposes violence of all kinds, from war, to revenge, to capital punishment, to abortion, to euthanasia, to the attempt to use force to bring about justice and God's will in any way." What Father Rolheiser says here, as I understand it, is that we cannot be a one issue people. We must recognize that God, through the Church, is calling us to be prophetic in our own day. If our conscience is well formed, then we will make the right choices about candidates who may not support the Church's position in every case. The Bishops of the United States have written, "There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate's unacceptable position may decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil."
A person might choose not to vote, but voting is a necessary part of our witness to Jesus Christ and a witness to our Baptism. So, sometimes hard choices will have to be made. Being Catholic has never been known to be an easy path to salvation. Jesus never promised us a rose garden devoid of hard choices. He did, in fact, tell us that if we were to be his followers, we must pick up the cross daily and follow him. Part of the cross in the upcoming election may well be in realizing that different people may in good conscience arrive at different decisions about how they will vote.
I pray that we will take the time to reflect prayerfully and carefully on the words that have been written at greater length in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Then with well-informed consciences, and with our hands firmly in God's hands we will be able to vote in a way that is prudent and that will give us the peace of which St. Paul speaks, "..the peace of God which is beyond all understanding." (Phil. 4,7)