By Christopher McMahon, Professor of Theology
A few years ago, I had lunch with some students who had just returned from a conference on faith in public life. They reported being pleasantly surprised and intrigued by one of the speakers, who was a member of the Democratic Party. They had assumed that to be a serious Catholic meant that one identified with the Republican Party. In our conversation, I reminded them that back in the 1980s, in the wake of public statements and two pastoral letters, some Republican politicians argued that the Catholic bishops of the United States were agents of the Democratic Party. Times have certainly changed, and political alliances will likely continue to evolve in the decades to come.
Clearly, the history of the church is rife with political intrigue. Politicians and powerful business leaders have regularly sought to identify themselves with the church to leverage support for their agendas. Many of these efforts have been honest efforts to live out the gospel within the political realm, but other efforts seem to have been attempts to use the church as a veil for various ends that may not align with the gospel. Navigating these possibilities is no easy task, and the Catholic Church’s own uneasy relationship with the American political experiment over the last two centuries complicates the matter. After all, participatory democracy, freedom of speech, religious freedom and separation of church and state were controversial principles that Rome came to accept only with great difficulty. So, it should not be surprising that as the Catholic bishops of the U.S. have articulated and amplified the church’s social teaching over the last century, they have done so with great caution.
Prudence and practical reasoning are required for navigating potentially competing principles of Catholic social teaching (e.g., subsidiarity and solidarity; the right to private property and the universal destination of goods; the dignity of the human person and the preferential option for the poor; the rights of workers and the concern for creation). There are no easy solutions, no algorithms to sort priorities and provide neat and consistent answers. Unfortunately, in the present political moment, many voices have been making bold and simplistic claims about “non–negotiable principles” that will inform how “serious” Catholics must vote. But participation in the political process does not simply revolve around abstract “principles,” “values” or “ideas”; rather, when voting, one votes for a candidate, one votes for a person. In our representative democracy, a vote is an expression of confidence that this person can make decisions and promote policies that will achieve the best outcomes given the circumstances, and that vote will inevitably involve a series of compromises, accommodations, and prudential judgments. No one can make these judgments for another; these judgments, and the vote they inform, belong to the individual.
It is only through a collaborative, intelligent, and prudent effort that Catholics can contribute to the political discussions that define the moment we are in. Through this contribution Catholics come to affirm the fundamental dignity of the human person, whose free exercise of conscience reflects that dignity (GS [“Gaudium et spes”] 16–17). We should be reminded that the “Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person” (GS 76). Moreover, pastors do not have competence in political matters; it is the realm of lay people to employ their insights and wisdom to address concrete social problems (GS 43).
My hope in this political moment of hyper-partisanship is that Catholic groups, institutions and individuals might refrain from (not so) subtly telling people how they must vote. Rather, I hope to witness the empowerment of Catholic lay people to live out their dignity in open conversation about how to suffuse the social and cultural order with gospel values and not succumb to the political agendas of individuals and groups that seek to leverage a “Catholic vote.”