The Candidates and Church Teaching

It is a privilege to treat our friends to some of Gary Potter’s discerning thoughts concerning the election. — Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M.

The Candidates and Church Teaching

By Gary Potter

There is still more than a year to go before American voters cast their ballots in even the first 2008 primary elections, and the GOP and Democratic nominating conventions and general election will all come after that. However, the air is already thick with presidential campaign politics, and the ground with presidential candidates. The latter are so numerous this election cycle – so numerous and sufficiently dissimilar – the U.S. political system almost gives the appearance of a multiparty one instead of the duopoly we actually have. In such a crowded field, a Catholic citizen serious enough about the Faith to weigh candidates and the programs they espouse in the light of its teachings could believe he might find one he can whole-heartedly support.

Seeing whether he really can – i.e., determining whether such a candidate exists and identifying who he or (this election) she might be – is not the purpose of these lines. The concern here is the standards, the criteria, that need to be applied in order for the Catholic citizen to decide if he can support anyone. The most authoritative recent summary of them appears in a document published for the guidance of the faithful, “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life”. The document was published to the world in January, 2003, by the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith when that body was headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

There is a line in the document that has been much quoted out of context as evidence that the Church, for the first time in her 2,000-year history, now endorses a particular form of government, to wit, democracy – the very system that has produced the current field of U.S. presidential candidates. The line, out of context and on first impression, certainly can be taken as such evidence. It says: “The Church recognizes that democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices.”

First impressions can be misleading. Doubtless democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, but that is not the same thing as saying citizens should always participate in political choices or that their participation should always be direct.

Further, if the statement is quoted in its entirety and in context, a very much different picture emerges than is given by our first impression that the Church is endorsing a particular form of government as so much better than every other that only it ought to exist.

We want to quote the entire statement and give the context because in that context the document provides criteria according to which a serious Catholic may decide if there is a current candidate he can support.

“The Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person.” That person has a “duty to be morally coherent,” which is to say he does not or, rather, should not try, to lead two separate lives, a so-called spiritual or religious one and a so-called secular one, like politicians (and their supporters) who claim to be “personally opposed” to abortion but swear they will not seek to “impose” their “personal” position on others.

“In fact,” we read, “every area of the lay faithful’s lives, as different as they are, enters into the plan of God….where the love of Christ is revealed and realized for both the glory of the Father and service of others.” This is the “correct understanding of the human person” on which the “success” of democracy is to be judged. “Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle….”

Those words, “cannot compromise on this principle,” want to be underlined because “in this context, it must be noted that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” Thus it is that there are moral principles that “do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation” because what is at stake is “the essence of the moral law which concerns the integral good of the human person.” The document specifies that programs and laws touching on such principles include ones that bear on “abortion and euthanasia,” on the “rights of the human embryo,” on “monogamous marriage between a man and a woman,” on the freedom of parents “regarding the education of their children” and also on society’s “protection of minors”.

The document does not suggest, let alone specify, what the Catholic citizen may do when he has no choice except between candidates who espouse the kind of programs and laws which “contradict the fundamental contents of faith and morals”. Refrain from voting?

But what if the present field of candidates includes one who does not espouse unacceptable programs and laws? This writer’s own sense is that American society by now is too sunk in moral squalor for such a candidate to be able to secure his party’s nomination, much less be elected. If he is bound to lose, does it make sense to support him anyway?

Also, when the document was published in January, 2003, the U.S. had not yet invaded Iraq. We could conjecture that had the document been published later in 2003 it might have included waging unjust war as a violation of moral principles that “do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation.” However, it would probably have been beyond the document’s scope to consider the morality of the foreign alliance that produced the neocons’ war (whose expansion is now feared by many). It is certainly beyond the scope of these lines to discuss the question.

We stated our limited purpose at the lines’ beginning: to discover criteria – perhaps we should say some criteria – that need to be applied in order for a Catholic citizen to decide if he can support a political candidate, and we have seen how such criteria are summarized in an authoritative Church document. Within that scope, the only additional question that might be considered is one already raised: whether to support an acceptable candidate, if he exists, even if he is unlikely to be nominated or could never be elected.

Of course the question is predicated on our feeling moved to participate in electoral politics at all. That could depend on whether we feel obliged to vote by democracy’s contention that it is our duty to do so. Whether or not that is the case, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger clearly judged it is not wrong to participate or it would not have bothered to provide the criteria it did. In any event, the obvious answer is yes to the question of whether it is sensible to support a doomed candidate. No other candidate could be supported. We might also reflect at this point that the support received by him, depending on its extent, could serve to obstruct or slow those others who will simply lead the nation into deeper moral squalor. That is, it would deliver a message: We may not be the majority, but there are Americans trying to live according to God’s will, and we’ll do what we can, even if it is only to give witness, to keep from being ignored by such leaders as we have. It may be wished that it were not the case, that no one remained in the society except men and women like the ones who win nomination and get elected, but we are still here!