Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Voting’

Pathological Politics

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Politics is a dirty business and anyone who is involved in it, even just as a spectator, has to have a thick skin and a high tolerance for invective and hyperbole. Even by the standards of ordinary politics, though, the current Presidential campaign has certainly hit a number of new low points in the behavior of the major party candidates — including juvenile name calling, deranged conspiracy theories, unfounded accusations of bigotry and hatred, and the dismissal of a large percentage of the population as being “deplorable”.

The level of discourse among the general public has also been lamentably awful, as any reader of a Comments Box or Facebook feed can attest. On the whole, this year has not presented an edifying display of democracy at its best.

All of this might easily be dismissed as “politics as usual”. But things are certainly getting worse, and it is a very dangerous trend. This was brought home to me the other day when I received a troubling email from a very respectable Catholic gentleman. In the email, he said that the Democratic presidential nominee “is pure evil and very powerful because of her allegence [sic] to Satan”.

When uncharitable and unjust things like this are being said by Christian people, we should be seriously alarmed. If we as Christians cannot engage in strong political discourse without resorting to calling people “pure evil” or alleging that someone is a servant of the Evil One, then there is something sick about our political climate.

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised. A recent study by the Pew Center on “Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016″ found that Americans are not just divided by politics, but that the divisions have reached the level of fear and loathing. For example, the study found that “A majority of Democrats (55%) say the GOP makes them feel afraid, while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. And nearly half of Democrats (47%) and Republicans (46%) say the other party makes them feel angry”.

Things have clearly gone beyond robust disagreement about policy proposals. This personal animosity is the fruit of a political culture that cares little for policy discussions, but is instead infected by ideological media like “comedy” talk radio shows that show contempt for opposing viewpoints and politicians, and thrive on stirring up feelings of anger and indignation against the perceived enemy.

I understand that many people firmly believe that imminent disaster is at hand if one or the other of the major party candidates is elected. I certainly share the concern about the intensification of the Culture of Death and attacks on religious liberty. I also am disturbed by the prospect of immoral, unstable and untrustworthy people being elected to high office.

But as Catholic laypeople, we cannot be satisfied with this state of things. We are called by our faith to enter into temporal affairs, including politics, in order to bring to others the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must advance our positions while still remaining disciples of the Lord. As our Bishops say in their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “We are committed to clarity about our moral teaching and to civility. In public life, it is important to practice the virtues of charity and justice that are at the core of our Tradition” (FC 60).

Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, DC, has said it very well:

We need to look at how we engage in discourse and how we live out our commitment to be a people of profound respect for the truth and our right to express our thoughts, opinions, positions — always in love. We who follow Christ must not only speak the truth but must do so in love (Eph 4:15). It is not enough that we know or believe something to be true. We must express that truth in charity with respect for others so that the bonds between us can be strengthened in building up the body of Christ.

As Christians, we cannot participate in pathological politics. Our society is indeed sick, and desperately in need of healing. But the solution is the message of mercy and love of the Gospel, emphasizing the dignity of every human person — including those with whom we disagree about politics.

Voting as a Catholic

Monday, October 24th, 2016

As Election Day approaches, there is a great deal of confusion and angst among Catholics. The Presidential race has garnered so much attention that it has overshadowed many other essential races at the federal and state levels. These other races will have an impact on key issues that affect our lives – the legalization of assisted suicide, regulation of abortion, religious liberty, war/peace, health care, etc. As in every election, there is much at stake, and we have a duty to be responsible citizens and vote.

When approaching our election decisions, it is vital that we act as Catholics – as disciples of Jesus Christ. We do not have to be locked into the arbitrary binary categories that the world seems caught up by – Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, etc. Instead, we follow St. Paul’s advice, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)

So our task is to think with the mind of Christ, and look for ways to build the “civilization of love” (a phrase first coined by Pope Paul VI) that is at the heart of the social mission of the Church. In doing this, we as laypeople have the crucial role. It is our duty to engage in secular affairs and transform them in light of the Gospel. Politics is our responsibility, and the more Catholic we are, the better citizens and voters we will be, and the more we will advance the Kingdom of God.

To do this, we first have to form a correct and Catholic conscience about public affairs. Fortunately, the Bishops of the United States have given us an excellent tool for this, the document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. This document provides practical advice on how to form one’s conscience in keeping with the teachings of our Church, and how to apply it to the political choices that have been presented to us. The goal is to foster political engagement that is “shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable” ( FC 14).

The first question that we must ask ourselves when considering how to vote is the character, philosophy and integrity of the candidates ( FC 41). It is essential for the health of the nation and for the common good to elect persons of good moral character who are responsible stewards of the power that we delegate to them. There have been too many examples in our history of the terrible consequences of electing people of bad character (see the Watergate scandal), and we should have learned this lesson by now. Public morality and private morality are connected, and we desperately need both.

We then must evaluate the positions of the candidates and their parties in light of Church teaching. We cannot responsibly vote based only on party labels or self-interest ( FC 41). Instead, we have to inform ourselves based on reliable and serious sources (i.e., not comedy shows). An excellent source for this kind of information is a party’s platform, which shows in broad strokes what the party stands for and what they hope to accomplish in office. This takes a little research, but with so much information on the Internet it is not too difficult for the average voter.

In doing this, we must keep the Church’s teaching in the forefront of our attention. Faithful Citizenship highlights several essential concepts that must be at the heart of a Catholic’s voting analysis: the dignity of every human person from conception to natural death, the pursuit of the common good for all persons in society, subsidiarity (addressing social problems as close as possible to their source and respecting families and local institutions), solidarity (the unity of the human family), and the special obligation to protect the weak and the vulnerable.

Within that general framework, some issues are clearly more important than others. Our Church has consistently emphasized the preeminent place of the protection of human life at all its stages. We must oppose all kinds of intrinsically evil acts that endanger human life and dignity, such as abortion, euthanasia, destructive embryo research, the redefinition of marriage, racism, terrorism, torture, wars of aggression, human trafficking, pornography, and inhumane working conditions. All of these are utterly incompatible with human dignity and the common good.

This creates an obvious dilemma when we are confronted with candidates who are in favor of legalized abortion. We obviously cannot vote for a “pro-choice” candidate in order to support or perpetuate legalized abortion — “in such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil” (FC 34). The Bishops advise, however, that we may vote for a “pro-choice” candidate — but only “for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil” (FC 35) What constitutes a “truly grave moral reason” will obviously depend on the circumstances, but it would appear to mean something that involves opposing another seriously immoral act, such as preventing racism, defending against serious threats to religious freedom, or stopping an aggressive war.

One thing is clear. Although we are not “one issue voters” and we should evaluate all of a candidate’s positions, “if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support” ( FC 42). So it is a perfectly responsible position for a Catholic to rule out voting for any “pro-choice” or racist candidate for that reason alone.

The hardest case for a Catholic is when we are presented with a choice between candidates who all support grave and intrinsic evils. In this case, the Bishops offer this advice: “The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods” ( FC 36). This is not “choosing the lesser of two evils”, but instead is an effort to mitigate or minimize the damage that will be done by imperfect candidates. This is a difficult balance to draw, and one that should be approached very carefully. Balancing evils and predicting the future are fraught with the possibility of error, so a Catholic should proceed with great caution.

When faced with that situation, we can leave a particular ballot line blank and move on to other races, or we can look beyond the partisan binary – there’s no requirement in our faith that we must vote for a major party candidate. In many races, particularly the Presidential race, there are other people running whose positions are compatible with Church teaching, and a Catholic can therefore use their vote to make a principled statement. So we should look at minor parties (e.g., the American Solidarity Party) and other independent candidates.

Voting as a Catholic is not easy in this fallen world, but it is something that all Catholics are capable of. To do this, we can’t give up on politics as if it is hopeless to have good moral candidates and to improve our society. The quality of our politics depends on the quality of our participation. We must be aware of what is happening, and stay informed by seriously researching the positions of parties and candidates and the teachings of the Church. We should also pay close attention to all the races on the ballot, not just those on the top. We should certainly put in as much effort in voting as a Catholic as we do in selecting a cell phone. We should also stay engaged all year long, particularly by joining advocacy efforts like the New York State Catholic Action Network or the Human Life Action network.

The most important thing in this, as in any moral decision, is to call on the assistance of God. Pope Francis, when asked recently about our elections, gave this advice: ” Study the proposals well, pray, and choose in conscience.” Prayer is essential for any Catholic who seeks to do their duty as a voter. Because, as the U.S. Bishops have noted, “It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation ” (FC 38).

The Need for Political Morality

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

Recently, I read a journalist’s account of the Watergate scandal. It was actually a bundle of inter-related illegal acts and conspiracies that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. One of the things that struck me was the astonishing and complete lack of morality among “All the President’s Men”. These were the most powerful men in the country, most were lawyers, and all considered themselves to be religious in one way or another. Yet they acted in total disregard for the law and for basic morals. They committed a series of crimes with no compunction — burglary, theft, bribery, illegal wiretapping, violations of campaign finance laws, and obstruction of justice. The amount of lying was breathtaking — a systematic campaign of perjury and knowingly false public statements. They never asked themselves “is this right?” but only cared about “will this work”.

I was a teenager when all this happened, and I remember following the stories with great interest. But I didn’t appreciate the sheer scope of all of it until I read this book. And, naturally, it led me to reflect on the current political climate, and on the desperate need for “political morality”.

There are two components to political morality. One is the personal morals of those who hold public office — are they people of integrity who can be counted on to obey essential principles of honesty, financial responsibility, lack of self-interest, fairness, seriousness, humility, etc. I utterly reject the notion, which is usually attributed to Macchiavelli, that rulers are not bound by ordinary moral laws, but are free to do things that would be illegal or immoral if done by ordinary citizens. No matter what public office one holds, the Ten Commandments still apply, and personal virtue will lead to good government.

The other component is constitutional morality — do they respect the rule of law, the process of law-making and governance, the rights of citizens, the notion that nobody is above or outside of the law, etc. I’m not as cynical as most people think, and I actually believe that a sound legal process will lead on the whole to sound results. I believe that the principles embodied in our Constitution — separation of powers, limits on the authority of the government, checks and balances, protection of fundamental rights, and federalism — provide a rich and fertile soil for living a peaceful and just life.

These elements of political morality were utterly lacking in the Nixon Administration. The Watergate scandals and their threat to the constitutional order were the direct result. The similar lack of political morality in the current climate fills me with dread for the future of our Republic.

At all levels of politics, we are repeatedly presented with — and we routinely elect — candidates who have a propensity for falsehood, whose financial affairs are deeply suspect, who treat people as instruments to be used and then discarded, and who seem obsessed with personal power rather than selfless public service. It has become unremarkable for candidates to affirm that they will use their power to commit gross moral evils, like abortion on demand, torture, aggressive war on civilians, and racial and religious discrimination. Candidates openly show disdain for the proper Constitutional process and promise to rule unilaterally by decree. And candidates and political advocates make crystal clear that they will use the levers of power to punish their enemies, and all those who disagree with their ideology.

The men who built and established our Republic understood very well the need for political morality. George Washington, who was an exemplar of this, said, “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” John Adams, who was no stranger to the rough and tumble of partisan politics, said “Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.”

The current state of affairs in our political system would horrify the Founding Fathers. They should equally horrify us.

Political Incoherence on Abortion

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

Although I’m a political junkie, I never watch those television events that are billed as “political debates”. They are nothing of the sort, of course, but instead are merely opportunities for candidates to parrot their talking points, show how strong they think they are by rudely interrupting each other, and doing little if anything to inform and enlighten the electorate.

And so, I didn’t watch the Vice-Presidential “debate” the other night, opting instead to watch a very exciting baseball game. But I was keenly interested in reading the reports of what the candidates said about abortion.

Now, we have to take anything said by a Vice-Presidential candidate with a healthy grain of salt. The purpose of a VP candidate is to robotically repeat the Presidential candidate’s talking points, pretend that the person at the top of the ticket has no faults or flaws and has never erred, and, aside from that, do nothing to mess up the campaign. That makes sense, since the role of a Vice President is essentially to serve as a constitutional spare tire.

But there was a comment at the most recent VP “debate” that is certainly worthy of notice, because it was on the issue of abortion and it demonstrated the incoherence of the Democratic position on this crucial issue, and how much in thrall that party is to the ideology of the Culture of Death.

Senator Tim Kaine is the Democratic VP candidate. As such, he is the right-hand-man to a presidential candidate whose position is utterly reprehensible on abortion — she has never heard of an abortion she disapproves of, and she is completely beholden to the abortion industry. Sen. Kaine, who is reportedly a practicing Catholic, has an appalling record in the Senate of support for abortion on demand at all times and for any reason. In this Senate session alone, he has voted to continue funding for Planned Parenthood, which kills over 300,000 unborn children a year, and opposed a measure that would prohibit late-term abortions at a time when the child can feel pain while they are being dismembered. He has also publicly stated that he will support a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which would mean that he thinks it’s a good idea for abortions on demand to be paid for by taxpayers.

Hardly a stellar example of a Catholic public servant. But it’s even worse. Sen. Kaine had this to say when asked a question about the role of his religion in forming his position on abortion:

I try to practice my religion in a very devout way and follow the teachings of my church in my own personal life. But I don’t believe in this nation, a First Amendment nation, where we don’t raise any religion over the other, and we allow people to worship as they please, that the doctrines of any one religion should be mandated for everyone… I think it is really, really important that those of us who have deep faith lives don’t feel that we could just substitute our own views for everybody else in society, regardless of their views. … we really feel like you should live fully and with enthusiasm the commands of your faith. But it is not the role of the public servant to mandate that for everybody else. So let’s talk about abortion and choice. Let’s talk about them. We support Roe v. Wade. We support the constitutional right of American women to consult their own conscience, their own supportive partner, their own minister, but then make their own decision about pregnancy. That’s something we trust American women to do that.

It would be difficult to find a better example of the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the “pro-choice Catholic” mindset. I could quote all day long from statements by the Church on the absolute moral duty of Catholic public officials to oppose the depraved injustice of abortion on demand. But leave that aside for a moment, because Sen. Kaine already seems to be utterly impervious to the actual beliefs of the faith he professes to be devoted to.

Instead, since faith always accords with reason, let’s just look at this from a strictly rational perspective, because it will be crystal clear that his comments make no sense, either for a Catholic or for anyone else.

All laws reflect moral judgments of right and wrong – that’s the nature of law itself. No system of law anywhere in the world or in history is based on the idea that a person can act however they want. Human conduct is always subject to moral rules that are written into civil law. So if a public official rules out the influence of their religious faith in making such judgments, on what moral principle will he act? Are his opinions completely swayed by public opinion polls, or party platforms? Then what kind of a person is he? Why would anyone vote for a politician who was so devoid of principle or courage that he ignores his religious faith and decides his position by sticking his finger in the air and checking the direction of the wind, or by just “following orders”?  How could you trust such a person to do anything according to any kind of coherent moral principle?

The prohibition against killing an innocent human being is not a Catholic doctrine, but a moral principle based on science and reason that can be seen by anyone, regardless of their religious faith. It’s not wrong because the Catholic Church says so, the Church teaches that because it’s a self-evident truth. It is Science 101 that every human life – including that of a VP candidate – begins at the moment of conception. The inhabitant of a mother’s womb is always a human being, the genetic offspring of a father and a mother, and he/she is never anything less. To take that helpless child’s life for any reason – much less to serve the convenience of the mother or father, or because the child has a physical handicap – is contrary to the inherent natural impulse of humans to protect and nurture their young. It is also patently evil to treat any living being with the cruelty of abortion – which involves poisoning a child with caustic chemicals or dismembering her while she is still alive.

A political candidate doesn’t need any religious faith to see that abortion is a moral evil and should be prohibited by law. All it takes is rational thought, and openness to the scientific evidence that is right before one’s eyes. Even a Vice President should be able to understand that.

Looking for Voting Choices

Monday, September 19th, 2016

How many of us have heard or uttered this statement: “I don’t know how I’m going to vote this year”. Many Catholics are struggling to decide how to vote. That should mean that they’re trying to form their consciences in a correct and Catholic way. And they should be looking for choices that allow them to “see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city” ( Gaudium et Spes 43).

Unfortunately, we have the prospect this year of having some of the most deeply problematic major party candidates for president in American history (which is quite a statement, considering that Aaron Burr, Richard Nixon, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace are on that list). Several of them have significant character problems and all support some kind of intrinsic moral evil (i.e., laws and policies that are always wrong, like permitting abortion on demand, legalizing assisted suicide, or the deliberate killing of civilians in wartime).

I’m not a member of any of the major parties, so loyalty is not an issue for me — candidates don’t have a right to my vote, they have to earn it. To me, casting a vote is a moral act, a statement that I wish this candidate to serve in a particular office. It means that I believe the person is qualified for the office, and that I want them to fulfill their campaign promises and positions. If I know that this candidate will support intrinsically evil policies, I am giving my permission for those evil acts and I am therefore complicit (however remotely) in them.

This is a very troubling moral dilemma. Our Bishops have advised us that we can vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsically evil act, but that can only be for truly grave moral reasons — which does not include party loyalty. The Bishops have also advised that we can “take the extraordinary step” of not voting for any candidate, or we can vote for the candidate who is likely to do the least harm. This is also a hard decision to make — how could there possibly be a sufficiently grave reason to vote for a candidate who favors abortion on demand, the killing of civilians in war, torture of captives, the redefinition of marriage, or proposals that are openly racist. Given the Law of Unintended Consequences, and the impossibility of predicting the future, it is also extremely hard to make a determination as to who would cause the least damage to our vulnerable republic and world.

Many people are considering to cast their vote for one candidate as a statement against one of the other candidates. But we don’t have an electoral system where we can “Like” or “Unlike” candidates. To vote against one, we have to vote to put the other one in office — which is a problem if we know that they will support evil policies.

But there are alternatives to voting for any of the major party candidates. One could leave the line blank — a vote of “none of the above” — but still vote for candidates in other key races. But that’s not satisfactory to those who want their vote not just to express dissatisfaction with the candidates that have been offered, but to support a positive agenda.

Another option is to look at some of the “minor parties” that have proposed candidates. I find one of these minor parties, the American Solidarity Party, to be very intriguing. It seems to be building its platform on Catholic Social Teaching. The party is not strictly Catholic, but falls in the tradition of “Christian Democratic” parties, which have been so influential in Europe and Latin America but which have never gained a foothold in the binary party system here in the United States.  On the issues I consider most important, the ASP is right on point: they are consistently pro-life, defend religious liberty and the authentic definition of marriage, oppose the use of torture and the killing of civilians in war, and support the right of parents to control the education of their children and the duty of the state to support them. I don’t agree with all of their platform, and I am not endorsing them or any other candidate for office. But I am interested in any political party or movement, however small they may be, that tries to advance the Church’s positions on policy issues.

Obviously, these kind of parties have no chance of winning this election. Most probably won’t even be on the ballot in New York, given our notoriously byzantine ballot access laws, so a write-in vote would be necessary.

But for voters who are looking for options, a minor party vote may allow them to vote according to their conscience. And that is not a “wasted vote”. As John Quincy Adams once said, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

The Hierarchy of Values in Voting

Monday, February 29th, 2016

In several of my recent blog posts, I discussed some of the standards that our Bishops have recommended for helping Catholics make their voting decisions.  I noted that it is all too common for us to be faced with difficult choices involving candidates whose positions are not all in line with the teachings of the Church, particularly about the core issues of life, marriage and family, and religious liberty.

I’ve been discussing this problem a lot with my colleague, Alexis Carra.  She has a very valuable point of view, so I asked her to summarize it, and offer me a chance to respond:

“Like you mention in your post, it’s becoming more common to be presented with candidates who are in line with the Church when it comes to economic and social justice issues, but supportive of abortion. This poses a particular challenge for Catholic voters — Does a candidate’s favorable stance on economic and social issues outweigh his unfavorable stance on abortion? Or does a candidate’s favorable stance on abortion outweigh all of his other unfavorable stances? The guidance from the Catholic bishops seems to suggest that abortion outweighs all other issues. In other words, one could only vote for a candidate who supports abortion for a proportionately serious reason. Considering that abortion is a very grave evil, this means that one could only vote for a candidate who supports abortion if one has a very grave reason.

“For some Catholics, this is a little off-putting. Why should a candidate’s favorable stance on abortion outweigh all of his other unfavorable stances? Why should abortion matter the most? Aren’t there other issues that are just as important? Or wouldn’t a combination of other favorable stances balance an unfavorable stance on abortion? Unfortunately, however, I find that these legitimate concerns have not been well-addressed, especially since they are difficult to address. Often times, I’m asked to discuss this issue, so I have included a portion of my response below. But really, I want to know your response.

“In short, I think these concerns can be best addressed by looking at the nature of the human person and reflecting on what enables a person to flourish. First and foremost, the person needs to be offered a chance at life — not killed in womb. If the person is not alive, then none of this really matters. Next, the person needs to be taken care of within a stable structure — everyone knows what happens to abandoned babies who are not taken in. Then, in order for the person to truly develop, the person needs to live within a society free from oppression, in which education, health-care, employment opportunities, etc. are also available.

“When asked to be as simple and pragmatic as possible, I think a reflection on the nature of the human person and on human development allows us to derive rough categories of importance. First, issues related to life. Second, issues related to stability, family structure, and sexuality. Third, issues related to greater flourishing. The reason why abortion typically outweighs all other issues is that is abortion cuts at the heart of life — it goes against the most basic category. If people are not even offered a chance to live, the most fundamental aspect of existence, then there can be no further debate on any other topic.

“What do you think?”

I think she’s on to something very important.  With all the fuss and furor that take place around elections, it’s hard to keep track of which issues are more important, and why — we tend to hear only about issues that the candidates have chosen to emphasize, in order to advance their electoral strategies.  Fortunately, our Catholic faith helps us to maintain a clearer view of the hierarchy of values.  There can be no real question that the right to life is the fundamental, original predicate for all other rights, needs, and desires — without life, none of those things can even be coherently discussed.  Likewise, the absolute equality of value of all human lives is also a foundation for any healthy society.  An attack on these foundational rights must be considered the most serious of social evils, and it is the highest social duty to defend them against such attacks.  So we as voters have the duty to make the protection of life our highest priority.

From that basis, I think that we can then discern the rest of the hierarchy of values. For any human being, life alone is insufficient for genuine flourishing and development.  Basic physical needs must also be attended to —  health, safety, shelter, nourishment, etc.  Human beings also cannot exist in isolation, so the health of relationships must also be taken care of.  The primary relationship is the family, which means that the promotion and protection of marriage must be a high priority, since that is the best environment for the health and development of both adults and children. As a person extends their relationships beyond the family, and particularly as they begin to develop as an independent person, other needs must also be addressed — education, employment, opportunities for cultural and leisure activities, etc.

As we move further down the hierarchy, the overall health of society is also a concern, since each person is part of the organic whole of the political community in which they live.  So this involves issues like the election of people of good moral character, the proper and prudent functioning of government, accountability of public officials, economic development, immigration, etc..  Since no nation exists in a vacuum, and we must consider the welfare of our fellow human beings around the world, we then look to issues of international relations, peace, etc.

As a voter, then, each of these matters has weight, but I have to consider them within this hierarchy of importance when making my decisions.

But there’s another important part of the hierarchy of values.  Alexis is absolutley right that we have to consider the nature of the human person, which means that we also have to consider the person’s spiritual needs as well.  Society has an obligation to create conditions where humans can develop spiritually, and to remove any unreasonable obstacles to that development. This is why the freedoms of religion, expression, and association are so important.  Society also has a duty to remove and remedy conditions that harm people’s spiritual health — the structures of sin that do so much damage, but encouraging and facilitating sinful behavior, like corruption in politics, the drug trade, the sex industry, etc.  As for the very great importance of spiritual health, we have it on good authority — “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).  The spiritual health of each individual, and society as a whole, should thus be placed alongside the right to life itself as a foundational value, and must be treated accordingly as voters.

This is, of course, not an easy way to make voting decisions.  It is much easier to vote for the loudest candidate who speaks colorfully with great theatrical skill.  But as Catholics, we have to do better.  We need to educate ourselves about the teachings of the Church, we have to pay close attention to the hierarchy of values, and we have to pray for guidance.

The stakes are high when we make voting decisions.  God clearly takes an interest in the health of societies, and has never been shy about passing judgment on them.

Real Presidential Leadership

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

As the Presidential primary season unfolds, we keep on hearing various
candidates talk about “leadership”.  The question is, what does that mean?
February 22 is an auspicious occasion to reflect on the meaning of true leadership in our American republic — Washington’s Birthday.

George Washington is a hero of mine.  I believe he was the greatest American
who has ever lived, and one of the greatest men who has ever lived.  He was the
dominant figure at the most important time in our history, when our nation was
being formed, and his impact on our history is incalculable.  He was indeed, as
the title of one of his biographies calls him, the “indispensible man”.

In our modern time, we tend to emphasize in our “leaders” the importance of
government experience or business acumen (when we’re not looking for
iconoclastic bluster).  While Washington possessed many managerial gifts, his
excellence as a leader were based on something far more important — they
stemmed directly from the quality of his character.  There are several attributes
of his character that are worth highlighting, because I believe that they would be
the perfect template for the virtues we need in our modern-day leaders.

Humility — Despite being the most admired and accomplished public figure of
his time, Washington never reveled in his status or stooped to bragging or self-
aggrandizement.  Instead, at every point in his career, as he was being asked to
assume greater and greater responsibilities, he took care to speak of his sense of
unworthiness and his fear of disappointing those who were entrusting him with
new duties.  One can see this in his statement on accepting his commission as
leader of the Continental Army, his resignation of that commission after
successfully prosecuting the war, his First Inaugural Address, and so on.  It is a
consistent theme of his public life — his humility in accepting the duties that his
nation demanded of him, even while he willingly accepted the task.

Self-Sacrifice — Washington always put his nation ahead of his own interests.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, he nurtured a strong desire to return to his
beloved home.  He repeatedly quoted the Bible to describe this desire:  ” they
shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make
them afraid” (Micah 4:4).  Yet, amazingly, his devotion to duty was such that he
visited his estate only once in the eight years of the war, and only near the end,
when the campaign came to Virginia.  He tried to retire from public life after the
war, only to be called back to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional
Convention, and again to serve as President.  Love for his nation, and a keen
sense of duty, were always his motivating force, never egotism or ambition.

Tolerance — In an age of religious intolerance, Washington was noteworthy for
his liberality.  During the war he forbade his soldiers from holding “Guy Fawkes”
events, out of fear that they would offend his Catholic allies, the French.  As
President, he wrote one of the most important statements of religious liberty in
our history, his justly famous Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport,
Rhode Island.  He spoke of how the government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to
persecution no assistance”, and promised protection to those of all faiths who
live as good citizens.  It is inconceivable that Washington would show any
degree of animosity or hostility to members of any faith who sought, like him, to
be good Americans.

Respect for Rule of Law — Washington always respected his role as a servant of
the people, within the proper role assigned to him by the law.  Throughout the
Revolution, he defered to an incompetent Congress, not out of respect for their
abilities, but out of reverence for the rule of law in a republic.  His character
alone was enought to allay the fears of many Americans, who were concerned
that the office of President under the new Constitution could become a crypto-
king.  His devotion to the law can be best seen in his response to the incipient mutiny of his officers at the end of the war.  Congress had refused to pay the officers, and there was a movement afoot to petition Washington to lead the army to Philadelphia to compel Congress to act.  He reacted to this by immediately squelching the rebellion, saying that the conspiracy “has something so shocking in it that humanity revolts at the idea”, and calling upon the officers  to look with the “utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country”.  By force of his force of character alone, Washington ended the threat to turn America into a military dictatorship, and thereby preserved our freedom.

Piety — While there has been much debate about Washington’s religion, there is
no question that he was a sincere and devout believer in God, and that he relied
on divine providence in all his work.  At every significant moment of his public
career, he invoked the assistance of God.  For example, in his First Inaugural
Address, he spoke eloquently of his prayer for divine protection of America,
speaking of “my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the
Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids
can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the
liberties and happiness of the People of the United States”.  His faith was not a
mere political posture, but a deeply held conviction that God’s benevolent hand
was responsible for the welfare of the American nation.

Nobility — The greatest demonstration of Washington’s nobility of character was
not in the way he exercised power, but how he surrendered it.  Indeed, in some
ways the most important day of American history was December 23, 1783, when
Washington resigned his commission to Congress at the end of the war.  Rather
than seizing power, as many victorious military leaders had done in the past,
Washington willingly and respectfully turned over the authority that had been
given to him.  When hearing that Washington might surrender his office, the
baffled King George said that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the
world!”  But so he did, and so he was, and his last words to Congress are worth quoting:

“I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.  Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

It may seem impossible that anyone in our debased modern age could measure
up to Washington’s patriotic virtues.  But there is a reason that the President can
look out and see the Washington Monument from the Oval Office, and that Congress can likewise see it down the Mall. It is upon the virtue of our leaders that the health of our nation depends.  A republic cannot survive if it elects leaders who lack virtue.

Washington’s virtues are the same that we should expect — no, require — from
every one of our Presidents.  We cannot afford to demand anything less.

The Burden of Proof

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

I’ve written before about the challenges faced by Catholics in the election season, which is now upon us with the onset of presidential primaries.  I am often asked about how to make decisions between candidates, especially when none are in full agreement with the Church about essential issues.  The hypothetical case is typically presented of the candidate who is “pro-choice” on abortion, but has stands on economic issues that are closer to those promoted by the Church.  I know I’m old-fashioned in many ways, but in my mind the clearest thinking on this issue comes from our Bishops.

In 2004, the Bishops approved a brief statement called “Catholics In Political Life”. They said the following about abortion:

It is the teaching of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, founded on her understanding of her Lord’s own witness to the sacredness of human life, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified… To make such intrinsically evil actions legal is itself wrong. This is the point most recently highlighted in official Catholic teaching. The legal system as such can be said to cooperate in evil when it fails to protect the lives of those who have no protection except the law. In the United States of America, abortion on demand has been made a constitutional right by a decision of the Supreme Court. Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good. (emphasis added)

During their deliberations, the Bishops had received a private letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger that was later made public.  In it, he said:

When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.

That is standard Church teaching about the question of cooperation with evil.  And so, many people point to this notion of “proportionate reasons” when approaching the voting decision.  But in fact, our Bishops have gone further, and have significantly raised the bar for making a decision whether to vote for a “pro-choice” candidate because of their other positions.  In their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the Bishops have said:

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably 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. (35, emphasis added).

Specifically with respect to abortion, the Bishops responded to errors that are  made in applying Church teaching that can disort our defense of human life.  They said:

The first [temptation] is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed. (28, emphasis added)

The Bishops don’t point this out, but in making our voting decision it is vitally important that we don’t consider it in isolation.  Instead, we have to look at the reasonably foreseeable consequences — in other words, what will happen if this flawed candidate is elected?  In the case of the Presidential election, there are substantial foreseeable consequences:  as many as two possible Supreme Court nominations, dozens of Circuit Court and District Court nominations, and appointment power to many key policy-making positions in the Administration where regulations are developed (just think of the HHS Mandate and you’ll know why this matters so much).  Will the candidate’s future actions work to ameliorate the situation, leave it intact, or make it even worse?  One also has to take into account the likelihood of a candidates’ positions becoming reality — they may be nice campaign promises that are in keeping with the positions of the Church, but if they may have no chance of being passed, then what good are they?

So that sets the bar very high indeed.  What could possibly be a sufficiently grave moral reason that would justify voting for a candidate that supports the injustice of abortion, where upwards of a million vulnerable lives are lost every year?  Where the courts are hostile to common-sense measures that would regulate abortion?  Where minors are allowed to get abortions without even notifying their parents?  Where public authorities refuse to enforce health standards in abortion clinics?  Where abortion is held out as being indispensible for women to participate in society?  Where millions of taxpayer dollars go directly to pay abortionists for their dirty work?

Can any position, on any issue, be sufficient to justify voting for a person who will support that?  Personally, I cannot imagine anything satisfying that burden of proof.

My Catholic Voting Decision

Monday, October 27th, 2014

[Several years ago, in anticipation of Election Day, I posted on my personal opinion about how to approach making a voting decision.  I’ve revised and combined those earlier posts, because the stakes in the current election are so high — it is vital that we maintain a pro-life majority in our state Senate.]

Once again, Election Day approaches.  At times like these, I am frequently asked how people can do the right thing as voters, as citizens, and as Catholics.  As I understand the teachings of our Church, there are several critical questions involved here. The first is the formation of my conscience.  Our bishops have said quite clearly that

“Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere ‘feeling’ about what we should or should not do.” (Faithful Citizenship 17)

A good, Catholic conscience is obedient to the teachings of the Church, and open to hearing the voice of God.  It considers God’s will more important than any partisan interest that I may have.  It always directs me to do good and avoid evil, and in the case of voting,

“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.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Participation of Catholics in Political Life 4)

Building on the proper formation of conscience, we can then turn to the issues and the candidates.  One thing is crystal clear at this point:  all the issues are not the same, and the defense of human life is the paramount issue for Catholics to consider. The teaching of our Church is clear:  we must vote pro-life.  As the United States Bishops have said,

“This exercise of conscience begins with outright opposition to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection.” (Faithful Citizenship 31). “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” (Faithful Citizenship 28)

This means that in evaluating a candidate, we must consider, first and foremost, their position on the defense of human life.  As the U.S. Bishops have said:

“As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” (Faithful Citizenship 42)

Our New York Bishops have said the same:

“The inalienable right to right of every innocent human person outweighs other concerns where Catholics may use prudential judgment, such as how best to meet the needs of the poor or to increase access to health care for all.” (New York State Bishops, Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty)

Cardinal Egan once confronted us, in language as plain as possible,with the choice of conscience and discipleship that we face when going into the voting booth:

Look [at the pictures of unborn children] and decide with honesty and decency what the Lord expects of you and me as the horror of ‘legalized’ abortion continues to erode the honor of our nation. Look, and do not absolve yourself if you refuse to act.”

Cardinal Egan also once said,

Anyone who dares to defend that [an unborn child] may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.

This also means, of course, that we have to inform ourselves about where candidates stand on the issues.  We can’t just blunder around the voting booth with no information.  And given the abundance of data available on the internet, it really doesn’t take much effort to find out about the position of candidates.  Just visit their websites, and see where they stand on abortion, “reproductive rights”, “choice”, and, in the case of New York State candidates, the “Women’s Equality Act” (which contains a provision that would greatly expand abortion in our state).  An example of an informational voter guide, from a reliable outside organization, can be found here.

So, from my perspective, this boils down to a very simple test that I try to adhere to, as best I can: If you think that killing unborn children should be legal, then I won’t vote for you. You haven’t earned my vote.  In my opinion, you’re not qualified to hold public office.  I just won’t vote for someone who will promote or permit grave evil.  I don’t subscribe to the principle of the “lesser of two evils”.  All that means is I’m voting for evil, and it still produces evil in the end.  If there’s nobody in a race that fits my standards, I’ll leave the line blank or write in a name.

When I pick up my ballot on Tuesday, I will see a stark choice between candidates who are pro-abortion, and others who are pro-life.  In fact, several of the pro-abortion candidates (who were baptized as Catholics, sad to say) are not just mouthing the old “personally opposed but…” sham, but are instead ardent promoters and defenders of the legalized killing of unborn children, and they have strongly campaigned on the issue.  If they are elected, there is a grave danger that the evil abortion expansion plan hidden in the “Women’s Equality Act” will be pushed forward. I cannot see how I as a Catholic could vote for such persons.

So for me, the choice is easy — I will vote only for the pro-life candidates.

(Important Note: I am going to repeat what is said in the disclaimer on the side of this blog — the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, they do not in any way reflect an official position of the Archdiocese, nor should they be considered an endorsement of any candidate by the Archdiocese.)

How Will I Vote?

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

In my last post, I outlined the teaching of the Church in regard to voting — the formation of conscience, and which issues to consider.

To illustrate how this works in practice, let me describe how I will apply these principles in my own voting decision.  Now, I’m not telling anyone how to vote.  I’m just saying this is the way that I’ve worked this decision through for myself.

(Important Note: I have to repeat again what is said in the disclaimer on the side of this blog — the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, they do not in any way reflect an official position of the Archdiocese, nor should they be considered an endorsement of any candidate by the Archdiocese.)

To me, the fundamental issue is whether a particular candidate has the basic qualifications to hold public office. This is not just a question about their education, experience, and character. It also involves whether this candidate is willing to respect and defend the fundamental principles of our society, that all people are created equal, and that all have “inalienable rights”, most especially the right to life.

Cardinal Egan once spoke very clearly and bluntly about the qualifications of our elected officials:

“Anyone who dares to defend that [an unborn child] may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.”

This boils down to a very simple test, that I try to adhere to, as best I can: If you think that killing unborn children should be legal, then I won’t vote for you. You haven’t earned my vote.  In my opinion, you’re not qualified to hold public office.  I just won’t vote for someone who will promote or permit grave evil.  I don’t subscribe to the principle of the “lesser of two evils”.  All that means is I’m voting for evil, and it still produces evil in the end.  If there’s nobody in a race that fits my standards, I’ll leave the line blank or write in a name.

When I pick up my ballot on Tuesday, I will see a stark choice between candidates who are pro-abortion, and others who are pro-life.  In fact, several of the pro-abortion candidates are not just mouthing the old “personally opposed but…” sham, but are instead ardent promoters and defenders of the legalized killing of unborn children, and they have strongly campaigned on the issue.  If they are elected, there is a grave danger that the evil Reproductive Health Act will be pushed forward, as well as the legalization of same-sex “marriage”.

I cannot see how I as a Catholic could vote for such persons.  So for me, the choice is easy — I will vote only for the pro-life candidates.

I have thought about how to vote very carefully, not just in preparation for this election but over many years.  As I have said, to me the key thing is to vote as a Catholic, to act according to a well-formed Catholic conscience, and to take seriously my duties to the least among us — particularly to the defenseless unborn.

That’s what I’m going to do.  What about you?