Vote: one Catholic’s perspective
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, October 13, 2016
Each of us knows someone who has voiced frustration about the upcoming presidential election akin to the following: “They’re both just so bad; I can’t vote for either of them.” You may even be one of those people. I understand your frustration. Many of us are, if not far past the point where we can stand hearing another insult or soundbite aimed across the aisle, just about on our last nerve. Still, such an exasperated conclusion deserves to be re-examined for several reasons. Here I would like to make an important distinction between conscious abstention and a failure to bother. I respect the decision of those who have concluded after much prayerful reflection that they cannot in good conscience vote for either Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton in the general election. I nevertheless exhort these people to go to the polls and vote for the other elections on the ballot. For whether it is a contested Senate race, an unexpectedly close gubernatorial tie, or a neck-and-neck municipal election with significant local implications, this election cycle in its totality deserves our conscious attention. There are grave social, economic, political and ideological consequences at stake in every state and district. To abstain from all of these elections on account of the one that dominates the news cycle would be a disservice to them all. Moreover, the Catholic social tradition, to which each of us has received varying degrees of exposure during our respective careers here at Notre Dame, offers compelling insight into our civic responsibilities, which carry particular gravity during election season.
The only way the system improves is through our active participation in it, because voting is a great equalizer. The fact that each and every adult gets to cast the same number of votes as the richest, most powerful person in America is a testament to this reality. The participatory point of view contrasts with so-called radical Catholicism, which resists explicit activity in representative democracy in part due to the paradigms of power and self-promotion that have long poisoned it. Yet St. John Paul II wrote in “Christifideles Laici” (1988) that “charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism and corruption … [do] not in the least justify either skepticism or an absence on the part of Christians in public life.” This comes as no small exhortation from a man who lived through the totalitarian occupation of Poland during and after World War II. As Catholics we are called to reflect God’s redemptive work, which extends to the entire created order, politics included. The moral imperative of our participation in helping to shape the political landscape is by no means an invention of John Paul II. The second century epistle entitled the “Letter to Diognetus” affirms that Christians are not called to separate themselves as a self-contained cult, but rather to be thoughtful and socially engaged citizens attentive to the Gospel. The letter exhorts Christians to live their public and private lives according to the love of God and the love of neighbor, recognizing that their ultimate citizenship lies in heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20).
Our civic obligation to honor those who fought to preserve our right to participate in democracy must be nourished by a thorough analysis of the totality of the Catholic social tradition in relation to the priorities and proposed policy initiatives of all candidates seeking elected office. Though some would argue that there is no way to ensure that one’s interests are represented even if their chosen candidate is elected, there is only one sure-fire way to guarantee that your interests are not represented — by not voting. There is little controversial about the statement that the way elected officials perceive their constituency depends greatly upon voter participation. To those eligible voters who cannot be bothered to discern the meaningful distinctions of ideology, qualifications and policy positions, and to those who contend, “I don’t just want to vote for the lesser of two evils,” I would argue that by refusing one’s constitutional privilege — or responsibility — to vote, you are in fact casting half a vote for the greater of two evils. And to any Catholic who resigns oneself to the statistical probability that their individual vote will not decide the outcome of any given election, I would contend that this represents a failure of imagination and is forgetful of the Body of Christ, of which we are all members. Just as you play a crucial role in mediating God’s grace and love to others as an individual, so also you have been graced by God with an identity as a political and social being. The Vatican II document “Gaudium et Spes” echoes St. Thomas Aquinas in positing that the political community, also referred to as the “noble art of politics,” exists “for the sake of the common good.” Our political order needs healing and we as sinners are no different. Surely the Church, which as a hospital for sinners capacitates us to receive God’s divine life, further enables us to allow this grace to overflow to our personal relationships, our local communities, and yes, even our national political order.