Promoting the Common Good starts with Justice in the Church
by Erin Brigham
The presidential election revealed deep divisions within the Catholic Church, reflective of larger divisions within society surrounding race, gender and class. As we prepare for the inauguration of president-elect Trump, whose victory was supported by over half of the Catholic vote, the Church is challenged to discern how we will promote the common good and defend those marginalized by injustice. I believe this should start with an institutional examination of conscience involving some hard questions about gender and race.
It is perhaps too obvious to begin with the observation that the Catholic Church, by excluding women from the highest levels of ecclesial leadership, hardens the glass ceiling in other areas of life. And while this does not explain why the majority of white Catholics voted for Trump despite his crass displays of misogyny, it presents an occasion to reflect on whether or not the Church is doing enough to challenge institutionalized sexism, which it firmly regards as sinful. The Church’s teaching on gender complimentarity—that the gifts of men and women naturally differ—allows it to reject sexism without reimagining its own patriarchal structure. Assuming the feminine genius is better suited for nurturing than leading enables some people to be uncomfortable seeing a woman in authority without considering themselves to be sexist.
At the same time, few Catholics today would explicitly support exclusionary patterns based on race. Yet, theologians such as Bryan Massingale have highlighted how the Church has done a better job denouncing racist structures than prompting a critical reflection on white privilege. The exit polls according to the Pew Research Forum reveal a striking gap between white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics with 60% vs. 26% respectively voting for Trump. There are a number of factors that shape voting patterns but it invites the question of whether or not white Catholics oppose bigotry as wholeheartedly as our brothers and sisters of color.
I see two problems that impede the Church’s solidarity and commitment to defend human dignity and empower the marginalized. With respect to gender, there is a failure to recognize how structures reinforce attitudes—seeing men exclusively in positions of power reinforces the belief in male superiority. With respect to race, there is a failure to recognize how attitudes reinforce structures—unexamined white privilege hinders the mobilization of the church against systemic racism in this country.
I am not alone in pointing out that Catholics, who do not vote as a bloc but whose voting patterns consistently reflect the outcome of US presidential elections, are poised to rebuild solidarity after this divisive presidential election. I am convinced that it must begin within the Church itself. Only by examining our own complacency with sexism and racism can the Church live out its commitment to build a society that honors human dignity and the common good.
As a theo-ethicist who engages in Catholic conversations for a living, I was excited to see two documents addressing the 2016 US presidential campaign from my colleagues at the Paulist Fathers: their statement on moral issues, accompanied by a commentary on civic participation. As Church documents typically go, each one makes a compelling argument; together, they can reach potential voters more powerfully than the comparable USCCB document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Though the latter was revised last year, it seems to have been barely updated over the last few election cycles, and on many of the issues it covers, it still bears traces of the kind of culture war Catholicism– which itself has been aligned with evangelical Protestantism over the last few decades— that was more in vogue when the bishops first published it in 2007. Bishops Robert McElroy of San Diego and Gerald Kicanas of Tucson have advocated for more substantial changes to the document to reflect the current context and the priorities of Pope Francis.
I have been introducing students to Catholic Social Teaching this fall, with the aim of applying the concepts to a range of social issues, from rape culture to segregation by race and class to eco-justice. Many of them will be voting in a major election for the first time, and they seem to find the Paulist documents more current and accessible in relation to their own questions and concerns: bigotry and xenophobia, violence in our culture (whether random shootings or police brutality or war), and economic precarity. They are at turns angry with and dismissive of the hyper-partisanship and political obstructionism that prevents anything from getting done. They think that neither climate change nor a rape culture that is both symptom and manifestation of misogyny have received the attention they deserve from either presidential candidate. And they continue to argue for a nuanced, thoughtful feminist take on respect for life, which they sometimes see at odds with the traditional Catholic focus on abortion as the only absolute non-negotiable. They are distanced from the kind of Church hierarchy that, as recently as the 2004 campaign between John Kerry and George W. Bush, would deny communion to any Catholic politician who differed from official Church teaching. Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine has so far been able to reconcile his personal beliefs with his political responsibilities, but only time will tell whether that tension will hold.
In other words, I have been wondering with my students what it means to vote Catholic in 2016. Writers such as E. J. Dionne and Jamelle Bouie have argued for some time now that a Catholic vote as such is no longer a meaningful designation, since Catholics themselves are a large and heterogeneous enough bloc to be subsumed into larger voting trends and patterns. Most of the Catholics I know would consider themselves more aligned with Pope Francis than Benedict XVI or John Paul II. For these Catholics, piety and ritual are indeed important and nourishing, but they take a back seat to social justice commitments that instead emphasize care for the other and serve as their own kind of spiritual practice. We wonder when to vote with one’s own self-interests first, rather than foregrounding the common good or the greater good. We ask what it means to vote one’s conscience, especially if it leads one to differ from Church teaching, and what our obligation is to ensure that the conscience is as well-informed as possible. Are we really valuing fundamental human dignity and care for the earth by our votes? What values and priorities do our choices signify and endorse? What does it mean to vote with peace, justice, and flourishing as ultimate aims?
[Photo by Dave Schumaker, Creative Commons license/Flickr]