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]