A few weeks ago, I was invited to talk to a group of young Catholics about what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus. During the question and answer period, I was asked how our faith should inform our politics and our voting decisions.
First, I suggested reading the sound advice Pope Francis offers in his apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”). In that magisterial document, especially paragraph 101, the Holy Father urges us to participate in political debate, as opposed to limiting our involvement to the voting booth. There should be no fear of engaging in dialogue with others, especially those who have views different from our own.
In fact, he warns of the “harmful ideological error … found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist.” In other words, it is a mistake to lock ourselves into an ideological mindset that pigeonholes others because they belong to a different party or way of thinking to the point that we dismiss them out of hand. We limit our options if we reject the ideas of others simply on the basis of their political affiliation.
Likewise, I asked my young friends to be cautious about allowing their political affiliation to be so absolute that they check their conscience at the voting booth out of a false sense of party loyalty. As Pope Francis notes, such an approach runs the risk of making core ethical values relative, “as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend.”
By way of example of the balance we need, Pope Francis writes: “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
The pope continues in the same vein: “We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the ‘grave’ bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children” (no. 102).
What the Holy Father is urging is that we attend to the interconnection of moral issues. I reminded the audience that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin made the same point decades ago when he pressed for a consistent ethic of life. The cardinal understood that a comprehensive commitment to respecting life has the potential of connecting all the issues in a way that benefits them all. As he observed in his 1983 address at Fordham University: “The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life is to argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires a concern for the broader attitude in society about respect for human life … the viability of [this] principle depends upon the consistency of its application.”
Much like Cardinal Bernardin, Pope Francis appreciates the integrity of Catholic social teaching, which makes it unique in holding these issues together under a common principle. It is that integrity that has set the Catholic Church apart in witnessing ardently against both abortion and the nuclear-weapon policies of the United States. The point is that Catholic social teaching cannot be neatly fitted into the partisan political framework that governs American public life, then or now.
I concluded by urging the young people in attendance to consider the connection between their responsible participation in the political arena, marked by a consistent ethic of life, and their baptismal call to holiness. As Pope Francis puts it: “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.”
Exercising responsible citizenship means keeping all of this in mind. It requires:
a. social engagement in the political process, particularly with those who have different views;
b. an interior freedom that avoids limiting our involvement to party-aligned or litmus-test issues;
c. an appreciation of the interrelationship of issues in order to promote a consistent ethic of life and
d. the firm conviction that our political involvement is nothing short of living out our call to holiness, making God’s work of bringing about the kingdom of heaven our own.
I suspect that the questions posed by these young people are on the minds of many Catholics as we enter this election cycle.
Pope Francis urges us to draw on the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching to guide us, not only in acting responsibly in the voting booth, but also as we respond to our call to holiness.
With thanks to Cardinal Cupich and the Archdiocese of Chicago. This article originally appeared in the 24 November issue of Chicago Catholic. Republished with permission.