By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Do I have a choice in this election?
Many Catholics are asking themselves this question. It is important to let it challenge us. We are in a difficult situation, and it is healthy to admit it. Otherwise, we risk becoming closeminded, divided and politically ineffective.
There is a temptation to spare ourselves the difficulty of decision by whitewashing one candidate and by demonizing the other. Some Catholics I know insist the only moral choice is Clinton. Others, Trump. Both sides effectively claim that we do not have a choice. They say voting for a new party, like the American Solidarity Party, is a waste of a vote; and withholding your vote is a failure in civic duty. We must, they say, vote for the obviously “lesser evil” – and they only disagree about who that “obviously” is.
But is this true? Is this the extent of our freedom?
This line of thought is far too self-assured. Even Pope Francis refused to fly in with an ‘infallible’ answer. He gave his advice in an interview: “I never say a word during an electoral campaign. The people are sovereign, and so I will only say: study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience!”
Study, pray and choose in conscience. In other words, do not escape your personal responsibility by pretending the election did not engage your thought and freedom. Do not whitewash. Do not demonize. These are temptations to compromise and to avoid the weight of a genuine decision. They play on our pagan desires for God to rip open the heavens and threaten us with a sign – to make it all obvious. But this does not seem to be the will of Christ: “He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ ” (Mk 8:12).
There is danger in trying to escape our responsibility. We pretend as if we were forced to vote a particular way, and so we begin to resent anyone, even family and friends, who think differently: “How could he even think about voting for …? How does she not understand that …?” We become shrill, indignant and defensive, even angry and divisive. We refuse to see subtleties or to learn new things. Loneliness and ignorance are the price of polemics.
So, let us embrace our difficult times. God can work wonders in them. Maybe the scandals in both parties will purify Catholics from political partisanship and help us to serve our country together on common ground. Providence could be inviting us to learn humility, forgive old wounds and rediscover our political unity – and then move together as peaceful custodians of one of the most powerful social traditions.
We could be a powerful force for good in our country if we unite by refusing to be owned by our parties. Our votes are ineffective if our parties think we would never withhold them. Because if they own us, then they are no longer accountable to us. Then we are their mindless minions in partisan conflicts.
It does not surprise me that some politicians fear our unity and independence. According to WikiLeaks, several high-ranking Democrats (some of them leaders in the Clinton campaign) mused explicitly about how to divide us from each other – how to create a “revolution” in our church. The goal? To rob us of our identity and independence in order to turn us into drones for their party.
Whatever you do this election, accept the challenge of your freedom. Commit yourself to studying your faith diligently, speaking humbly and praying authentically. Value unity in your family and in our church. Do not become a minion in a partisan war. Let your voice be heard at the ballot box, which may mean reminding your party, if you have one, that you are always free to withhold your vote. Follow your conscience, and respect the consciences of others. Ask questions, broaden horizons, admit what you are unsure about and what is true in the other side. Knock down walls. Build bridges. Remember, we are free and therefore responsible. We have been given no sign except for “the sign of Jonah” – the sign of a man who peacefully refused every compromise and embraced the will of his Father in all things (Mt 12:38-45).
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.