By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Listening to the faithful, I sense some political frustration with clergy. They don’t want partisan priests, but they do want the Church to speak the truth boldly; so, they are frustrated when statements given by priests and bishops seem either to transgress the limits of their authority by pronouncing on matters involving secular expertise (and without sufficiently informing themselves), or to shy from all controversy and therefore appear to say nothing.
Sensitive to this frustration, I want to stay within my role as a priest and still say something about the election. I don’t want to endorse a candidate. Whatever I think about politics, as a priest I want to be accessible to everyone. I have political convictions, but there are people of good will who think differently – and I want to be their priest too. As I understand my role, I am charged to help people vote with an informed and faithful conscience, and to cultivate a trust that would allow us all to come together with an enduring confidence that the Gospel is not a partisan tool but rather the true leaven of justice and communion.
So, I try now to help both sides examine their consciences. We will be judged for our vote – for whether it was cast from reason or blind passion, from an honest effort to inform ourselves or from culpable ignorance.
To my friends considering a vote for Biden, I encourage a hard reflection on the entire Democratic platform. A platform may have aspects we feel happy to endorse, such as a concern for the environment or for social justice, but we cannot ignore the fact that a vote cast for a particular platform is a positive endorsement for the whole – we become moral cooperators in the entire victorious agenda. Now, there are grave injustices in the Democratic agenda, such as its proud advocacy for abortion, assisted suicide, transgenderism and other sexual confusions, along with an alarming and growing intolerance for religious freedom wherever it interferes with such advocacy.
Imagine a platform celebrating race-based slavery while offering universal healthcare. However much we might admire efforts for equitable healthcare, we would absolutely reject the enslavement of human beings. In such a situation, I imagine, we would not be ashamed to become single-issue voters, and so we would refuse to support our party until it understands there are things we hold absolute. In the USA, about 60 million human beings have been killed before their births since 1973. How long before we compel our politicians to stop this heinous social injustice?
I suspect many Catholics considering a vote for Biden understand this moral dilemma. If they vote for him, perhaps they will do so in good faith because they see their vote as the only way to remove Trump, who, we are told, is a cynical, bleach-injecting, misogynist and racist asset of the Russian government hell-bent on exploiting the poor to enrich himself. In theory, this remove-the-evil-man-at-all-costs strategy for voting makes sense. But those who make such dramatic accusations bear the moral responsibility of informing themselves accurately, and that is not easy to do, given the rampant partisanship in journalism and the difficulty of escaping our information silos. Those who think such awful things about Trump should, like those who think their opposite, consider the certainty of their information. More and more people are realizing that we are all vulnerable to powerful manipulators in our society. Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (Jn 7:24). We’d better be sure we’ve done our duty in this regard. We can be culpable for our ignorance.
I suspect my friends planning to vote for Trump are cheering so far. However, even if one rejects as outlandish the socially approved view of Trump, the Gospel still poses real challenges for his politics, even for his pro-life position. For example, while he has done great things for the pro-life cause, the Republican platform still does not defend the lives of those on death row, even though we continue to discover we have put innocent people to death, and that we simply don’t need such a punishment and can instead work for rehabilitation and repentance.
More to the core, Trump supporters should feel a serious responsibility to ensure that “America first” populism does not corrupt our character. In our increasingly connected world, we cannot support such a policy if it doesn’t include the solidarity enshrined in the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. What is the meaning of this “first” for the Gospel-minded, for those who accept Jesus’ preferential option for the poor? Is it a desire to strengthen ourselves for the service of others, like putting our oxygen masks on “first” when the cabin pressure drops in an airplane? Or is it a desire to serve ourselves at the expense of others, like grabbing “first” all the biggest pieces of a pie?
Similarly, if Catholics on the Right reject cries for “social justice” as Machiavellian power grabs of the Left, they would do well to remember that the phrase was coined by a Catholic early in the nineteenth century (namely, by the Thomist Fr. Luigi Taparelli) and embraced by the Church in her tradition of social teaching. In other words, pursuing social justice, righty understood, is not optional for Catholics. Rather than dismiss it as a Leftist ploy, Catholics on the Right should take up the mantle from those who distort its meaning. Don’t let “social justice warrior” remain a term of derision! Fight for justice and show the world what it really means. At the same time, don’t dismiss every criticism of Republican policies simply because some critics caricature them. Judge each policy in relation to the four principles of Catholic Social Teaching: human dignity, common good, solidarity and subsidiarity.
More could be said, of course, about the environment, economy, foreign policy, education, healthcare, and crisis occasioned by our partisan media and the abuse of government and international institutions, among many other things. May we all allow our consciences to be challenged before voting. The spiritual life stagnates in self-righteous and ignorant condemnations. It blossoms through humble self-examination and a readiness to follow God into whatever future may come.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving.