In 2004, the year of George W versus John Kerry, Villanova historian Eugene McCarraher wrote an article explaining why he didn’t vote. Both candidates were zillionaires who supported the 2003 Iraq invasion, and Gene was frustrated with what he called the party of plutocracy, war, and capital punishment versus the party of plutocracy, war, and abortion.
Once, not voting would have seemed heretical to me. But as I age, as my Catholic conscience hopefully deepens, and perhaps as our country changes, I find abstaining out of principle more understandable. I will still be voting this year, but like McCarraher, I find it impossible to be at home in either political party.
To find my spiritual place in the political world, it helps me to imagine being a peasant in the Roman Empire. The idea that the empire might consider Christian values would have been unthinkably remote. Apparently, all we can do is pray that the emperor will not be evil or crazy.
But appearances can be deceptive. Princeton historian Peter Brown recalls that pagan Rome had its own charity: citizens carried a lead or a bronze tablet, like an ID card, indicating entitlement to a ration of grain or pork. To be on this welfare was a point of pride, because you were a citizen.
Of course, there were also poor people who were not citizens. In times of famine, they starved. It didn’t occur to Romans to worry about these immigrants, because conceptually, they were invisible. The non-citizens were non-persons and off the moral map.
Twelve years ago Villanova historian Eugene McCarraher didn’t vote because both presidential candidates were zillionaires who supported the 2003 Iraq invasion, and represented what he called the party of plutocracy, war, and capital punishment versus the party of plutocracy, war, and abortion.
In this context, the first Catholics insisted that each human being was created in the image of God. This idea gave the early church a reason to feed everyone, based on need rather than citizenship. Professor Brown explains that over generations, the church brought a new class of people — “the poor” — into western consciousness.
From this precedent, I deduce that whenever we feel politically homeless, our Catholic political vocation is always more generative and interesting than voting and competing for power. Whatever our rulers may do, we still have our faith and our neighbors, and therefore we have opportunities to serve creatively.
My analogy also has obvious implications for today’s immigration debate, but it’s applicable to pro-life issues too. Think of abortion, where we Catholics see the image of God in someone whom the world says is a non-person.
Moreover, the phrase “image of God” occurs in the same verses where God creates male and female and tells us to care for the earth, making the Catholic culture of life beautifully coherent.
Another ancient analogy that helps comes from the book of Daniel. Daniel and his friends were useful to the Babylonian King — they had wisdom which the palace magicians did not — because they conformed their lives to faith. Even while living in Babylon, these Israelites were disciplined about prayers and keeping kosher, which meant that when issues arose where they couldn’t compromise, they were spiritually prepared, fortified for the lion’s den and the fiery furnace.
We too need to be faithful in our daily habits so that we are formed and ready to stand up for the truth. The book of Daniel says that spiritual discipline and political wisdom go together.
That’s why, no matter what else you do on Nov. 8, I recommend fasting or performing some other act of penance. We see in Scripture and the early church that God has a history of forging his people in times of poor political leadership, so while I am not optimistic about this election, I have hope.
I’ll be voting this Election Day, but with lament for the state of our nation, and an awakened sense of my primary identity as a Catholic.
There are many other things that could and should be said about the Catholic conscience and voting. We should consider a candidate’s character. The church teaches us not to vote in support of intrinsic evils like abortion. The church also tells us not to be single-issue voters.
The church reasons that in extreme circumstances, we can support a candidate who supports something like abortion, but only for very grave counter-balancing reasons, and never because of the intrinsic evil itself.
And perhaps most profoundly, if we consider the magisterium of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis, they have been saying for decades that there are habits in modern life shaping us in utilitarian, individualistic, and relativistic ways, and that is why the west now faces a deep cultural crisis.
That means we must go about our works of mercy and cultural renewal with a long-term perspective, remembering what it took to become a moral force in the Roman Empire, and what it took to be faithful in Babylon.
However your conscience impels you on Election Day, I am sure we serve the nation by being Catholics first, Americans second, and Republicans or Democrats a very distant third.
Christopher C. Roberts is a parishioner at Our Mother of Consolation in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. He is in his final year of studying for the permanent diaconate and is the author of Creation & Covenant, a book about the theology of marriage.
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