Richard Doerflinger

This past presidential campaign, one of the most bruising and discouraging on record, left many of us dissatisfied with the electoral system and politics in general. As usual, Catholics voted for the winning candidate — despite internal divisions between churchgoers and nonchurchgoers and between white and Hispanic Catholics.

And as usual, Catholics’ tendency to pick the winner raises a question: Are we leading the country or following the crowd? Does our faith make us different?

Journalists covering the U.S. bishops’ November meeting dramatized what they saw as a dilemma for Catholics by citing the bishops’ own newly elected president and vice-president: Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles.

The former has been a leader in opposing abortion, they said, and the latter a champion for rights of immigrants. How will they deal with an administration that seems supportive on one issue but opposed on the other?


But of course, both bishops will teach the truth on both issues, in season and out of season, because both are committed to the same Catholic vision. They see politics as serving the common good for all, including the basic rights of each human being made in the image and likeness of God.

The first right must be life itself, at all stages and conditions, because other rights are meaningless unless we’re allowed to exist.

Government must then help ensure the material and social conditions for each living person to fulfill his or her potential as God intended — culminating in the right to religious freedom, which allows us to develop our friendship with God and other people.

But an agonizing dilemma does face Catholic voters who, every election, are asked to choose between two parties who fall short of that vision.

At their worst, both parties appeal to people’s basest instincts. One promises maximum sexual freedom, ignoring the victims of the sexual revolution — most often women, their born and unborn children, and the family. The other promises maximum economic freedom, ignoring the way this prosperity gospel pushes aside the poor and marginalized.

Choosing your party can look like a quiz: What’s your favorite deadly sin, lust or avarice?

Each party also has positions that coincide with elements of Catholic teaching. Even here, though, discernment is needed. To quote T.S. Eliot, “the greatest treason” is “to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

If our social teaching is a seamless garment, the left or right sleeve can’t be ripped off without risking loss of the foundation that gives it ultimate purpose.

So we Catholics should be involved in politics and even seek party leadership roles. Both parties need the church’s vision of the human person. But we need to ask ourselves: “Do I want to lobby my church to see things the way my party does or lobby the party to come closer to the church’s vision? Am I Catholic first?”


If the answer to that last question is yes, we will engage in public life without giving ultimate allegiance to party or political ideology — we will be “in the world but not of the world.” Our guiding star will be the church’s comprehensive Gospel of life.

And we will take on the risks of following in the footsteps of our Master — who had his garment ripped from him and was crucified between two thieves.

So being Catholic first means seeing all issues on their merits, not through a partisan lens, and understanding how all of them are joined at their roots in God’s unconditional love for each and every human being. In future columns, I’ll have more to suggest about a distinctive Catholic approach to politics.


Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.