Elections invite us to cast our vote as citizens and choose the best possible public leaders to meet the exigencies of our present time and circumstances.
Whether voting for president of the country or for school board members in our cities and towns, citizens want public leaders who are decent, hard workers, committed to the common good, respectful of human life and dignity at all times, devoted to truth and justice, knowledgeable and able to work with others. As a father of two youngsters learning life’s ways, I want public leaders who inspire and give good example.
The order is tall but not impossible. Anyone with some discipline can embody these traits. We teach them in our homes and schools. We hear about them in our churches. We assure our children and grandchildren that they are attainable.
We cultivate these traits to ensure civility. We honor those who live them exemplary. When people cultivate them to bring others to Christ, explicitly proclaiming the Gospel and relying on God’s grace, we speak of holiness.
Holiness, however, is not a requirement to run for public office. Neither is perfection. Candidates for public office excel at extolling their accomplishments and strengths. We also learn about their imperfections. After all, they are human like anyone else.
Acknowledging the human side of political leaders is important. Treating them as messianic characters is idolatrous. Expecting flawlessness is naive.
It is common to frame political campaigns in “good vs. evil” language. Not surprising. This motif permeates much of our literary, religious and pop culture imagination. However, such dualism becomes toxic, even dangerous, when it reduces people to one or the other.
The Catholic tradition affirms that every person is intrinsically good, and yet as finite beings we must contend with our imperfections and limitations. For which imperfect candidate should I vote?
No candidate for public office will match the noblest expectations of religious groups, and that is fine. No one has ever done so. At the very least, we trust that candidates who subscribe to any religious tradition would draw from its wisdom for the good of all.
The U.S. political system is not a theocracy but a democracy. Not perfect, yet still a system that in principle guarantees that anyone may elect or be elected without religious litmus tests or coercive forces, secular or religious.
U.S. Catholics understand this. About 150 years ago, many in this nation doubted that Catholics could participate actively in public life. Well, we have, and have done it well.
For which imperfect candidate should I vote? The answer to this question lies ultimately in each individual’s conscience, “the most secret core and sanctuary” of a human person, according to the Second Vatican Council.
In their document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. Catholic bishops affirmed with utmost clarity: “The responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience.” Here the bishops treat Catholic voters as adults.
As a Catholic planning to vote as a faithful citizen, I will heed the bishops’ recommendation to inform my conscience. I will also exercise my personal responsibility to study comprehensively the candidates, their actions and their platforms.
I pray for wisdom to vote for public leaders who, despite their imperfections, I can deem in good and informed conscience closest to being decent, hard workers, committed to the common good, respectful of human life and dignity at all times, devoted to truth and justice, knowledgeable and able to work with others. People I can present to my children as inspirational and exemplary on matters of public service.
Hosffman Ospino is professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.
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