Homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (EF) at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.
Almighty God has been very good in giving us as the day’s Gospel passage that of Our Lord’s famous admonition to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s but to God what is God’s.” I say that in view of the upcoming national elections and likewise want to suggest that between now and November 8 you read (or re-read) the poignant and insightful work of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia on the role Catholics must play in the public square. I would like to begin this reflection by being autobiographical.
As the grandson of immigrants, I was raised to think that to be Catholic automatically meant being a Democrat; after all, it was the Democratic Party that had been so involved in assisting the newly-arrived with possibilities for financial security and upward mobility. The first presidential election in which I could vote (as a seminarian of twenty-one) was that of 1972.
Looking at the positions of Richard Nixon and George McGovern, I determined that the Democratic platform would lead us into a serious moral downward spiral. When I informed my parents that I intended to vote for President Nixon, they responded with shock and dismay: “How can you even think of voting for a Republican?” In great detail and with consummate patience, I explained my rationale to my parents, who gave no response. On Election Day, as I entered the voting booth and prepared to pull the lever for Nixon, I experienced something close to spasms in my arm, knowing that I was the first member of my family in half a century to sever the bond with the Democratic Party. Later that day, my mother asked, “Well, how did you vote?” “I told you I would vote for Nixon, and I did.” “So did your father and I,” came her response.
With great enthusiasm, I supported Ronald Reagan in his two bids for the Oval Office because I saw in him a man of conviction and the characteristics of a great statesman – traits patently lacking in both his opponents, Jimmy Carter (1980) and Walter Mondale (1984). Since then, I have always voted for the Republican candidate – but with a clothespin on my nose, never able to muster the same gusto for candidates who were generally good men but without verve and, with all due respect, quite milquetoast. But compared to the alternatives of Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry and Obama – and the increasingly radical leftist agenda of the Democratic Party – Bush Sr., Dole, Bush Jr., McCain and Romney were my only moral options.
In 2016, I find myself in an even worse place. As I have tried to go through this process for myself, I have weighed many variables and thought it might be helpful to share my labors with you dear – and probably – confused and dispirited believers.
How does a Catholic vote according to an informed Christian conscience?
Many resources are available. Let me cite some of the more important among them. Vatican II’s Apostolicam Actuositatem (on the laity) and Gaudium et Spes (on the Church in the modern world) offer sound guidance, as do the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. For a specifically American application of these universal principles, read “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States” of 2015 (updated every four years to coincide with a presidential election). This document (n. 8) encourages Catholics to produce and consult “voter guides”; in that spirit, I offer the following.
Whether one is a candidate for public office or exercising one’s voting franchise, the strong denunciation of a certain mentality by the Fathers of Vatican II needs to be taken into account:
One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives. . . . Let there . . . be no such pernicious opposition between professional and social activity on the one hand and religious life on the other. . . . It is their task [i.e., the task of the Catholic laity] to cultivate a properly informed conscience and to impress the divine law on the affairs of the earthly city. (Gaudium et Spes, n. 43).
It is precisely this “pernicious opposition” between one’s personal, deeply held beliefs (we are told) and one’s inability to “impose” these on the rest of society that has given cover to the Cuomos, Kennedys, Kerrys, Pelosis – and now Tim Kaine. However, following the sage admonition of the Council Fathers, we must conclude that these would-be emperors have no clothes. Can a black man dissociate himself from his race when considering the positions of a party or candidate? Can a Jewish woman put aside her Jewishness? In fact, would anyone even dare suggesting such a possibility? No, these aspects of one’s person are integral to one’s identity – and so is one’s faith. Hence, the American bishops declare: “The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith” (n. 9). And “the Church” here means all the baptized.
Is such involvement inappropriate or even “un-American”? The bishops wisely note:
Some question whether it is appropriate for the Church to play a role in political life. However, the obligation to teach the moral truths that should shape our lives, including our public lives, is central to the mission given to the Church by Jesus Christ. Moreover, the United States Constitution protects the right of individual believers and religious bodies to participate and speak out without government interference, favoritism, or discrimination. Civil law should fully recognize and protect the right of the Church and other institutions in civil society to participate in cultural, political, and economic life without being forced to abandon or ignore their central moral convictions. Our nation’s tradition of pluralism is enhanced, not threatened, when religious groups and people of faith bring their convictions and concerns into public life. Indeed, our Church’s teaching is in accord with the foundational values that have shaped our nation’s history: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (n. 11)
The Catechism likewise teaches that “citizens should take an active part in public life” (n. 1915).
And what about voting “according to my conscience”? Once more, the bishops of our nation provide sound instruction:
The Church equips its members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. Catholics have a serious and lifelong obligation to form their consciences in accord with human reason and the teaching of the Church. Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere “feeling” about what we should or should not do. Rather, conscience is the voice of God resounding in the human heart, revealing the truth to us and calling us to do what is good while shunning what is evil. Conscience always requires serious attempts to make sound moral judgments based on the truths of our faith. As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right.” (n. 17)
Certain issues must always be entered into the moral calculus of one’s vote
The bishops are crystal clear about priorities:
There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called “intrinsically evil” actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others” (Living the Gospel of Life, n. 5). It is a mistake with grave moral consequences to treat the destruction of innocent human life merely as a matter of individual choice. A legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed. (n. 22)
Is this “single-issue” voting?
No, while I do not vote for someone solely on the basis of one issue, there are certain issues that are what we can call “automatic disqualifiers.” Just as one would most reasonably conclude that a member of the KKK or a neo-Nazi should never hold public office because of his racism, so too any reasonable person can and should conclude that anyone who favors the killing of innocent human babies in the womb is manifestly unfit to hold any position of influence in a civilized society. Or, as the bishops put it:
As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet if a candidate's position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support. (n. 42)
And what about “all the other good positions” a candidate may have, even if lacking in that one area? St. John Paul II, in Christifideles Laici, could not be clearer:
Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination. (n. 38)
Following on Pope John Paul’s assertion, the bishops leave no doubt about Catholic social teaching on abortion and euthanasia:
“The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed” (n. 28).
“Faithful Citizenship” also has counsel on what to do if all candidates are equally bad on critical issues:
When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods. In making these decisions, it is essential for Catholics to be guided by a well-formed conscience that recognizes that all issues do not carry the same moral weight and that the moral obligation to oppose policies promoting intrinsically evil acts has a special claim on our consciences and our actions. These decisions should take into account a candidate’s commitments, character, integrity, and ability to influence a given issue. (nn. 36, 37)
How do the two principal parties compare on issues traditionally of great import to Catholics?
The one party has never had stronger positions on all the “non-negotiables” of Catholic social teaching, while the other party has never had more radical positions in total opposition to Catholic social teaching.
Of course, the fundamental problem in our political landscape is that the nation (or at least the nation’s opinion-makers) have moved in an aggressive fashion toward the secularization that has crippled Europe. We need to recall and reinstate attitudes that first put the United States on the right track and then kept her there for generations. James Madison, the primary author of our Constitution asserted: “We have staked the whole future of our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.” John Adams declared: “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.” A century later, Calvin Coolidge reaffirmed that truth when he wrote: “The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically universal in our country.” But isn’t that exactly where we are – “faith in these teachings” practically gone from the public square?
So, what is one to do in this current election cycle?
Many of you have logically asked your priests what they are going to do – and you have a right to know that. So let me say this: I could never support Hillary Clinton and the radically leftist program of her party. I am reasonably comfortable with the Republican platform (especially as that relates to the right to life, traditional marriage, parental freedom of choice in education and religious liberty), but distinctly uncomfortable with its standard-bearer due to his brashness and very spotty record as a would-be conservative. That said, I know for sure where Clinton will lead the country because of the consistent trajectory she has pursued her entire life. And how can we ignore the latest revelations about her staff mocking Catholic morality and even seeking to incite the laity to rebel against their bishops’ teaching? I hope that Donald Trump has had a genuine conversion and/or that the people with whom he will surround himself will be able to move him into right paths, particularly in regard to the critically important task of appointing solid justices to the Supreme Court. Some serious believers have indicated that they intend simply to stay home on Election Day; that can surely be a moral decision, however, that also most assuredly gives away the store to persons and policies which are totally inimical to the Catholic view of a just society.
I suppose I shall have to put a clothes-pin on my nose yet again as I cast my ballot on November 8.
If we Catholics have our priorities straight, we shall know how to interface with secular society with conviction, boldness and courage. Our vote will not be about party loyalty or personal expediency. When Bishop of Fall River, the present Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley, penned an “election reflection,” which offers some potentially unnerving remarks for certain Catholic voters (and politicians): “If I were ever tempted to vote for simply selfish reasons, tribal allegiances, or economic advantages rather than the moral direction of the country, I should beat a hasty retreat from the curtain of the polling booth to the curtain of the confessional.” God willing, no one present here today will have to do that.
Permit me to conclude by putting before you for consideration the inestimable interpretation of today’s Gospel passage by Hilary of Poitiers – the saint, not Hillary you-know-who! In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, the fourth-century doctor of the Church makes the tantalizing observation that once we have rendered to God what is God’s, there’s not much left for Caesar! Simply put: We render to Caesar best when we render to God first. As we look forward to tomorrow’s lecture on the English martyrs by Joanna Bogle (here among us this morning), we would do well to make St. Thomas More’s dying words our own: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first!”