Catholics are among the eligible voters ramping up efforts to persuade one another to vote for their preferred candidate for U.S. president, which is a standard and acceptable practice. When persuasion morphs into coercion, however, it leaves the boundaries of fairness. Shouldn’t we instead be practicing the mercy that Pope Francis has called on us to demonstrate toward one another throughout this Year of Mercy?
For starters, let’s stop assigning negative motives to one another. Let’s assume that each of us is a faithful Catholic who sincerely desires the best for our country, and that each of us is committed to ensuring the common good rather than our own self-interest. Can we respectfully agree to disagree on how we achieve these noble goals?
While Pope Francis wasn’t addressing presidential elections in his document on mercy, his words of wisdom offer fitting advice for how we ought to relate to one another. “If anyone wishes to avoid God’s judgment, he should not make himself the judge of his brother or sister. Human beings, whenever they judge, look no farther than the surface, whereas the Father looks into the very depths of the soul” (Misericordiae Vultus, No. 38).
Neither of the major party candidates espouses views that fulfill all of the principles of Catholic social teaching, which makes our responsibility as faith-filled citizens especially challenging. But hasn’t that been true of every presidential election? Every four years we have an obligation to take time to examine each candidate’s stance on issues (not just TV or social media sound bites) according to the principles of Catholic social teaching. We may long for black and white answers to help make this difficult decision, but our church challenges us to examine the gray areas as well.
Iowa’s Catholic bishops, in their statement on faithful citizenship, note that “Our choice of how to vote in every instance must follow our best understanding of what is the good for all, following a time of reflection and prayer.” The bishops don’t tell us how to vote; they cannot do so. They do state that “the defense of human life and dignity must begin with the fundamental right to life from natural conception to natural death.” Extending from these rights are the rights to the things that sustain life: food and shelter, education and health care, fair access to productive work and fair wages.
The challenge for Catholics, then, is this: how do we take the principles of Catholic social teaching and apply them to the concrete issues of our day? Isn’t it possible for faithful Catholics to agree on the principles but respectfully disagree on how they ought to be applied? In our discernment process it would be helpful to review the seven themes of Catholic social teaching, listed on the U.S. bishops’ website (http://tinyurl.com/3w69bg6). How we vote is a decision each of us makes for ourselves. No one — family, friends, colleagues or respected church leaders — can obligate us to vote for one candidate over another.
Choosing not to vote for any candidate for a particular office is an option, but does that serve the common good? Consider these words from Faithful Citizenship for Iowa Catholics:
“The voice of informed Catholics is needed more than ever. The message of our Catholic teaching is one of hope, grounded in faith and reason. Making decisions in the light of our faith will not be easy, and it may lead us to a place we don’t want to go. But it is our lifelong obligation to say ‘yes’ to God in all things, and listen for his voice sounding in our heart.”
That’s what it takes to be a merciful, faithful citizen.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor