Every election year, a number of canards get trotted out whenever a Catholic gets involved in politics. These are the most common:
1. The notion that an alleged constitutional “wall of separation” between church and state implies a duty of separation between Catholics and Everything.
2. We are often told that “you can’t legislate your morality.”
3. Whatever somebody feels like doing is an “act of conscience” that automatically trumps the teaching of the Church.
4. The notion that “the Catholic Church” is somehow backing a particular party or candidate.
5. A “real” Catholic is obliged to vote for a particular party or candidate if he wishes to remain a “real” Catholic.
Let’s look at these claims one by one.
True relation of church and state
First, there is no constitutional “wall of separation” that prohibits believers from influencing the state or how we order our common life. The phrase never appears in the U.S. Constitution. It is the fruit of pseudo-knowledge, the same way we “know” Humphrey Bogart said “Play it again, Sam” (except he didn’t), Copernicus was burned at the stake by the Church (except he died in his bed and was buried with holy rites), and the Origin of Species discussed “survival of the fittest” (actually it was Herbert Spencer who coined the term). In fact, the “wall of separation” phrase comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists.
“Well, still and all,” say Wall Enthusiasts, “Jefferson was a framer of the Constitution and so meant for that idea to be found there.” Actually, Jefferson was in France while the Constitution was being drafted. In any case, even if he had personally written the Bill of Rights (it was actually the work of James Madison), what matters is not Jefferson’s personal opinion but the text of the First Amendment, namely:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (emphasis added).
The point of this amendment is not to tell believers they cannot participate in the public square but to tell Congress that it cannot establish a state church (as, for instance, the Anglican Church was the state church in England) or prohibit freedom of religion. The point is to let a hundred churches contend as they may in the public square, not to impose a state religion or, worse, a state atheism.
This means that believers of whatever stripe are free to express their faith in the public square and, as they please, let it influence the way they vote. For Catholic Christians, this means allowing one’s faith to influence our participation in the political process is not only permissible by the Constitution; it is actually an imperative of our Faith (see sidebar).
So the notion that there is some sort of constitutional bar to Catholic involvement in the political sphere is not just 180 degrees wrong about what the Constitution says; it’s 180 degrees wrong about what the Church says. We not only may but must allow our faith to shape how we order our lives together for the common good. And it is just as well we acknowledge this fact, since the reality is that our most basic beliefs about God, the universe, and human nature are going to influence the way we act on the common good, whether Caesar likes it or not.
No legislation without morality
This brings us to the next point of contention: the astounding notion that “you can’t legislate your morality.” The community imposes its morality on us every day, by direct state interference using the power of the police and jail systems. Those who have no personal problem with pedophilia, theft, murder, tax evasion, wife beating, and heroin distribution to schoolchildren, who try to be free of these impositions of morality, are called “criminals” and jailed, while state interference with their absolute autonomy is called “good government.”
Law means the imposition of morality. The only real questions are, on what basis is morality imposed? and with what limits? And the only basis from which to judge human law about these and other moral issues is on the basis of natural law and revelation.
Of course, it does not follow from this that all morality can or should be legislated. Rather, the civil law is the floor of human behavior, not the ceiling. It is supposed to guard against the lowest aspects of human behavior so that a society can function tolerably well. What we really mean when we say you can’t legislate morality is that the law cannot put the things of the spirit into the heart. It cannot instill love of God or neighbor, for instance.
But it can and does punish those who can’t bring themselves to keep from harming their neighbor. It says, if you can’t love your neighbor, at least don’t beat him to death with a baseball bat or stick a gun in his ribs and steal his money. That’s a really moral function. It’s just not the highest moral function. Law can instruct the conscience, but it is powerless to fill us with the love of God and neighbor. For that, the grace of God in Christ is necessary.
Conscience must be well-formed
Which brings us to our third canard. Often many Catholics on both sides of the aisle invoke the word conscience as a sort of magic, all-authorizing shibboleth excusing them from consideration of the Church’s actual teaching. So, for instance, some Catholic politicians on the left have declared that abortion is a “matter of conscience” that trumps the teaching of the Church, while some from the other side of the aisle have argued that the Church’s teaching on prisoner abuse in the war on terrorism is “out of date” and needs to be ignored “for the sake of conscience.”
Actual principled rejections of the Church’s doctrines are as rare as hen’s teeth. Virtually always, a rejection of the Church’s doctrinal teaching—and even of its ordinary, fallible, prudential guidance—comes from some fear or desire that triggers some rash, immoral act, which then drives us to arrange the artillery of the intellect in an effort to rationalize our rash and sinful choice.
The main factors at work in almost all postmodern “conscientious” objection to the Church’s teaching—whether from “conservative” apologists for torture or from “progressive” apologists for abortion—is not serious consideration of the Church’s teaching but serious consideration of how to lawyer, game, mickey, and euphemize in order to pretend one takes the Tradition seriously while ignoring the clear and obvious teaching of the Church (which both declares abortion to be an “abominable crime” [CCC 2271] and torture to be intrinsically immoral [Veritatis Splendor 80]).
The reality is that conscience does not consist merely of “How can it be wrong when it feels so right?” A Church teaching is not rendered moot by the fact that it is inexpedient, uncomfortable, or inconvenient. On an extremely rare occasion, a Catholic will find himself truly in a position where he really must challenge, say, Peter when he betrays his own teaching (cf. Gal. 2:11-14), or the bishop of Rouen when he wants to burn St. Joan of Arc, or a bishop when he wants to hide the deeds of a perverted child abuser, or your priest who has been embezzling from the parish school.
But even in these situations, it is not “the teaching of the Church” that is challenged by conscience but the misdeeds of a Catholic who happens to be ordained. Indeed, it is the teaching of the Church that impels us to challenge the sinner—and that challenges us, too. For the actual teaching of the Church (as opposed to the sins of clerics) is common sense and the right thing to do, and the real reason you and I don’t want to do it is not that we are bold saints standing up to a corrupt tradition of men but because we want to do something we shouldn’t or we want to chicken out on doing something we should. That’s the reality behind almost every bold posture of a dissenter from Church teaching.
The Church is apolitical
So (moving on to the fourth canard) the first duty of a Catholic is not to glance at some headline about the Church’s teaching or listen for half a minute to one’s favorite media vendor of ideas and then make a snap judgment about the Church’s teaching based on how “friendly” it happens to feel to our needs for unit cohesion in our political tribe. This is, alas, how the majority of Americans do, in fact, evaluate the Church’s teaching, leading to the amusing—yet tragic—conviction among Catholics on both sides of the aisle that “the Catholic Church” is “backing” this or that party or candidate.
The reality is that the Church’s teaching is Catholic and that it overlaps with and contradicts human political systems in all sorts of complex ways. The trick to understanding this is not to try to map the Church to simple human political dogmas but to receive the Church’s teaching as a whole and evaluate human political systems in light of it.
Modern political systems are ideological. An ideology is an attempt to explain the universe based on a fragment of truth ripped from the Catholic tradition and expanded into an All-Explaining Theory of Everything. Catholic Tradition doesn’t try to explain everything. It is content with mystery and says not “Everything is sexual freedom” or “Everything is the free market” or “Everything is science” but rather “We don’t know much, but we do know that we believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty . . . etc.”
Ideologies, especially political ones, itch to cram the universe—including God and the human race—into a box. The Faith is content to let most of life stay mysterious and insist only on a few core truths. Consequently, the Faith is always larger than ideology, because ideology is basically a form of heresy. Heresies are always partly right, but we evaluate heresies in light of the Faith, not the other way around. The Church binds itself to no party or candidate but bids us evaluate parties and candidates in light of the truth.
This means that on the one hand certain things are not open to compromise. We can, for instance, never ever say that it is permissible to take innocent human life. We also recognize that some evils are much more serious than others (murder is a grave sin, while shoplifting isn’t). But we do not say, “Just so long as you don’t murder somebody, shoplifting is okay.” For the same reason, we recognize that while voting to support abortion is evil, opposition to abortion does not exhaust our moral responsibility for the common good.
“Good” and “bad” Catholics
This is why, to come to our last canard, it is false to assume that a vote for a particular party or candidate solely on the basis of some non-negotiable issue automatically renders one a good or bad Catholic. The reality is far more complex.
There are, as we have noted, certain non-negotiable moral positions a Catholic cannot support. For instance, abortion and euthanasia are gravely sinful, and a Catholic cannot vote in order to support them. But a complicating factor enters when voting takes place in a system of representative government. Namely, a voter may feel morally obliged to support a candidate, not because that candidate supports abortion or euthanasia but because he thinks that some proportional reason outweighs the concern about abortion and euthanasia. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, wrote in 2004:
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.
Everything turns, then, on what one considers a “proportional reason” for supporting a candidate who favors an immoral act such as abortion or euthanasia. For instance, a candidate for mayor may have no ability to affect policy in these areas but may have an enlightened proposal for fixing the terrible traffic problem that is choking your town. So you might legitimately conclude you should vote for her. Or, in a two-candidate race, someone might legitimately conclude that a casually pro-abortion candidate who is unlikely to act on his perfunctory pro-abort rhetoric but who may save the economy is preferable to a candidate who is on a missionary quest to export abortion across the globe.
This is not to say that one must vote for the lesser of two evils. One may just as legitimately refuse to vote for any candidates who support grave evil or to instead give your vote to some candidate who does not support any grave evils, even if he is sure to lose. Indeed, an argument can be made that perpetually remaining boxed in by “lesser of two evils” voting guarantees that we will elect evildoers every single time and participate in a downward spiral of evil over time. But the point here is that the Church cuts us slack and realizes we do not vote in a perfect world.
Politics are never going to usher in the New Heaven and New Earth. But they are part of the ordinary human means by which we order our lives together as is our dignity as human beings. It is usually done badly (prompting Bismarck to say that with laws, as with sausages, it was better to not see them being made). But, as Chesterton remarked, politics is a thing we have a duty and a right to do as human beings, “a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”
So bring your Catholic faith to bear on your politics. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.