Transform Society, Cultivate Life
Published: October 23, 2008
“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be—wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” Abraham Lincoln
In 1855 Abraham Lincoln wrote, “As a nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal except Negroes, and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.” Lincoln recognized ours is a special country “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Upon his election, when war loomed certain, Lincoln would write: “I know that the Lord is always on the side of the right. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.” The irony that during the most terrible war in our history both sides read from the same Bible and prayed to the same God was not lost on Lincoln, nor should it be lost on us.
Every election year we hear partisan spin from pundits and politicians seeking to demonize opponents and scare up votes. Statements by opponents are purposely skewed to mislead. Much of what we now call spin is no more than lies said for political gain. Not surprisingly, there is a sense that all politicians are the same, and that all politicians are corrupt. But the fact remains—some politicians are better at defending the common good of the country than others; some politicians care for basic human rights better than others; some politicians have better policies than others.
Many of the political issues we face have moral implications, and it is in this capacity the church has a responsibility to help defend human dignity. The church cannot tell anyone who to vote for. The church can say: “Democracy is fundamentally a system and as such is a means and not an end. Its moral value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behavior, must be subject.” If a government is to have moral authority, it must embrace justice and defend basic human rights through the rule of law. If the majority of citizens in a country vote to legalize slavery, this would be an example of an unjust law because enslaving other human beings is intrinsically evil. Just laws are needed to protect the dignity of the most vulnerable, as in, the church would argue, the case of abortion.
That’s why the document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” by the United States Catholic Bishops states: “The direct and intentional destruction of 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. … A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who takes a position in favor of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or racism, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.” The bishops remind us there are other serious threats that abort human life and undermine human dignity which must be considered: “Racism and other unjust discrimination, the use of the death penalty, resorting to unjust war, the use of torture, war crimes, the failure to respond to those suffering from hunger or lack of health care, or an unjust immigration policy are all serious moral issues that challenge our consciences and require us to act. These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed.”
For Catholics, the obvious problem is that no political party fully represents Catholic Social Doctrine. At some level we are all left with compromised prudential decisions in discerning how to cast our votes. One thing is clear. Partisan party politics itself cannot transform our society or solve the moral problems facing our country and world. If we are to truly transform society and cultivate a culture of life, ultimately it will happen through moral persuasion, civil discourse, public witness, conversion and the transformation of human hearts—not partisan politics. All violence—from abortion to sexism to unjust war to 18,000 children dying of hunger each day—undermines the same human dignity. Neither political party represents the fullness of a consistent life ethic. Recognizing this our bishops state: “As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong …”
If we care about the soul of our nation, we have a duty to responsibly critique our country if we are to live up to the ideals our country was founded upon. We have a duty to critique our own political party if it embraces something morally wrong. We have a duty to responsibly critique our church if we are not embracing the person and teachings of Jesus. Just as we have a duty to critique our own person—to see if how we live and what we espouse squares with the person and teachings of Jesus. To recognize our shortcomings, mistakes and sinfulness is not an example of weakness, but actually just the opposite.
Today we might agree with Abraham Lincoln when he said, “Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery I feel a strong impulse to try it on him personally.” This seems like a simple application of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” But then again, it’s easy to be righteous and embrace moral truth—unless there’s a cost involved, such as possibly losing one’s heritage, lifestyle or way of life. What happens when we apply the Golden Rule to abortion? To close to one billion people living in absolute poverty? To war, torture, immigration, racism or sexism? Then what happens? What happens if as Christians we are called to “love one another as Christ has loved us”? That’s even more problematic—and probably involves taking up one’s cross.
Tom Reichert is the director of pastoral ministry and outreach at St. Joseph Church, Marietta. The full text of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can be found at www.faithfulcitizenship.org.