Last month the Catholic News Service reported on a speech given by Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego on the need for Catholic voters to embrace a more diverse and multifaceted approach to selecting candidates for office. “The drive to label a single issue preeminent” in a given election, Bishop McElroy said, “distorts the call to authentic discipleship in voting rather than advancing it.”
The bishop’s claims came in the wake of a controversial decision by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their general meeting this past November. As Jane Bailey explains elsewhere in this issue, the bishops specifically chose to identify abortion as the “preeminent priority” in an introductory letter to their quadrennial statement on elections, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. The choice of language had the effect of edging out other—and, in the eyes of many Catholics, equally important—issues, including climate change, the rights of immigrants and the undocumented, and wealth inequality.
To be fair, the bishops do quote from Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”) in their introductory letter, describing the “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking” and other marginalized and rejected groups as “equally sacred.” However, the bishops voted down the suggestion of Cardinal Blase J. Cupich to include additional text from the papal exhortation that advises against elevating one ethical issue above others and admonishes: “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.”
Bishop McElroy’s speech, “Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting,” was delivered at an auspicious time in the American political calendar: namely, the start of the Democratic Party presidential primaries that had already been dominating the news cycle for months. While there have been substantive debates among the candidates, and a chance for the electorate to assess various proposals, the theater and spectacle of the race as contrived by the media is more of a distraction than a means of engagement with the issues. The bishop’s words were a reminder of what is ultimately at stake in the political process: the way we organize ourselves, our society, and our international relationships to foster a climate of “justice, life and peace” both domestically and abroad.
The bishop clearly acknowledged that this ongoing project “refuses to be confined to narrow boxes or relegated to partisan categories,” instead presenting a broad, comprehensive vision for the ways that Catholic voters ought to scrutinize candidates and policies. He advised considering 10 issues based on Catholic social teaching for informed and conscientious voting, including immigration and refugees, euthanasia and assisted suicide, racism, work and workers’ rights, poverty and inequality, the promotion of marriage and family, nuclear disarmament, and the protection of religious liberty, as well as abortion and environmental protection.
As these latter two issues continued to vie for “preeminence” in the sphere of Catholic political discourse—with Matthew Sitman of Commonweal making the point that “it’s not clear why the climate crisis isn’t just as urgent [as the issue of abortion]—a habitable planet is a precondition for ‘life itself,’ and in the decades ahead the ‘number of lives destroyed’ by flood, famine, and fire could be catastrophically high”—Bishop McElroy advanced the dialogue further by introducing a “third compelling issue that our country faces in this election cycle: the culture of exclusion that has grown so dramatically in our nation during the last three years.” The bishop went on to identify the ills of “racial injustice . . . buttressed by a new language and symbolism that seek to advance the evil of white nationalism and create structures of racial prejudice for a new generation.”
For Catholic voters of all backgrounds and political persuasions, there is what the bishop termed in his talk a “constellation of substantial moral elements” to consider in the upcoming elections. Yet we must not become so overly invested in the political process—or, perhaps more accurately, the narratives that attach themselves to political candidacies and contests—that we neglect ourselves as agents of change. We do not need to wait on leaders to accomplish those humble, simple works of mercy in our daily lives that are the seeds of a better world; we can remember, while participating in a political or civic life, that our responsibilities to each other transcend election cycles and can ultimately never be displaced by support of a given candidate no matter how closely their worldview aligns with ours. In a June 2019 profile in America magazine, Fr. Christoph Gerhard, a Benedictine monk of the Munsterschwarzach Abbey in Bavaria, shared words of wisdom along this theme when asked about the success of the abbey’s conversion to renewable energy:
You simply cannot just think election to election. We monks think in decades, centuries. We live together and care for each other. I know that I will live here in 30 years; that’s a different kind of motivation. Our society still has to learn this. If you want to care for the environment, if you want to cherish the integrity of creation, you have to broaden your horizon. Think bigger.
“Think bigger” seems apt advice when we are tempted to pay too much attention to the latest political micro-drama, identify too closely with one issue at the expense of others, or place our hopes in the image of an individual candidate rather than the networks of solidarity he or she might inspire. Catholic voters more than others experience the implicit tension between the “already” of the world as it is and the “not yet” of the world to come, and it is in riding that tension—and recognizing that the electoral process is not an end in itself to be followed as a symbolic contest of personalities but a means by which we can apportion power, resources, and opportunity to those who are most in need—that we might reconcile our spiritual and our civic lives.
The divide between our daily reality in America, where we have the luxury of indulging in a yearlong primary process followed by a yearlong ramp-up to a general election, and that of other parts of the world was illustrated by the web page of the New York Times for February 26. Beneath several items covering the previous night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina was a story about the refugee crisis in northwestern Syria, including interviews with a man whose 18-month-old daughter had frozen to death in the extreme cold and a woman whose son was smuggled into Turkey, perhaps never to be seen by her again. It was a stark reminder that, for so many, the option of fashioning political solutions to pressing problems does not exist. This reality ought to sober us so that we do not take our own process for granted, but rather approach it with the right combination of “prudence and conscience” as advocated by Bishop McElroy that it deserves.
Editor, Today’s American Catholic