Monday, October 29, 2012

Beyond Liberal or Conservative

Do you have friends who classify people according to an "either/or" mentality--that is, people are either liberal or they are conservative?  A couple years ago, an acquaintance of mine started talking politics, then looked at me and said, "So are you a Republican or a Democrat?"  It usually takes me about ten minutes to think of a decent response in moments like this, but on this particular day my immediate answer was, "Actually, I'm a Catholic."

The issue at stake was one of identity and allegiance, not to mention the question of being labeled.  Who or what defines me as a person, and what shapes my thought and actions?  Though I may fail and fall, though I may wish my identification were more wholehearted, as a Catholic what I am is neither liberal nor conservative.  Of course, as a faithful citizen, I do vote.  But before I choose whether to vote for a given candidate, the first question I grapple with is whether my faith will inform and transform my politics, or whether the politics of the day will wind up shaping what I believe as a Christian. 

In a new "Introductory Note" to their document on Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Bishops highlight six current and fundamental problems.  These issues clearly cut both "left" and "right," and they remind us that Christ and his Church transcend categories such as liberal or conservative.  For example:

  • If I vote republican does that mean I need to ignore the needs of undocumented immigrants, as if our broken immigration system must be defended in the name of respecting the rule of law?  After all, Jesus said, "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me" (Mt 25:40).
  • If I vote democratic does that mean that I need to condone the HHS mandate's attack on religious liberty, as if Catholic institutions and private employers should be forced to provide services which violate their consciences? As Jesus said,"God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth" (Jn 4:24).
  • If I vote democratic does that mean that I need to approve of the movement to redefine marriage, as if same-sex attractions are something brand new in human experience and as if the only alternatives for how we address the issue is either being for "gay marriage" or being "homophobic"?  After all, Jesus said "from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh’" (Mk 10:6-8).
  • If I vote republican does that mean that I need to rationalize the preemptive use of violence and military might (as well as torture and state-sponsored assassinations), in the name of preventing some allegedly greater evil from happening?  After all, Jesus said, "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt 5:44).
  • If I vote democratic does that mean that I need to condone the ongoing destruction of the innocent in abortion and the surging movement to justify euthanizing those who are most vulnerable?  After all, it was Jesus who said, "If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.  [The young man asked, 'which ones?'] And Jesus replied, You shall not kill..." (Mt 19:17-18).  
  • And what about the current economic crisis, the rising federal debt, the plight of the poor, and the need for meaningful work?  Does voting republican mean that I'm committed to an unfettered free market economy whose real goal is maximizing profit margins, and does voting democratic mean that I'm committed to an ever-expanding federal government whose deficit-spending policies are supposed to answer some of the very problems they've helped create?  Fortunately Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest" (Mt 11:28).
So how to sort all this out as a Catholic living in 21st Century America?  As the Bishops' "Introductory Note" mentions, there are important differences among the six issues listed above, with "some involving opposition to intrinsic evils and others raising serious moral questions."  Intrinsic evils "must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned" (Faithful Citizenship, n. 22).  Serious moral questions, on the other hand, are matters of prudential judgment and may be open to a variety of different ethical responses.

When making these prudential judgments, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1759) articulates a key guiding principle:  "'An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention' [St. Thomas Aquinas].  The end does not justify the means."  If the worldly false gods of wealth or honor or power or pleasure guide my thinking, it becomes easy to justify sacrificing others in defense of my false god.  However, if I focus on Jesus' message both that the kingdom of God is at hand and that his kingdom is not of this world, I am more clear about not only the real "end" of life but also the proper "means" to achieve it.

So this election year and beyond, I pray that Catholics will respond with the Psalmist, "My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth" (Ps 121:2)--not from some political party.  And along with other faithful citizens, I hope that Catholics will claim protection not in liberal or conservative ideologies, but in the blood of the Lamb.