From Political Paralysis to Political Homelessness
By Elena Muller Garcia*
In 1978, seventeen years after my arrival in the United States, I took the oath of allegiance to this country at a Naturalization Ceremony at the Miami Beach Convention Center. I registered to vote soon after. One of my goals in becoming an American citizen was to participate in political life. When I had asked my friends which party to join, one recommended that I register as a Democrat. “The Democratic Party favors immigrants,” he had told me. Others recommended that I register as a Republican. Although I don’t have a clear memory of which party I joined then, I have switched from one party to another several times. Once I registered as an independent, which truth be told, is what I have been all along. Because the state of Florida requires membership to one party or another to participate in the primaries, I eventually registered in a party again.
I have very little recollection of my political activities during my first years as an American citizen.
Earlier, when I was still an undergraduate student, I had attended a march at Bayfront Park in Miami to protest against abortion and in support of the unborn child. The number of people on both sides was small. I do remember walking side by side with a woman who had a pro-abortion sign. “Aren’t you glad your mother did not abort you?” I said to her. “I would not have known about it,” she replied. That was the end of the conversation.
A few years later I participated in other events in Miami’s Calle Ocho, passing out pro-life fliers as cars stopped at intersections. Much like the students who would collect money for their baseball or soccer teams, we were there to raise awareness about the problem of abortion. We were Catholic Cuban American young women and men advocating for the life of the unborn child.
In the early 80’s, when I married, we moved to South Bend Indiana and lived at the University Village at the University of Notre Dame. During those years I became acquainted with a group of pro-life democrats. I registered as a Democrat. After we returned to Florida I was not able to find a similar group in our area. Eventually, I changed my party affiliation, but even with that I still experienced what I called “political paralysis.” I would go to the polls during election time. It was my duty, it was the reason I had become an American citizen. Once at the poll I could not make myself vote. I would leave my ballot blank. I wrote about this in a column in La Voz Católica in the early 90’s. Soon after I received a letter from Magaly Llaguno, a well-known pro-life champion both locally and internationally. We talked. She explained to me that the crucial point was to vote for the candidate who would appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court so that Roe vs. Wade decision would eventually be overturned. She did convince me. For years that became my rationale for voting at presidential elections. My paralysis had been “cured” although I still did not fully identify with one party or the other.
In the nineties, I wrote “Life Matters,” a monthly column in The Florida Catholic. This was an opinion column that sought to give voice to pro-lifers, especially women. Besides including official church teachings on matters related to life, I included the experiences of women I had either interviewed personally or who had written letters to me. Some had spoken to me of the tremendous pressure their families had put on them to abort and how in spite of that they had decided to give birth to their children. A woman wrote a letter about having aborted her first child and how that experience had haunted her all her life. Some women wrote about the adverse effects in their use of contraceptives. I promoted natural family planning and wrote extensively about the leaders in modern natural family planning.
During this time, I became acquainted with Feminists for Life of America (FLA). This nonsectarian, nonpartisan, grassroots organization was established in 1972 to seek real solutions to the challenge women face continuing the tradition of early American feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who opposed abortion. I became a member of the national organization but was not able to start a local chapter. I contributed a few articles to their publication Sisterlife, which was then a newsletter. (Today they publish a magazine, The American Feminist.)
Through my involvement with FLA I became acquainted with the Seamless Garment Network. Founded in 1987, this is a non-partisan, non-sectarian international network, advocating for peace, justice and life. It opposes war, abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide and euthanasia. (In 2002 the network changed its name to Consistent Life.)
In the late nineties the US government made available grants for abstinence education of school age children and youth. Our diocesan Catholic Charities applied for one such grant and when it was awarded, I was asked to be the grant manager. This became a full-time job for me, and I had to give up my writing for I no longer had the time for the research needed for my columns. Although my writing came to a screeching halt, I would, every once in a while, read pro-life publications that came my way. One of them, which I think was called Catholic Scholars for Life, contained the following quote from then Cardinal Ratzinger:
“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.” It caught my attention, but I still continued voting using the US Supreme Court judicial appointments as the guiding principle.
When the grant from the Florida Health Department ended, so did my position as grant manager. This was 2008, right in the middle of the economic depression that had started in 2007. I was lucky to find a job within the Diocese of Palm Beach as administrative assistant to four ministry offices: Prison, Family Life, Young Adults and Respect Life. I had been friends with the Respect Life Director for years. When I became his assistant, I had the opportunity to do research for him on the use of stem cells. Sometimes I represented him at the End of Life committee meetings of the Florida Catholic Conference. I helped him out with Pennies for Babies, a collection that he had started and through which the Respect Life Office gave out financial assistance to pregnant mothers and to mothers with newborn babies who were clients of pregnancy care centers throughout the diocese.
One of my colleagues at work approached me at my desk one morning and began to talk to me about “those illegals”. I stopped him right at the start of the sentence. I explained to him that calling undocumented workers “illegals” was the equivalent of calling the unborn child “a fetus”. I explained to him that both terms are used to dehumanize, in the one case the unauthorized immigrant, and in the other the preborn baby. He never spoke about “illegals” again, at least not in my presence.
At that time the Director of Young Adult ministry, for whom I was also administrative assistant, asked me to work with Catholic Relief Services. Part of his job involved being the diocesan liaison with the organization, the official international humanitarian agency of the United States Catholic Church. When he moved on to teach high school full-time, the diocese made me the liaison with CRS, an experience that put me in touch with the wide range of work that the American Catholic church does not only overseas, but also nationally and locally. For three years in a row I attended the Social Action Summer Institute (SASI) hosted by the Catholic Roundtable, the Association of Catholic Social Action Directors. At the first SASI, I attended one of the panel discussions, it was on the tension in the Catholic Church between pro-life and pro-social justice advocacy. A Cuban Jesuit priest who was a member of the panel spoke of his experience in his diocese participating in a dialogue between pro-life and pro-social justice advocates. He had been a fervent pro-lifer, and he remained that, but the experience opened his eyes to the other social issues, and he became also fervently pro social justice.
Eventually, I was appointed Director of Parish Social Ministry in our diocesan Catholic Charities. I continued to experience the divide between pro-life and pro-social justice. In the six years that I worked in Parish Social Ministry I was not able to hold a similar dialogue with any group. I did, however, promote Catholic Social Teaching, which as outlined by the bishops of the United States involves seven basic themes. Respect for human life is the foundation, and the six other themes are the pillars it sustains: the family and participation in society, rights and responsibilities, the rights of workers and the dignity of work, solidarity with our one human family, the preferential option for the poor and care for our common home. The June issue of El Ignaciano published Lorenzo Perez’ excellent exposition of these seven themes and how they relate to the current local, national and international situation.
Because of my involvement with the Respect Life Office, first, and then as Director of Parish Social Ministry, I have participated in the last nine years in Catholic Days at the Capitol. This event is organized by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. All seven dioceses of the state participate. We advocate on select issues related to abortion, the death penalty, end of life, and social concerns. We are there to advocate on issues, not for political candidates. Throughout the year, the advocacy that we do is centered on issues. We all know that the Catholic Church does not advocate for political candidates. This is ingrained in me.
In 2016, in the months preceding the presidential election someone emailed a link to a video of a priest preaching from the pulpit with one main message that I will paraphrase here: a Catholic who votes for a pro-abortion candidate commits a mortal sin. I tried to ignore it, but a dear friend brought the issue during an informal gathering. I, who normally stay calm, immediately chimed in. We had a heated discussion. The next day my friend came to apologize. I told her there was no need for that. We are friends to this day, but we have never spoken again about politics.
At that heated discussion I had referred my friend to Faithful Citizenship, a document written by the United States Catholic Bishops in 2015, stating that Catholics may vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsically evil act, in this case abortion, as long as it is not the voter’s intent to vote for that intrinsically evil act, but for other grave reasons. This statement seems to be an echo of then Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement that had caught my attention in 2004. Reflecting on this, I had realized that the one issue of electing the Supreme Court Justices that would eventually overturn Roe vs Wade was no longer the guiding principle to use in an election. I refer the reader here to Lorenzo Perez’s article in El Ignaciano, June 2020, where he cites paragraphs 35 and 36 of that document, and applies it extensively to the electoral choices we face in the current election.
In paragraph 34 of FC, which introduces this issue and expresses the same thought in a more convoluted way, the bishops add:
“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.” I think it is imperative to highlight this warning from the bishops given the increased tendency to focus on only one issue in supporting a candidate. As Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego has stated, referring to protection of the unborn on the one hand, and protection of the environment on the other, “There is no mandate in universal Catholic teaching that gives a categorical priority to either of these issues as uniquely determinative of the common good.” (Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in Voting, University of San Diego, Feb. 6, 2020)
Bishop McElroy elaborates further: “The designation of either of these issues as the preeminent question in Catholic social teaching at this time in the United States will inevitably be hijacked by partisan forces to propose that Catholics have an overriding duty to vote for candidates that espouse that position. Recent electoral history shows this to be a certainty.” I cannot agree more. The emphasis on the “preeminent question” has allowed unsavory characters, even by the admission of some of those that have voted for those candidates, to get the vote of many “one-issue” voters.
Archbishop Thomas Wenski of the Archdiocese of Miami has stated: “Catholics are politically homeless”. No candidate embodies all the values that we hold. Do we take the Dorothy Day option of not voting? Carol Crossed, from Consistent Life, took that position in a blog she wrote in 2016. Rachel McNair who years ago was President of Feminists for Life also took that route. I considered that route in 2016, but in the end, at the advice of a friend decided that the stakes were too high. In 2020 the stakes are even higher.
*Elena Muller Garcia, MA
Retired Director of Parish Social Ministry of the Diocese of Palm Beach Catholic Charities.