By Maria Teresa Morgan
Election indifference is generally not symptomatic of U.S. citizens. The urgency of hope stirs in our nation every biennial and fourth year, along with the sharpened posturing of political divisions and the ruthless campaigning leading up to that Tuesday in November. In my case, like many immigrants or children of immigrants who keep memories of past elections in our countries of birth or those of our forebears, the keen awareness of the right to vote guaranteed by our citizenship, as well as of the obligations that choosing our national leaders entail, becomes a prominent concern. My own narrative contains three models, each illustrating aspects found in Gaudium et spes’ chapter on “The Life of the Political Community.” The first model comes from my grandfather. An anarchist in his youth in Valencia, Spain, he would tell me stories of how he and Vicente Blasco Ibañez (the renowned Valencian journalist and novelist) joined forces to burn ballot boxes during elections. This model is born out of the despair of oppressed people who knew the elections were a sham and chose to protest the injustice of a system that had long thwarted their freedom. (GS 74) The second model comes from my early childhood, on an election day in my country of birth. I remember the empty streets, the whispered fear, the warnings that the military were posted at election sites to stop citizens from voting. This model comes from a despotic system that prevents people from exercising a right that is intrinsic to human dignity. (GS 73) Both of these models are emblematic of totalitarian governments, whether of the right or of the left, who victimize their citizens, suppress their rights and driven by greed and lust for power “divert the exercise of authority from the service of the common good to the interests of one or another faction or of the rulers themselves.”(GS 73) The third model comes from this country, the United States, where the right of citizens to vote is guaranteed by the Constitution and Election Day safeguards our self-determination. The voting sites are festooned with colorful signs of “vote here” and one looks forward to fulfilling one’s duty without intimidation. This model illustrates that the “protection of the rights of a person is indeed a necessary condition so that citizens, individually or collectively can take an active part in the life and government of the state.”(GS 73) I am aware that some groups or individuals in the United States have been unjustly prevented from voting by last minute rules intended to manipulate results and, as the history of the Civil Rights Movement attests, these impediments have been enforced at times by violence. We exercise our freedom to vote in an “imperfect democracy” that, as Gaudium et spes also acknowledges, universally carries in itself a process of developing. (GS 73) But it is a democracy.
According to Gaudium et spes 75, the freedom to vote is a right and a duty, and both this right and this duty require from Catholics the formation of conscience. (GS 73, 75) Pope Francis’ words in the context of the last election also apply to the 2020 election: “Study, pray, and then, vote in conscience.” (http://www.ncronline.org)
The words of Gaudium et spes and of Pope Francis lead me to pose three practical questions in this brief article. The first is the accessibility of Catholics to formation of conscience, which includes initiative, leadership and the availability of educational opportunities and guidelines. The second is the role of the Church in shaping a “political culture.” And the third question involves the choice of candidates when both are ethically challenged. These three questions are interrelated and guidelines for possible solutions connect each to the other.
The first question considers leadership regarding the accessibility of educational material and programs to foster the formation of conscience for Catholics. Some of us are privileged in unique ways. Whether by profession as educators or by interest, we research Catholic Social Doctrine, attend conferences, study the documents of Vatican II and are well informed about Catholic teaching on crucial issues that come up during elections. Thus we “study, pray and then vote according to (our) conscience” as Pope Francis has urged us to do. But realistically, we belong to a super-educated elite. A government “of the people, by the people, for the people” (Gettysburg Address) embraces a multitude that will vote in the electoral contest and determine its outcome. The question then arises as to how a more comprehensive education of Catholic values can be made readily available to a majority of Catholics who lack access or time to explore Catholic teaching beyond a few selective one-liners. This leads to the second question regarding the role of the Church in political education.
Pope Francis affirms, “it is one of the works of the Church …to teach about having a “political culture.” (“Pope tells US Catholics to Vote their Conscience” ncronline.org/news/vatican)
He makes a distinction between a country being too politicized and a country having a political culture. The first of these, “being too politicized,” manifests itself in the months of chaotic mud slinging, hardened positions, sowing of confusion and flaring of tempers that are the prelude to a presidential election. The second, “having a political culture” leads to a positive discernment based on a well-formed conscience. In the January 20, 2020 visit of the bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, Pope Francis advised the 26 bishops present “to teach your people discernment by you stepping back from the sheer politics of it… If you try to step back and say, ‘but here are the major moral issues that we face,’ that’s what is most important.” (Reported by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Catholic News Service). According to Pope Francis, the basic task to reach a majority of Catholics involves the initiative and leadership of the bishops to teach Christian values, with the purpose of helping the faithful to discern, while stepping back from the divisive politics so prevalent in the US today.
The final and third question involves the casting of our vote. Pope Francis establishes a link between the two questions posed above and the issue of choice: What happens when the candidates fail to satisfy everyone? Cardinal DiNardo quotes Pope Francis as saying: “sometimes you have to choose between a snake and a dragon.” (Catholic News Service, Jan 20, 2020) When both candidates are ethically challenged or support choices that go against Catholic moral and social teaching, we are caught in a quandary between choosing one or the other. And some choose to abstain from voting, choosing no choice at all.
As I conclude this article the COVID19 pandemic has disrupted the usual methods of an electoral campaign. The dissonance of voices has quieted somewhat, giving us pause to “step back and discern.” We have a choice between a presumptive candidate who is a practicing Catholic and one who is courting the Catholic vote.
(“Trump seeks Catholic Voters, But Some Catholics Push Back” (NPR, May 3, 2020)) I hear some saying they will not vote in this election because they are not satisfied with either candidate or party. But as Gaudium et spes reminds us, the freedom to vote is also a duty to “Vote here.” What then are we to do? The well-known Jesuit pragmatism is evident in the words of Pope Francis: “study, pray, and then vote according to your conscience.” And sometimes we have to choose between “a snake and a dragon.”
*Maria Teresa Morgan, D. Min.
Assistant Professor of Theology St. John Vianney College Seminary