It is election season in the United States, and so there is even more than the usual amount of fuss in Catholic intellectual circles in this country about the place of Catholics within our republic.
Can a Catholic vote for a politician who is “pro-choice”? Can a Catholic vote for a politician who supports the Iraq War? Can a Catholic support capital punishment? What is a “Catholic response” to the economy? What is a “preferential option for the poor”? Is it true that “universal health care” is a “life issue”?
Some, who claim to be more in touch with that illusive entity “the rest of the world”, inform me that it is uniquely American for people to engage in these sort of knock-down, drag-out fights about how it is that our faith tells us we must vote. This may be, though I must admit that I find it a little hard to accept, since it seems nonsensical to me to claim that people in other countries vote on the basis of something other than what they believe to be right — and that they determine what is right by some means other than consulting their moral and theological/philosophical understanding of the world.
But let us leave aside these hypothetical foreigners for a moment. There are, I think, a few reasons why Americans do bring a more religious mindset to questions of government than do citizens of many other countries. In his What I Saw In America Chesterton wrote, “America is the only country ever founded on a creed.” One could quarrel with elements of this, but like most of what came from Chesterton’s pen there is a good deal of truth to it. The United States was founded consciously, it did not creep into existence organically as did so many Old World nations. And it was based upon shared ideals and a shared moral and intellectual culture, not upon a discovered or invigorated sense of ethnic or cultural nationalism as so many new nations since have been.
The US is, thus, an intentional country to a much greater extent than most other modern nations. It was created by choice, and it was built upon the expectation that its citizens would choose their leaders, and choose them in accordance with certain ideals. The American ideal might be seen as that of constantly working towards “a more perfect union”.
This puts us as Catholics who are also American citizens in a position of serious responsibility. Christ commanded us, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” In many times and places, Christians have seen the decisions of state which they are compelled to obey as something wholly external to them, the sole responsibility of the ruler or rulers.
KING HENRY V
I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here
alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s
minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.
That’s more than we know.
Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.
There is still some truth to this. A soldier is responsible for the morality of his own actions, but the decision of whether or not to go to war is not within his hands. And although as citizens of the US we have the ability to influence the choosing of our leaders, it often happens that the leaders we ourselves voted for lose, and we find ourselves led by rulers whom we did not personally choose.
Yet within these limitations, and avoiding the paralyzation of thinking that one may never vote for any but the perfect candidate, we have a serious moral duty to guide our country towards a “more perfect union”. We do need to have these big moral arguments — not merely shrug and vote for the candidate most likely to increase our collective or individual advantage.
One last warning, however: Even while striving always to bring our country more in line with true justice as we understand it as Catholics, we must keep in mind that humanity is not in its current state perfectible. As in the spiritual life we must seek constant conversion, and yet never achieve perfect virtue, so through the workings of our fallen natures new failings invariably crop up as old ones are defeated. Nor, we must recall, can structures or systems replace or insure individual virtue.