Let's Get Political
Written By: Kristen Schmelter Melia
“The thing is, it’s either legal or it’s not.” This was the response given to me by a youth minister during a conversation regarding abortion. I was expressing my frustration with the indifference towards this evil in our nation among Christians, and more disappointingly, the hush-hush approach from our local faith community in addressing this prevalent issue.
…It’s either legal or it’s not.
End quote. Thought complete. Shoulder shrug.
Fighting the sardonic response I immediately wished to retort, I realized this is a result of misunderstanding our role as Catholics in the political realm. I assert this because for too many years I did not understand our role as Catholics in respect to most areas addressed under the political umbrella.
A Shining Star
So how do we maintain our vocation as Christians while partaking in civil duties, namely voting? Who need our loyalty remain with, the Church or the state? What does Catholic morality teach about respect for authority and the need for Catholics to vote according their consciences?
A true beauty of our Church is the prioritization of the pastoral care of the faithful, inspired by the Good Shepherd, our Lord and Savior, Who care for His sheep. This shepherding has provided for us a guide, Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism, rooted in Scripture, articulates the Deposit of Faith and how the believer is to bear witness to the faith in our daily lives; how to live the moral life. How to live life in Christ. In other words, as Catholics, we are not left to navigate the issues of our time aimlessly; we have a shining star helping us along the way provided and protected by the Church.
As Catholics in America, we have been given extra support to aid us in living out our civil duty by way of vote, as faithful Christians. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) provides documents such as the, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which serves as a “teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics,” intended to represent their:
Guidance for Catholics in the exercise of their rights and duties as
participants in our democracy. We urge our pastors, lay and religious
faithful, and all people of good will to use this statement to help form
their consciences; to teach those entrusted to their care; to contribute to
civil and respectful public dialogue; and to shape political choices in
the coming election in light of Catholic teaching, (p. 6).
God or Country?
The fulfillment of the Decalogue through Jesus Christ provided for us the foundation of the understanding of the citizen/civil authorities relationship. By this I mean that all of what the Church teaches of this relationship is a result of the unfolding of the true meaning of the Fourth Commandment. When fully understood, this Commandment, known as “honor your father and mother,” “enjoins us to honor all who for our good have received authority in society from God,” (CCC #2234).
The Catechism makes clear the role of authorities in civil society, “those who exercise authority should do so as a service,” citing the Gospel: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (CCC #2235, Mt. 20:26). Therefore, as Catholics, our understanding of the object of government is to serve the people. The Church also holds, “the exercise of authority is measured morally in terms of its divine origin, its reasonable nature and its specific object…No one can command or establish what is contrary to the dignity of persons and the natural law,” (CCC #2235, emphasis added).
Pretty plain, the government is to be viewed by the people to serve the people based upon its divine origin, and cannot impose anything that contradicts human dignity and the natural law.
So what of us as citizens? “Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God, who made them stewards of his gifts…Their loyal collaboration includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community,” (CCC #2238, Rom. 13:1-2). In other words, as Christian faithful, we respect those of authority and collaborate, speaking out when human dignity and good of the community is not upheld.
Our duty as citizens is to contribute to and serve the “good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom,” (CCC #2239). This service falls under the order of charity (CCC #2239). A way in which to fulfill this duty is to vote. As Catholics, our vote need always uphold Catholic Gospel morality. When civil law contradicts this, “the citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities…refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community,” (CCC #2242). We render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Mt. 22:21). We obey God first and foremost, rather than man, and as dutiful citizens we reflect this by our vote (CCC #2242). Echoing the Catechism, the US Bishops remind us that, “we relate to the civil order as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom, whose reign is not yet fully realized on earth but demands our unqualified allegiance. It is as citizens faithful to the Lord Jesus that we contribute most effectively to the civil order,” (p. 6).
The Church is not in any way to be confused with a political community; instead it respects the political freedom and responsibility of the citizen (CCC #2245). It falls under the Church’s mission to pass moral judgments related to politics whenever the fundamental rights of humankind or the salvation of souls requires it (CCC #2246). This is in accordance with the Gospel, and this is also what the Gospel calls us to do when casting our vote.
Connecting the Dots
As Catholics our vote must reflect the Gospel. The Church, Christ’s Body and Bride, serves to guide us as dutiful and faithful citizens, by teaching us how to live out Gospel morality, how to be true to our vocation to love. Our vote is to bear witness to this; it is to promote the good, the moral life.
Morality is what ought to be done with one’s freedom. Freedom is the power rooted in reason in will to act or not act. Freedom is a spiritual power. As Christians we are called to use our freedom to cast a vote in accordance with the Gospel. Living the moral life is living out one’s freedom for the good. We know what is good through both the natural law and God’s law, divine revelation.
By the gift of reason, we are able to think, understand, and form judgments. But, because we are Catholic, we are not limited to the fallibility of human authority; instead our reason is enlightened by faith, which guides us to a higher place, one we could not otherwise arrive. We do not set our faith aside and vote purely on reason; this is not authentic Catholic morality. Instead we enlighten our reason by faith, and support our faith by reason, allowing our vote represent truth, which can only be revealed by God. Anything else is susceptible to human error. Divine Revelation, namely the Decalogue that was brought to fulfillment by our Savior through His Gospel, must be at the heart of our vote.
Due to God’s love for us, we were created to be free. Our freedom can only reach perfection when it is directed towards God. The Church calls us to vote according to our formed conscience, that is, to vote according “the voice of God echoing in our depths,” (CCC #1776). Our vote must reflect this. Conscience is not a decision. Instead, it bears witness to the truth of God’s law. Conscience is our personal judgment of how God’s law can find fulfillment in the situations we find ourselves in.
Conscience does not determine what is right and wrong, Truth does that. God’s Law reveals moral truths, and moral truths are our guide in the voting booth.
So whether we are in conversations about particular moral issues, or confronted with the power to cast a vote, may we always remember who our loyalty rests with… our heavenly Father, who made His Will and Law known through His Son, and who gives us the power, through the Holy Spirit, to use our freedom as citizens to uphold the dignity of the human person by way of our vote. We do not succumb to the civil law, we ardently uphold our Father’s Law, at the heart of which is love.
About The Author:
Kristen Schmelter Melia works at ICE Urban Combat as Senior instructor and leader of Youth programs and works part time at St. Julie Billiart Catholic Church as Coordinator of Elementary Religious Education. In addition, she is working towards her Master's degree in Catechetics and Evangelization from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She lives in Thousand Oaks, California with her husband of 5 years, Frankie. Together they are excitedly expecting their first child in October! She is passionate about spreading the faith and promoting Truth.