Better To Not Vote? Updated Edition

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Thank you so much for the often thoughtful, always lively, and surprisingly widespread responses to my blog post from a week ago entitled “Better Not to Cast A Vote.”   Large portions of the original post appear below in pieces with some slight changes.

With this updated edition, I thought I would try to offer a more helpful set of reflections on the elections based on some of the questions that have been raised.

The Obligation to Shape Society

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is quoted in section 13 of the United States Bishops document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, which states:

“It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person. . . . As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (nos. 1913-1915).

A closer examination of those same sections of the Catechism that deal with social responsibility and the public order make it clear that the means of the promotion of the common good will vary from one country or culture to another.

For us in the United States, casting a vote in an election is one means among many that we have at our disposal to promote the common good and to foster a society that properly protects the human family. Many of us are also free to hold public office. We are also free to lobby and organize in a variety of ways to shape the public debate that ultimately fashions laws.

We are most especially obligated to form the people entrusted to our care, particularly our children, in the ways of virtue and service. That is perhaps the greatest means to shape society that we always have at our disposal.

The Catholic Voter Dilemma

Further on in Faithful Citizenship, after outlining the list of intrinsic evils that no Catholic voter or legislator can ever advance without a proportional reason to do so, the bishops acknowledge the dilemma that many of us have faced in prior elections, and that we may acutely feel in the case of the Presidential Election of 2016, namely, that there may not be a candidate who adequately aligns with the Catholic articulation of all that is necessary to truly protect human dignity.

Here is what they say in section 36 of Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship:

When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.  

In the light of the bishops’ acknowledgement that a faithful Catholic may decide not to vote at all, or may support the least destructive candidate, I offered in my earlier blog post the following commentary about the current delegate front runner GOP candidate, Donald Trump:

A recent letter in the National Review (“An Appeal to Our Fellow Catholics,” March 7th, 2016), signed by several prominent Catholic thinkers, states that in prior election cycles, even if the Republican Party and its candidates were not perfect vehicles for advancing an authentically Catholic agenda, they still represented the better choice for doing so (the lesser of two evils) than the Democratic Party and its presidential candidates.

That same letter also offers a striking lament of the 2016 Presidential Election, and most especially the candidacy of the current GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump. Their indictment of him as a gravely flawed candidate and choice for president is well stated. And Mr. Trump’s ongoing public behavior and statements since that letter was published have only further reinforced their original points.

It is difficult for a faithful Catholic to set aside Mr. Trump’s policy positions, many of which are not consistently and clearly articulated, that are clearly in contradiction to the positions of the United States Bishops (on immigration, for example). Even if that fact were ignored, there still remains what might be the even more serious deficiency of his public demeanor, as well as his lack of any formal experience in holding an elected office.

Exit polling during the major primary election days so far this spring has shown that Mr. Trump’s two biggest selling points among his supporters is that he “tells it like it is,” and also that he is “an outsider.” Both of those qualities play very well in the world of reality TV and the vulgarities of today’s entertainment industry, but they do not work well at the pinnacle of a complex governing apparatus that, like it or not, does require extensive “know how” to navigate and manage well.

Outsiders have never made effective presidents because our system does not allow them to be effective. Or, at the very least, even if an outsider is elected, our system does not tolerate leaders who alienate the opposition in a way that Mr. Trump seems certain to do based on his record so far. A faithful Catholic should have serious questions about his suitability for the Presidency.

I also offered this commentary about the two Democratic Party candidates:

As for the major Democratic frontrunners, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, a faithful Catholic could only vote for them if they did so in spite of their support for policies that directly violate the truth and dignity of the human person, of the family, and of religious freedom.

If a Catholic supported them on the grounds that their political and economic positions are more sympathetic to the needs of the poor and the marginalized (minority ethnic groups, for example), such a conclusion is difficult to square with the fact that history has shown that the best assistance to the poor, the minorities, and the working class is a strong culture of marriage between one man and one woman.

Never mind the fact that the single biggest threat to human life in the inner city Black community is the unlimited abortion license that we are currently enduring in this country, a license that nearly every Democratic candidate for office at every level of government is firmly in favor of maintaining. Therefore, a faithful Catholic should also have serious questions about supporting any Democratic candidate for office.

I also suggested that voting at this point for either Ted Cruz or John Kasich only because they are NOT Donald Trump might not be the best of reasons, although it is a reason. It also seems highly unlikely at this point that either one of them is going to win the nomination of a united Republican Party, current supporters of Mr. Trump included.

That said, a Catholic would be free to vote for them if they felt that this was the soundest means to advance the public good, weighing their character and stance on all the issues proportionally.

Better Not To Vote? 

In the prior blog post, I also attempted to outline a set of reasons why a faithful Catholic may decide that it is better to not vote at all under the current set of circumstances, an option which the bishops do acknowledge is a possibility.

This would be the dilemma that many of us could possibly find ourselves in if the current set of front runners for both parties do end up with the respective nominations of each party.

Part of the reasoning I offered was based on a quotation from Saint John Paul II: In section 46 of his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, he had this to say:

The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.

Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the “subjectivity” of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility.

Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends.

It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.

Below (re-stated from earlier) also follows my opinion about why some of what he has to say should give us serious food for thought in our current cultural and electoral climate, and what might lead us all to conclude that maybe the electoral system is so badly broken that a person could decide that voting does not help, or might even hurt, an already difficult situation:

The Court Is Unaccountable

For one, the nine justices (now eight) of the Supreme Court are not elected and are not accountable to public opinion, and this was by design of the framers of the Constitution. This would not be so bad were it not for the fact that most of the key points of contemporary public debate, especially on the questions about the nature of the person and of marriage, are now decided not by the Legislative (elected) or Executive (elected) Branches of the government, but are instead decided by the Court. That practice is NOT what the framers of the Constitution had envisioned; it is instead a modern day aberration.

It is true that the electorate can select the members of the Senate, and they select the President, who in turn nominate and approve the members of the Court. But the mixed record of court decisions, per Justice, based on which sitting president and which party actually put them on the bench shows adequately that the connection between the electoral process and the final decisions of the Court is flimsy at best. Never mind any commentary about the current mayhem over what should be a simple process of choosing Justice Scalia’s successor.

Our Decision Making Is Irrational

Secondly, the process of holding an election in our current era is continual, it is unending, and this dynamic is fueled by the 24 hour news media cycle. This reality, coupled with the total collapse of any classical formation in our educational system, has led to the modern day habit of picking elected officials on purely emotional whims and sensationalistic grounds, rather than on anything based in fact or in reason.

This is an important point. The Church’s cautious defense of democracy as a system in recent decades has rested upon the presumption of a well educated electorate making calm and informed selections, free of the coercive impulses of emotions and mob mentalities that are now driving the entire national American electoral experience.

Which leads to the conclusion that voting today is not the ideal and classical expression of human self direction that our Constitution once envisioned, but is instead more akin to a process of getting swept up in an emotional mob. We now live in a mobocracy, not a democracy.

The System is Incapable of Producing An Acceptable Candidate

Thirdly, at least in the 2016 Presidential Election, if the system has failed to produce suitable candidates; if there end up being none that can even pass the minimum threshold of the lesser of two evils test, then this is in part due to the sensationalism mentioned above, but also, and more deeply, because of what Saint John Paul II stated about the need for objective moral truth to be the foundation of the system.

We have firmly jettisoned the conviction, as individuals and as a nation, that our civil laws must mirror the Natural Law or the Divine Law. We no longer enshrine in the civil law an adequate understanding of the human person. We have concluded, again referencing Centesimus Annus, that anyone who claims to uphold universal truth (as opposed to secularism or relativism) is suspect and is therefore unelectable.

In such a climate, a single vote carries with it virtually no weight of the self-determination about a person’s future, or the future of the nation, that liberal democracy was invented to promote and protect. The reason is because in such a system both personal reason, and also any collective reason, cannot prevail. Our current formulation of policies and laws, divorced from any reference to objective truth, is inherently unreasonable and is therefore inhumane.

To put it another way, in the same words of Saint John Paul II, we are living in a system of thinly veiled totalitarianism, and therefore it is useless to construct an argument of the “lesser of two evils candidate” because persons in this system have lost any democratic power of self-determination. My future will be decided for me, regardless of how I vote.

The Act of Voting All By Itself Is Not Enough

As some of you have pointed out to me in response to these points, we have had poor candidates for quite some time. True. And it is also, ironically enough, as much of an exercise of our unique and cherished American freedoms to not vote, just as much as it is to vote. Each option seems to depend upon the same treasured cultural climate that many of us value so highly.  Each is, so to speak, a vote.

Regardless of whether one decides to vote, or to freely decide not to vote instead opting for other, acceptable means to shape the public good, the fundamental point is that all of us as faithful Catholics (taking a cue from the late John Paul II) should pause to ask ourselves just how things have gotten THIS BAD. And we should also ask what means the current system still allows to fix it.

Which is another way of saying that it seems that now more than ever, voting alone is not enough of an activity to help move our nation forward. The election cycle, continual one that it now is, is not all by itself enough of a promoter of the common good. A great deal more of prayer, sacrifice, and authentic intellectual and spiritual formation on the personal as well as the cultural level is badly needed.

Prayer is not a last resort, and it always bears fruit. Saint Paul reminds us in his first Letter to Timothy (1 Tim 2:1) that this is something we should be doing for those in authority over us always. We must pray for the nation and for our own fidelity as an act of authentic love for a society that is rapidly falling into ruin.

The Church is in a unique position to offer the necessary formation in authentic personhood that our society requires in order to be the humane civilization that it needs to be. This is not a total withdrawal from the process of shaping the future or the society. If the electoral process all by itself seems deficient, we must continue to use every other means available to try to shape public opinion, to form those around us in the truth, and to shore up the only sphere of influence that can be directly controlled, namely that of our own heart.

As I have stated in earlier blog posts, the first (and perhaps most difficult) arena that I must shape is that of my own heart. And next, as the Catechism suggests, those entrusted to my care. And only after we have all seriously engaged in those projects are we really able to effectively engage an electoral process to any sound outcome. Indeed, we do have a lot of work to do.

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About Father Nathan Reesman

Father Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin.
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