Sometime after the 2012 US election, I made a commitment that has continued to inform my conscience and my approach to politics and society ever since: I chose to step away. I was something of a political news junkie for much of my young adult life. I stayed up on election night in 2000 and 2004—flipping TV channels and refreshing the browser on my computer screen anxiously awaiting updates about the election returns (there were no smartphones then)—and both times I never went to bed because no winner was declared that night.
Prior to every election through 2012, I followed the tracking polls obsessively and watched every primary debate. In between elections, I kept up with presidential approval ratings every day. I had my favorite political columnists, not just the ones I agreed with, but also the ones from the “other side” who I read in order to keep up with the “opposition.” And no matter what season it was, I listened to political talk radio and allowed myself to get worked up about every political controversy that the media reported.
Then, sometime in the weeks and months following that election, a thought suddenly came to me. You might call it an epiphany or something like that. I don’t remember the day, but I do remember some details vividly. I was at my desk at work. I remember I had taken a break from whatever I was doing to look at the polls on the Real Clear Politics website. And I remember feeling that familiar stress headache coming on—the one that I felt every time I thought or read about US politics.
In that moment, I realized that I was not doing what God was asking of me. And I stopped cold turkey.
At this point, I want to be clear: I’m not saying that Catholics should stop being actively involved in the political process—not by a long shot. The Church has long taught that it is necessary for Catholics (lay Catholics, specifically) to be involved in government and politics in order to serve the common good of society. But it is also extremely important that we take honest stock of the candidates and parties that we support, and recognize where their platforms and policy positions come up short or fail to advance the common good.
For me, it was necessary to detach myself from US party politics because I realized how badly partisanship had undermined my commitment to promoting some very important aspects of Catholic social teaching and—in some cases—ignoring them altogether.
I resolved that going forward, my engagement in secular politics would focus primarily on values and principles, informed by my Catholic faith, rather than party allegiance or loyalty to specific politicians. In other words, I want to promote respect for human dignity, the common good, and the promotion of integral human development, regardless of which party is in power or who might benefit politically from my support for a policy or program.
I believe this is consistent with Pope Francis’s outlook. In an interview early in his papacy, he criticized the notion that only certain values are non-negotiable (while other values, presumably, are open to compromise). He asserted, “Values are values, and that is it. I can’t say that, of the fingers of a hand, there is one less useful than the rest. Whereby I do not understand in what sense there may be negotiable values.”
In light of this, along with the sense of unease I have about this entire election, there are several things that make me extremely worried about the future of this country and the US Church.
There is a growing culture of contempt among US Catholics. While this goes back a long time, in the past year, it has been tied closely to the presidential campaign, leading up to today’s election. I think it’s a safe prediction that the election will be followed by widespread outrage, gloating, mockery, and unrest—no matter the outcome.
In the Church, Catholics are looking with each other with bad faith. As someone who isn’t easily offended and has dear friends and family across the political and religious spectrum, I find this deeply troubling. I know people on the right and on the left who believe with complete sincerity that a Catholic who votes for a particular candidate is not a real Catholic at all. At the same time, I see Catholics whitewashing Trump’s demagoguery and disturbing views on race and immigration and the death penalty, while other Catholics seem completely untroubled by (and in some cases even attempting to justify) the position of Biden’s campaign on abortion.
Perhaps even worse is the contempt that people have for their political opponents, including situations where family members have cut off contact with each other, perhaps permanently. A recent Reuters story told how, “In interviews with 10 voters – five Trump supporters and five backing Democratic candidate Joe Biden – few could see the wrecked personal relationships caused by Trump’s tenure fully healing, and most believed them destroyed forever.”
I have seen plenty of Catholics, even priests, claiming that a vote for a certain candidate—for whatever reason—was damning in itself. I’ve seen third-party voters or principled nonvoters mocked and harangued and ridiculed for their choices, being told that they were being selfish and helping elect the opposition candidate.
This is not the way. First of all, regardless of what we believe about the candidates, and regardless of how we decide to weigh “proportionate reasons,” voting is a personal choice, to be made with a well-formed conscience in light of our principles. For a Catholic, this means making a judgement of which candidate will do the best to advance the common good in light of Catholic social teaching.
There’s no precise formula for discerning the right way to vote as a Catholic. It’s not simply a matter of giving a numerical value to each issue, plugging it into an equation, and having a clear-cut answer. Just as people have different charisms, we also have different priorities. It doesn’t make someone “less” Catholic if their sincere convictions lead them to give greater weight to different issues than you do.
But enough about the election. Voting is almost over and now it’s a matter of waiting for the results. What concerns me is what comes after.
I am much more terrified about what the spirit of division, polarization, and contempt threatens to do to this country than the outcome of one election. The polarization is here already, and it’s not going away tomorrow.
And if we want to heal this antipathy and loathing we cannot gloat or become bitter. If we want a return to civility, we cannot use an electoral victory to impose our initiatives by force or become indignant and uncooperative. Most of all, we must see the humanity of those with whom we (very strongly) disagree.
For that reason, the timing of Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti is providential. The purpose of the document was not to influence the 2020 American presidential election. Its purpose is much more universal than that. In this encyclical, Francis proposes a way forward. He gives us a roadmap in light of the Gospel to heal our wounded and broken and unjust society.
I believe that what he says in paragraph 71 will be especially prescient in the days, weeks, and months to come:
The story of the Good Samaritan is constantly being repeated. We can see this clearly as social and political inertia is turning many parts of our world into a desolate byway, even as domestic and international disputes and the robbing of opportunities are leaving great numbers of the marginalized stranded on the roadside. In his parable, Jesus does not offer alternatives; he does not ask what might have happened had the injured man or the one who helped him yielded to anger or a thirst for revenge. Jesus trusts in the best of the human spirit; with this parable, he encourages us to persevere in love, to restore dignity to the suffering and to build a society worthy of the name.
Personally, I would like to invite all people of good will to join with me after the election in what Pope Francis calls “authentic social dialogue.” Who among us is willing to enter into a dialogue, willing to listen to the concerns of those with whom they have grave disagreement, and become the “heroes of the future” described in paragraph 202:
“Individuals attempt to seize every possible advantage, rather than cooperating in the pursuit of the common good. The heroes of the future will be those who can break with this unhealthy mindset and determine respectfully to promote truthfulness, aside from personal interest. God willing, such heroes are quietly emerging, even now, in the midst of our society.”
Finally, whether you are voting Republican, Democrat, third party, or not at all (and the prayers of our brothers and sisters from other nations are greatly needed right now), please pray for the United States, and for the American Church. We are a broken society, and the outcome of the election isn’t going to change that.
If you are Christian, I think this prayer for fraternity is apt for this time:
An Ecumenical Christian Prayer
O God, Trinity of love,
From the profound communion of your divine life,
pour out upon us a torrent of fraternal love.
Grant us the love reflected in the actions of Jesus,
in his family of Nazareth,
and in the early Christian community.
Grant that we Christians may live the Gospel,
discovering Christ in each human being,
recognizing him crucified
in the sufferings of the abandoned
and forgotten of our world,
and risen in each brother or sister
who makes a new start.
Come, Holy Spirit, show us your beauty,
reflected in all the peoples of the earth,
so that we may discover anew
that all are important and all are necessary,
different faces of the one humanity
that God so loves. Amen.
Image: Adobe Stock
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.