Election 2004

On Being Catholic
and Voting in America

Rodney Howsare is Assistant Professor of Theology at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA. Howsare shares with Traces his thoughts on the American Catholic presence in public life. A matter of identity

by Rodney Howsare

The election results are in and it looks as if George W. Bush will serve another term as President of the United States. Like most Catholics, I voted yesterday. I voted, but it wasn’t easy. I could say, with little exaggeration, that I feel something close to disdain for both candidates. With few exceptions, I find George W. Bush’s domestic and foreign policies to be disasters, and significantly out of step with Catholic moral teaching. John Kerry’s positions on abortion and stem-cell research are, perhaps, even more troubling, especially given the fact that he is Catholic. Even the American bishops have commented that it is likely that Catholics are finding themselves increasingly alienated from both political parties in this country. They go on to suggest, however, that we should not allow such despair to keep us from performing our civic duties. In order to help, they offer a list of Catholic teachings on a variety of moral and social issues in order to assist the American Catholic in voting (cf USCCB, Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility). I have to admit, their list only made it more difficult for me.

A withdrawal from public life?

Is this a reason, then, to despair? Is it a reason for Catholics to withdrawal from public life? I would like to suggest just the opposite. In Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, he depicts three types of Catholics: big money Catholics, who have finally been accepted into the “waspy” world of “big business;” sexually liberated Catholics, as represented by “Fr Kev Kevin” and his “orgasmatron;” and, finally, a group of “back to the land” Catholics who celebrate a traditional Mass out in the backwoods, far away from the decadence of the town called “Love.” Is Percy, in this delightfully funny and incisive novel, suggesting a withdrawal from our responsibility as Catholic citizens? I think not, for when all is said and done the hero of the story, who occasionally attends Mass out in the woods, returns to Love in order to help expose the corruption of the town. But Percy is offering a word of caution. His point seems to be that if we Catholics are going to have a positive effect in an admittedly decadent American culture, we are first going to have to attend to what it means to be Catholic. The traditional Mass serves, in the novel, as a way of reminding the Catholic citizens of Love who they are and what makes them different from their fellow citizens.

Republicans, Democrats,
or Catholics?

Catholics have been in this country since the beginning. For a long time, we lived on the edges, so to speak, in a sort of Catholic “diaspora,” with little influence in American public life. With the election of John F. Kennedy and the influence of John Courtney Murray at the Second Vatican Council, Catholics began to find themselves more accepted, more able to have an influence. But we are now in a position to ask if that influence hasn’t been bought at too great a price. In other words, have we purchased political influence with the price of Catholic identity? Have we not too quickly, perhaps, sidled up to one party or another in the name of political expedience, only then to leave certain crucial Catholic teachings at the door? In what way, for instance, have Catholic Republicans challenged the way the Republican Party thinks about the minimum wage, just war, or the protection of the environment? And what have Catholic Democrats done to oppose the de facto pro-abortion litmus test of the current Democratic Party? (I do not intend to suggest, incidentally, that these issues are on a moral par.) And is not the notion of freedom at the root of the economic libertarianism of the right and the moral libertarianism of the left the self-same Lockean notion of freedom that runs so counter to the Catholic notion of freedom articulated so beautifully in Augustine, Aquinas, John Paul II, et al?

I have the opportunity, occasionally, of teaching a course on John Paul II to the undergraduates here at DeSales University. We read a selection of his theological, moral, and social encyclicals. My students don’t quite know what to make of this pope. He defies easy classification. On issues such as world debt, war, the environment, or even economics, he sounds to them like Bono of U2; on issues of homosexuality or abortion, he sounds to them like Dr Laura. Where does he fit, in other words, in the so-called “culture wars”? My students–as good Americans–know of no other division than the one between “left” and “right.” By holding up the example of John Paul II, I hope to show them that there are more important things than being either a Republican or a Democrat and that one of those is being, first and foremost, a Catholic.