We Dare to Say: Election 2016

As we prepare for the election in November, I think it was important that I address the critically significant issues that we face.  I agree with the statement that I have often heard that the choice of a leader for a society is primarily a reflection of where a society already is rather than an indicator of where that society is going.  As we ponder these words, I’m sure that the vast majority of us would agree that this is not a comforting realization.  Too many indicators in our world today signal an outright rejection of God, morality and revealed truth.  Even if hopeful hearts lead us to shy from the word “rejection,” we must acknowledge, at the very least, a profound confusion regarding all that the Gospel of Jesus Christ holds as of the highest value.  Thus as we consider our choice in November, it is essential that we acknowledge that no single person, even the president, can reverse these trends singlehandedly.

Our Catholic tradition, in regard to the election process, is that we do not endorse candidates. Instead, we urge citizens to choose the candidate who most fully embraces the deposit of faith expressed in the ancient teachings of our Catholic faith.  I must say very candidly that especially in this election year this approach is a great relief for me.  I find myself unable to endorse any presidential candidate in good conscience.  Certainly it would be naïve if, as Catholics, we were only willing to embrace the perfect candidate, but this election cycle presents us with candidates who are all severely flawed.  This does not focus primarily on the personal failings of these candidates but rather on their ability or desire to guide our society according to the truth that God has revealed to us.  

What are we to do?...

Given this state of affairs, many have asked me, “Bishop what are we to do?”  I suppose all of this brings me to what my primary role is as your bishop, and to my mind it is truly to give, “A Shepherd’s Care.”  Thus, all of the above comes down to my responsibility to help you be faithful Catholics who are engaged citizens who can use your own well-formed conscience to choose between the seriously flawed candidates that our electoral process will likely present to us.  At the same time, I am well aware of the limitations of my knowledge of the complex issues that we face as a society.  Many of you have greater knowledge in various aspects of the issues, and I am grateful for your wisdom in these areas.

A Shepherd’s Care sounds nice.  I can imagine many of you thinking, “Bishop, we need much more than nice,” and I wholeheartedly agree.  A Shepherd’s Care does sound nice, but viewed through a realistic lens of the devastating threats we face as a nation and as the Body of Christ, it should evoke strength, clarity and tenacious care for the flock.  The best images flow directly from the Gospel.  We as the sheep of His flock face vicious wolves at every side.  The Shepherd’s Care I am challenged to offer should be imbued with the strength of the Gospel and the power of the truth the Lord has revealed to us.  

As I ponder the grave responsibility that is mine, I turn to the Mass for words that frame the answer I offer to the question, “Bishop what are we to do?”  The Roman Missal prescribes specific words to be used by every priest to introduce the Our Father, the Lord’s Prayer.  These words are very familiar to us: “At the Savior’s command, and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say...” I propose the three phrases in this simple introduction as the framework of my advice.

At the Savior's Command...

“At the Savior’s command” reminds us that this model prayer which Church Fathers, Popes and Saints have reflected on throughout the history of the Church truly is a command regarding how we approach God and the life He has given us.  Embedded in these simple words is a reminder that we must take seriously the call that we share to live as the baptized.  In the context of our present reflection, it is a reminder that we must engage with our society; we must speak the truth; we must seek to share the light of the Gospel in whatever darkness we encounter.  The command of the Lord impels us to know God as Father and to seek His will.  This is the imperative of all humanity, and we ignore it at our peril.

Although significant forces in society have always sought to deny that the Savior has commanded anything, and although these forces seem to be seriously on the rise in our time, as people of faith, we know in the depths of our being that these forces spread a lie.  Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, and as our Savior he has revealed to us the commands of God Our Father.  He has promised that no matter how powerful evil becomes it will not triumph, but He has commanded us to engage in the world and to fight against evil in our hearts and in every aspect of society.

Because of this, because of our faith in God’s ultimate victory, we must never despair over the present situation. Even when everything seems to be going wrong in politics, and we feel we have no good choices, we must not give up. We must not give in to that despair, for that is what Satan wants each and every Christian to do: to give up. One thing we can know for sure, the outcomes of elections in our country will not be better if Christians stay home and give up on our political process. At the Savior’s command, we must do what we can.

Formed by Divine Teaching...

The second phrase in the introduction, “and formed by divine teaching,” moves us into the realm of revelation and the truth that we know because God has chosen to open His heart to us.  Especially in the context of our questions regarding the coming election, it is essential that we acknowledge that there are divine teachings and that we seek to be formed by them. Our modern media promotes the idea that there is no objective truth.  One could easily get the impression that virtually anything is acceptable if it has a strong enough opinion poll to back it up.  Even beyond the public media, the interactions between individuals on social media support the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth: that all is relative and a matter of opinion.  The introduction of the Lord’s Prayer makes it clear that a well formed conscience is essential to living the way of the Father.  In order to choose the best candidates, not only for president, but for any public office, a well formed conscience is essential. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to re-visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Whenever I travel to such a place, and think of the unspeakable evil which occurred there, I am struck by the fact that the guards who ran the camp, and everyone else who participated in these atrocities, were average people, just like us. They were seduced by the ideas of Nazism and turned into villains. This is an extreme example of a lack of formation of conscience. 

What the Church asks of us, what Christ asks of us, is to learn and live the teachings of His Church, even the difficult ones. Our sense of right and wrong, that judgement we make before committing to a course of action (like voting for a particular candidate) must use the teachings of Jesus as its standard. By knowing what Jesus wants of us, we can act with a formed conscience to choose the good, even in difficult situations. This doesn’t mean our choices will be easy, but it does mean we can know that we are acting in accordance with God’s will. We can avoid being seduced by platforms and rhetoric that may sound good to our human ears, but are contrary to the principles of Christianity. 

When we are faced with any moral choices, including those posed by our participation in the political process, we must make a habit of asking, “What does the Church teach us about this matter?” If we are unsure of the answer, we should consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is the basic guide to Catholic teaching. The Catechism is a great gift to us, and is a resource we should all use. I encourage all Catholics to own a copy, and it is also available on the internet free from various Catholic websites. In many previous ages of the Church, it was sometimes difficult for individual Catholics to know the details of the Church’s teaching, but we live in an age of information. Let us use this advantage to better understand the teachings of the Church.

Once we have learned the teachings of the Church and informed ourselves, then it is necessary to spend time in prayer over these principles, to let God help us accept them fully. Everyone will find at least one teaching of the Church difficult to bear, and the Apostles themselves said to Jesus on more than one occasion, “This teaching is hard.” 

Finally, once we know and have worked to accept the teachings of the Church, we must apply them wisely to the choices we are faced with.  The Church teaches us, clearly, that certain moral principles are foundational and we must place emphasis upon them in making our decisions about voting. 

In the pages of the Catholic East Texas over the past year, I have a few times written on human dignity and the value of the human person. In an election year, each individual Catholic has the opportunity to put these Catholic teachings to good use.

As the Church teaches us in the Catechism and bishops and popes re-iterate to us, we must never support the taking of innocent human life. The right to life is foundational to all other rights, and our own Declaration of Independence famously reads, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We as Catholics believe very strongly that God has in fact endowed everyone with the right to life, and in choosing to vote for a particular candidate, we must first take into account their position on human life.

What we as Catholics should desire are candidates who share our respect for all human life and who pledge to work in every situation to protect life. When the political parties do not offer us candidates who have even a consistent respect for human life, we should work to change this sad state of affairs.

We Dare to Say...

The final phrase in the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, “we dare to say,” is possibly the most important for our present discussion.  We must be bold.  We must dare to live the Gospel values when they are becoming more and more unpopular.  We must be willing to speak and live the truth that God has revealed to us, even when that truth falls on deaf ears.  We must dare to pray when the world around us warns that someone may be offended.  Many would say, “How dare you speak of Jesus Christ?” and the response this introduction should evoke is, “How dare we not speak of Him?”

It is in this arena that the Church confirms to us that religion is not private. There is a public and social dimension to Catholicism which we must not ignore. Jesus Christ called us “The light of the world,” and that light must shine in the public square, to call all people to help build a holy society. We dare to say what Jesus taught us, sometimes very boldly, even when it is tremendously unpopular. 

As your bishop, I certainly urge you to pray, pray fervently for our nation and our world, pray for all of the candidates seeking office, and pray for whomever is elected at whatever level of government.  We must accompany our prayer with our actions, with the way we live our daily lives.  

I suppose the best response I can give to the question, “What are we to do?” is ultimately both quite simple and profoundly difficult to accomplish. We must know that At the Savior’s Command, we are to recognize our resposibilities to our nation and to each other. We must live the life of the Baptized, working to bring about God’s will on Earth without despair. We must never give up, even in dark times. 

We must live our lives Formed by Divine Teaching, no matter how the world threatens us for doing so.  We must form our conscience as fully as possible and understand how divine teaching guides us through all the complex challenges of our world.

And, we must Dare to Say. We must set a good example for our families, our neighbors and our co-workers.  We must seek daily to live according to the will of the Father and not our own.  We must be the light of the world.

As we dare to live God’s truth, we pray that our society may begin to change, to return to God, to re-establish Gospel values, to turn from every form of immorality and decadence.  Then our society will demand a leader who embraces the values of divine teaching and seeks to join us in seeking the kingdom of God.

ONLINE: Read Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. Bishops’ teaching document on Catholics and politics.

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