Paul J. Thomas
My first exposure to Catholic Social Teaching was nothing less than an epiphany. It marked the first time in my life I had found a solid direction to guide my social concerns. I had been involved with many gatherings over the years that could be described as politically motivated. In my heart, I always wanted to make a difference in the lives of those who did not have a voice and were vulnerable.
As noble as these various groups were, there always seemed to be a piece missing. These were very caring people who, like me, had a sincere interest in and passion for justice and the wellbeing of all who make up our society. At the time I did not know what it was that made me feel somewhat incomplete, but looking back now, after years of studying our Catholic Social Documents, I realize it was the way these many issues had a tendency to become compartmentalized.
I understand the need to focus on a particular issue when advocating for change, but many of the dear friends around me often seemed stuck in just those issues. Catholic Social Teaching helped me realize that what I felt missing was a wholeness of purpose. In a sense, it affirmed and gave me permission to embrace and integrate many issues that I cared deeply for. I did not want to be cut into pieces anymore depending on which issue I happened to be active with at the time.
What I was experiencing was similar to the extreme polarization happening today. In fact, I would say that when I was politically active I saw the beginnings of this state of affairs where, instead of healthy dialogue, we see savagery and demonization toward each other based on an attitude of, “I’m right and you’re wrong…my issue is more important than yours.” In many ways, we have lost a communal and collective concern and have ended up in what Pope Francis calls a “silo mentality.” Thus, the stark divisions we see when we look around at society.
When we look at political party platforms and candidates, this same silo mentality seems to dominate our political landscape. In fact, politics can be so homogenized with narrow agendas they become stubborn, unbending, and do not leave any room for growth. Unfortunately, our political state of affairs, frankly, seems immature both spiritually and socially. Neither major party embodies our cherished value of a consistent ethic of life, which is a primary facet of our social teachings.
This leads us to the real dilemma as Catholic voters. If neither major party fully represents a developed conscience based on a consistent ethic of life, how do I make my voting decision? In order to resolve this conflict in myself I made a decision based on the great treasury we have in both Catechesis and Catholic Social Teaching.
Catechesis helps form my understanding of the person and mission of Jesus. As the Word of God, that tells me that Jesus embodied the language of God; which is love and mercy. I know this by the life, witness, and actions of Jesus. His response to the vulnerable and broken was forgiveness and healing. Therefore, the lens I seek in order to view the world around me with a Christ-centered perspective is also love and mercy. This is authentic discipleship, and must be the standard that shapes my attitude and decisions in all things, including politics.
The next component of my decision making process is a simple but profound statement found in Catholic Social Teaching. It states that as Catholics, politics must be about the common good. The common good is defined as everything a person needs for basic human decency and dignity. This includes life, education, health care, housing, clothing, and food. This acknowledges that all of creation is God’s gift to all, and no one person or group has exclusive access to any of it.
With these tools to guide me I am able to thoughtfully examine political options and arrive at a decision based on who most authentically, competently, and empathetically can best promote and serve the common good of all. This goes beyond any single issue, which, sadly, can often be compartmentalized and exploited simply to gain votes.
My center must be in Christ. If I allow any single political figure, party, or policy to distract me from a Christ centered perspective, then I am in essence allowing another false god to shape my conscience. This is basically what idolatry is, allowing something else to take the place of God in my life.
I have made the choice to serve the One True God; and St. John tells us that God is Love. The more I live as an authentic witness to love, the better I will be able to touch hearts and minds for real effective social change. It is a revolution of love that we are called to, and it is risky and challenging. However, it is ultimately the only transformation that will make a positive impact on our world. When people’s hearts change, society will change.
A well-formed conscience is the key to any constructive decision. I encourage each of us to examine closely all aspects of the political landscape with a consistent ethic of life that takes into consideration all issues; remembering that behind every issue is a human face. Take an honest look, with your lens of love and mercy, at who is best suited to promote and serve the common good. Jesus told us that a tree is known by its fruit. We must carefully weigh words, actions, and intentions before we go reaching for their fruit.