Question “A”: Why doesn’t the Church tell Catholics who we should vote for in elections? Isn’t there something wrong with being controlled by fear of losing the Church’s “tax exempt status”?
Question “B”: What gives the Church the right to tell people for whom to vote by threatening to deny them Holy Communion if they vote for the wrong party?
Answer: These two questions—received no more than six weeks apart—are particularly interesting, as the 2004 presidential election in the US will include a Catholic candidate for only the third time. The first two Catholic candidates had to deal with the charge that they would govern under the foreign political influence of the Vatican; the current candidate has to contend with charges that he ignores the natural moral law considered so important by the Church.
Should the Church take a greater or a lesser role in electoral politics?
In medieval times the Church played a far greater role in government than It does today. After the chaos of the barbarian invasions, many bishops and abbots were called upon to hold positions of civil leadership, for they were literate and had administrative experience. The Papal States made the Popes rulers in their own right, and one or two even led troops into battle. Much of the good influence that all of these clergymen had on government was outweighed by the twin scandals of simony and lay investiture. Prelacies (the office of bishop or abbot) became valuable political “plums” for which the unscrupulous were willing to pay large sums of money. And, since these prelates wielded great power in civil affairs, their political superiors demanded a say in their appointment—the state had as much interest in the appointment of a bishop or abbot as the Church—and sometimes these prelates demonstrated greater loyalties to the government than to religion.
Attempts by the Church to separate the political offices from the religious offices began in earnest in the eleventh century, with various popes issuing decrees prohibiting simony and lay investiture. But it took European society a few centuries to establish a properly working relationship with these prohibitions translated into practice. When, in February 1111, Pope Paschal II announced that an agreement had been made with Emperor Henry V—the Church would relinquish all claims to temporalities and privileges granted by the Crown, and the Crown would abandon all rights of ecclesiastical appointment—there was nearly universal disobedience on the part of the bishops and the princes.[i]
But time and external forces eventually eliminated virtually all of the Church’s direct involvement in politics. The Protestant Reformation and the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia markedly diminished Church participation in European government.[ii] The masonic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries deprived the Holy See of all but a tiny remnant of its political holdings. Yet, to a great degree, Christianity still informed the conscience of Europe and the Americas. In the early days of these United States, Catholics were but a small minority, but the Protestant majority did a fairly good job of creating a legal system based on Christian values. Since the Great Depression and World War II, however, we have seen a progressive movement toward government denial of God and His moral law. Our citizens need to take a greater interest in reversing this trend.
The Church recognizes the right of nations—even pagan nations—to form governments as they see fit, provided that such governments reasonably reflect the moral law and do justice for their inhabitants.[iii] The Church is rarely silent about what constitutes morality and justice. It will always strive to make sure that Catholics have a conscience correctly formed by the moral law. Yet the responsibility for forming a government is determined by the rules established by each particular nation. In a republic it is the responsibility of the citizens to choose the representatives who will govern not only in accord with their wishes but also in accord with the “laws of nature’s God.” Implicit in this responsibility is the need for each voter to be acquainted with the positions espoused by the candidates, as well as with their past performance on the important issues. Making these choices is not something that can be delegated to the newspaper and television endorsements, to lobbyists or political clubs, or to the parish priest—only the voter can do it for himself.
The Church is obligated to teach what is moral and just, and to demonstrate how morality and justice differ from immorality and injustice. That is part of Her divine mission, and can even be part of Her infallible teaching. But there is an important distinction between knowing what is good, and how to go about instilling that goodness in a society.
For example, few would disagree with the idea that everyone ought to have good medical care—but that is probably where the general agreement stops. Some will advocate socialized medicine; others tort reform; others regulation of the insurance companies, or the HMOs, or the drug manufacturers; some want to tax everything that is bad for human consumption; some want tax credits for medical insurance; others suggest a two tiered system, but disagree as to whether the government ought to underwrite the routine costs or the catastrophic costs. One really has to stretch to see a major role for the Church in making decisions of this sort.
Stopping the murder of the unborn is a major moral issue among Catholics and most other Christians and Orthodox Jews. But saying that it should stop is far from proposing the effective political solution that will actually make it stop. Some will advocate a constitutional amendment, while others will maintain that it never was, and ought not to be, a matter delegated to the federal government by the States; some will advocate school and media programs to promote chastity, others will want sex education and birth control programs; not a few will claim that poverty is a major cause of abortion, or perhaps being spoiled rotten by affluence. What is certain, though, is that abortion will not stop until some solution acceptable to the electorate is found. Given the political realities, that solution will probably contain a mixture of good and bad, and will not be one that the Church would have proposed.
Politics is much more than just identifying a few major moral issues and seeing who has voted on them pro or con. Most Christians already know what is moral and what is not—plenty has been said by the Church about things like abortion, child abuse, contraception, divorce, living wages, murder, theft, unjust war, violent crime, and a host of other moral issues. The advocacy organizations probably do a better job of keeping the statistics on these things than anyone else.
Nuns, priests and bishops make up a very small percentage of the voting electorate—it is the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers who have to become more vocal in demanding that the government return to Christian principles, for blocks of votes are the only thing that matter to most politicians. For many years, American voters have voted for the candidate or (perhaps worse) for the political party that promises to get the largest bundle of government benefits for them, without regard to the moral or civil law implications. Often, party “B” will simply repackage the “pork barrel” proposed by party “A” in an attempt to be more attractive to the voters—with equal disregard for law and morality. Voters ought to give more consideration to each candidate’s integrity than to who will get them the largest collection of government services. Perhaps they ought to demand alternative “C” or “D”...
The notion that by proscribing pro-abortion candidates the Church is requiring Catholics to vote Republican is a fallacy brought on by decades of lackadaisical voters who have allowed American politics to be formed in the “either ‘A’ or ‘B’—no other choice allowed” mold. In spite of sage advice by no less a figure than the Founding Father of our Republic, George Washington, Americans have allowed the political parties to form a duopoly protected by law, which they would refuse to accept in any other aspect of public life.[iv] By the time this is published, it is very likely that the Holy See will have had some strong things to say about the “other party’s” war in the middle east and its interpretation of the Geneva Conventions.
No doubt there are other public violations of the moral law that have become common among American politicians and which ought to be considered by American voters. Yet, the murder of the innocent, and, a fortiori, the murder of the unborn, pales in comparison with most other crimes. You may be able to make restitution for robbing a person or beating him or defaming him; you might possibly be able to undo some of the damage done by crimes against families; you can even obtain God’s forgiveness for offenses committed against Him—but you cannot bring back the dead, or baptize them, or hear their confessions.
Even with men of integrity in office—let us assume a nation of Washingtons, Jeffersons, and similar statesmen—politics will remain the “art of the possible.” Those driven by pure idealism may “shoot themselves in the foot” either by making themselves and their position unpopular with the majority of voters and those with influence, or by antagonizing an already harsh government and bringing about repression. In America many voters would resent a president who appeared to take orders from the Pope, even if they approved of his policies. Anyone familiar with World War II will recall the increased persecution that resulted from the Church’s early opposition to the Nazi government in pre-war Germany. It is said that “discretion is the better part of valor” and it makes no sense to cause even greater immoralities and injustices by taunting a powerful tyrant—or by alienating the sympathies of non-Catholics who are men of good will.
The question of tax exemption for the Church in the US prompts the same line of reasoning. The Church’s position on moral principles is well known, and anyone who is properly prepared to vote has made himself aware of which candidates (if any) follow those principles and those who do not. The Church would be wrong to do no more than confirm what the voters should already know, while impoverishing Herself with income and property taxes accompanied by a highly diminished income of contributions. To the degree that She must play the very human and worldly game of politics, She will do best by not purposefully playing from a position of economic weakness, particularly if that gains Her nothing. Like it or not, money serves a useful purpose in our society, and can be used to do a great deal of good that would not be possible without it. You can be sure that the forces of evil will not be so foolish as to cut off their sources of income, even were the Church to do so.
Finally, if it has not already been made clear, the reader ought to understand that the Church has no special competence in the art of practical politics. The Church has the same human limitations we all have as far as being able to prescribe a course of action for making good morality and justice a reality instead of a theoretical ideal. The clergy are not unanimous in their personal voting, for there is room for disagreement about what is best for the nation and how to achieve it. Some are terribly misguided by false idealism—the “liberation theology” people for example. Any political recommendations made by “the Church” would be nothing more than the opinion of some number of fallible clergymen. Given their own track record for appointing administrators, do you really think it wise to have the Pope or the NCCB appoint the next president or senator?
The issue of refusing Holy Communion to those who present themselves to receive It was less of a problem in the past. The Church presented a uniform teaching that was generally known and respected—Catholics knew when they had committed a serious sin, and knew that they were to refrain from receiving the Sacraments of the Living while they were not in the state of grace—non-Catholics knew that reception was limited to practicing Catholics, and rarely complained about the policies of “someone else’s religion.” Even the most poorly educated Catholic was aware that in Holy Communion he received God Himself, the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ. Those who publicly flouted the moral law—the “manifestly infamous”—who had the temerity to present themselves at the Communion rail, would be turned away.
In theory, except for a limited concession to non-Catholic Christians, one might argue that this has not changed much in the Vatican II church. In practice, however, there is very little unanimity among modern Catholics. Even without getting into any of the arguments about the validity of the new rites, it is obvious to the casual observer that belief in and reverence for the Real Presence has sharply declined in New Order churches.
The modernist errors of “universal salvation” and “religious freedom” have clouded the minds of contemporary Catholics to the degree that many now believe sin to be unimportant or nonexistent. If it really were true that everyone is going to be saved, and that everyone must be free to follow his own beliefs, then Catholic politicians would have to be “pro choice”—on everything!
If there must be “religious freedom,” who is to say what the “due limits” might be? The terms are mutually exclusive. At best they mean “I’m limited by my god; you’re limited by your god.” If this foolishness were correct, it would be wrong for a mere politician to challenge the “due limits” set by someone else’s “god.”
The concept of denying Communion to notorious sinners, although still theoretically in force, is ignored in practice at the highest levels. The reception of Communion by our (Protestant) disgraced former president of the United States while visiting Africa is a good example. Presidential trips are highly choreographed affairs—the public movements of the president are worked out in minute detail by White House security and communications personnel in advance.[vii] It is impossible that Mr. Clinton presented himself at the altar by surprise. His face would have been known even in Africa—if the priest didn’t know he was a Protestant, he certainly knew who Monica was.
Or take the example of the Pope Himself giving Communion to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Anglican, “rebirthed” as a Mayan, Chinagate accomplice to Bill Clinton, Tony Blair.[viii] Again there was no surprise as to his identity when the Pope decided to give him Holy Communion instead of sending him off to the local Protestant church—he came to the Vatican as Prime Minister on a state visit. (A State that claims to head the Catholic Church within its realm.) In the New Order, where priests have been known to get in trouble for doing what they are supposed to do, it is not difficult to see why a priest would fear to do what the Pope fails to do.
God bless Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, who seems to have been the first among the Novus Ordo bishops to clearly proclaim the traditional Catholic teaching that no one—no politician, no voter—who supports abortion or other seriously sinful activities should receive Communion: "Anyone who professes the Catholic faith with his lips while at the same time publicly supporting legislation or candidates that defy God's law makes a mockery of that faith and belies his identity as a Catholic.... I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a statement about Church teaching." [ix]
[i] CE, s.v. “Boniface II” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11514b.htm
[iii] Cf. Leo XIII, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, February 16, 1892, especially paragraphs 14 and 22. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_16021892_au-milieu-des-sollicitudes_en.html.
[vi] Vatican II, Dignitátis humanæ, #2 http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html
[vii] Literally in terms of how many feet he will move in which direction to do what. The author has been there.
[ix] (Novus Ordo) Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, cited by Laurie Goodstein, Catholic Online, May 14, 2004 http://www.catholic.org/cathcom/national_story.php?id=7807