Our country today is divided into Left and Right, red states and blue states, Democrats and Republicans. In fact, partisan fervor is so intense that the maker of UNO recently issued a special edition without blue and red cards.
Unfortunately, these divisions are also cutting through the Catholic Church in America. Many feel the Republican Party is closest to emulating Church teaching because of its positions on abortion, gay marriage, and religious freedom are consistent with Catholic teaching. But, from a traditional Democratic perspective, the GOP is very much at odds with the Church’s teaching on immigration, care of the poor, and other issues whose importance is underrepresented today. In fact, most faithful Catholics will find that despite perceptions on either side that there are severe problems with both parties’ adherence to Catholic teaching.
The Church’s teaching on abortion, as well as other issues, like caring for the poor, is clear. As Catholics we are encouraged to participate in the democratic process, voting on the basis of our consciences once forming them in the Church’s teaching.
(For those who want to be better informed on Church teaching and to better form their consciences, a good place to start is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ exhaustive 42-page guide, Faithful Citizenship.)
The danger is that we end up over-committing in the process, too closely allying ourselves with one of the parties. As Christians, we are called to be in this world, but not of it, and that admonition is particularly apt when it comes to political labels and the ideologies behind them.
In the case of politics, the Left-Right division is a relatively recent one, at least when viewed from the perspective of the Church. The labels date back to the French Revolution and refer to where members of the national assembly, known as the Estates General, sat when it convened in 1789. Those on the Left opposed the monarchy and rallied around the revolutionary slogan of ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity.’ Those sitting on the Right were supporters of the monarchy.
Although the French monarchy is long gone, the labels Left and Right retain their relevance in today’s world. One way of understanding the difference is in their respective attitudes towards change. Those on the Left side of the political spectrum tend to be liberals who advocate for freedom and equality in a way that changes the status quo. Those on the Right tend to be conservatives who favor tradition over innovation. (The classic example of this approach is the English statesman Edmund Burke whose Reflections on the Revolution in France is a sort of bible for modern conservatism.)
So, for example, Left-leaning liberals want to change how marriage is defined to make it fit their current understanding of liberty and equality. Conservatives, on the other hand, want to ‘conserve’ the institution of marriage recognizing it as an ancient union created by God, rather than an invention of man.
These orientations towards social change help explain why both parties sometimes seem to hold to contrary positions. For example, conservative Republicans can be criticized for supporting individual liberty when it comes to the economy but not when it comes to social issues. But liberal Democrats have the same internal contradictions in reverse.
However, there is a deeper internal consistency to both positions. Liberal Democrats have a deep commitment to ideals of fairness, equality, and social justice. These commitments explain Democratic positions on welfare, immigration, and civil rights. In some cases, such as gay marriage, the Democratic position has distorted the ideal or failed to balance it against other considerations.
Likewise, the dominant principle of modern conservatism is individual responsibility. It’s what unites capitalist enthusiasts with devout pro-lifers. At the heart of individual responsibility is the belief in free will, self-determination, and an awareness of how our choices may affect others. In a capitalist context, the risk of failure and the reward of success are supposed to drive innovation, entrepreneurship, and hard work.
In the case of abortion, pro-lifers insist that we cannot ignore the consequences of pre-marital sex, such as the possibility of pregnancy and the reality of the life that has been created as a result. Of course, pro-lifers are motivated by much more than just a commitment to individual responsibility, but it’s the shared ideal of individual responsibility that makes them form common cause with free-market capitalists under the Republican banner.
As Catholic Christians, we are grounded in history, but our perspective is an eternal one. That means that we should be able to step back and see that both ideologies, liberal and conservative, have important things to teach us.
We can thank liberals for reminding us of the paramount importance of social justice, which is also a Catholic ideal consistently found in the Gospels beginning with Our Lord’s sermon on the mount. We also can learn from conservatives about the perils of social engineering. Conservatives teach us that the means by which we try to accomplish goals can sometimes have unintended consequences if we don’t go about change with reason or care, like burdensome taxes or programs that institutionalize poverty rather than help lift people out of it.
If liberals help us identify what goals we should be pursuing, then conservatives are indispensable in helping us achieve them in a responsible and effective way.
However, neither the ideologies nor the parties associated with them provide us with a complete vision for politics and public policy. That comes from Church social teaching which truly cannot be boxed into either the Left or Right. To point to just a few examples: on immigration, welfare, and war, the Church is generally at odds with contemporary conservative positions, but it is with them on abortion and marriage.
The Church’s independence from the Left and Right is much deeper than this though. The Church’s motivations and vision of man and society set it apart from both ideologies—even when it is in apparent agreement with them.
For example, the Church can join conservatives in supporting the free market not because it is efficient or respects individual liberty but because it is most in keeping with the dignity of man who himself is a creator because He is made in the image of the Creator. But this conviction could also lead the Church to support higher wages than some conservatives might accept.
(For more on the Church’s positions on these topics, see Pope Leo XIII’s wonderful encyclical, Rerum Novarum.)
The bottom line: inform your conscience with solid Catholic principles and then vote how your conscience tells you to, but don’t fall into the trap of forcing yourself to defend all of a party’s political positions. Being Catholic means that we must adopt a fundamental attitude of dissent and opposition to any option that is false or misleading, even if we feel that we must painstakingly find candidates that best advance the common good according to the truths of our faith.