Catholics and the Intentional State

It is election season in the United States, and so there is even more than the usual amount of fuss in Catholic intellectual circles in this country about the place of Catholics within our republic.

Can a Catholic vote for a politician who is “pro-choice”? Can a Catholic vote for a politician who supports the Iraq War? Can a Catholic support capital punishment? What is a “Catholic response” to the economy? What is a “preferential option for the poor”? Is it true that “universal health care” is a “life issue”?

Some, who claim to be more in touch with that illusive entity “the rest of the world”, inform me that it is uniquely American for people to engage in these sort of knock-down, drag-out fights about how it is that our faith tells us we must vote. This may be, though I must admit that I find it a little hard to accept, since it seems nonsensical to me to claim that people in other countries vote on the basis of something other than what they believe to be right — and that they determine what is right by some means other than consulting their moral and theological/philosophical understanding of the world.

But let us leave aside these hypothetical foreigners for a moment. There are, I think, a few reasons why Americans do bring a more religious mindset to questions of government than do citizens of many other countries. In his What I Saw In America Chesterton wrote, “America is the only country ever founded on a creed.” One could quarrel with elements of this, but like most of what came from Chesterton’s pen there is a good deal of truth to it. The United States was founded consciously, it did not creep into existence organically as did so many Old World nations. And it was based upon shared ideals and a shared moral and intellectual culture, not upon a discovered or invigorated sense of ethnic or cultural nationalism as so many new nations since have been.

The US is, thus, an intentional country to a much greater extent than most other modern nations. It was created by choice, and it was built upon the expectation that its citizens would choose their leaders, and choose them in accordance with certain ideals. The American ideal might be seen as that of constantly working towards “a more perfect union”.

This puts us as Catholics who are also American citizens in a position of serious responsibility. Christ commanded us, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” In many times and places, Christians have seen the decisions of state which they are compelled to obey as something wholly external to them, the sole responsibility of the ruler or rulers.

I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here
alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s
minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.

That’s more than we know.

Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know
enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if
his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes
the crime of it out of us.

There is still some truth to this. A soldier is responsible for the morality of his own actions, but the decision of whether or not to go to war is not within his hands. And although as citizens of the US we have the ability to influence the choosing of our leaders, it often happens that the leaders we ourselves voted for lose, and we find ourselves led by rulers whom we did not personally choose.

Yet within these limitations, and avoiding the paralyzation of thinking that one may never vote for any but the perfect candidate, we have a serious moral duty to guide our country towards a “more perfect union”. We do need to have these big moral arguments — not merely shrug and vote for the candidate most likely to increase our collective or individual advantage.

One last warning, however: Even while striving always to bring our country more in line with true justice as we understand it as Catholics, we must keep in mind that humanity is not in its current state perfectible. As in the spiritual life we must seek constant conversion, and yet never achieve perfect virtue, so through the workings of our fallen natures new failings invariably crop up as old ones are defeated. Nor, we must recall, can structures or systems replace or insure individual virtue.

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  1. I personally sympathize with honest-to-goodness, practicing, conscientious Catholics who may vote for a “pro-choice” candidate for other reasons. I know their reasoning and I trust that they are doing what they believe to be best. Yes, there are other Catholics who hide behind “pro-choice” rhetoric deceiving themselves and others. They’re playing with fire and they will receive just retribution for their actions in this life or in the next.

    I think U.S. foreign policy has been reckless and belligerent in the last 8 years. The two wars we’re fighting have not been carried out in the most responsible way, particularly Iraq. I find it displeasing that the Republican Party after the Hillary Clinton vs. the healthcare system match-up, spent millions and millions of tax payer dollars going after Bill Clinton turning American politics into a circus instead of finding some sort more conservative free-market solution to the healthcare system while they had a majority in Congress from 1994 to 2006. In the same way, the cost of education is skyrocketing, while public funding to education is consistently being cut every fiscal year. Why is this not a higher priority? All these things in some way get put on the back-burner for four years and they spiral into very complex problems. Is there a link between poverty, healthcare, education, and abortion? I think there is. I’m African American. I’ve seen it happen with a number of women in my life.


    As a Catholic Democrat, I personally cannot overlook the collection of hyper-liberal special interest groups that have taken over my party. They advocate abortion on demand without any restrictions, the re-definition of marriage, and are on the move to entirely secularize everything. Their philosophical view of the world—of the human person, of marriage, of family, and of society—is deeply shaped by Enlightenment thinking. They see society as something artificial and arbitrary. Combine this view with moral relativism and you have a recipe for disaster. I support universal healthcare. But the current presidential candidate, Barack Obama—clearly in the hyper-liberal, continuation of the sexual revolution movement—would infest such direly needed reform with public funding of abortion, euthanasia, and wanton distribution of abortifacents and contraceptives.

    Abortion, in particular, is no small matter. I once looked up some interesting statistics. Consider capital punishment and let’s assume that it is in fact intrinsically evil. Is it as pressing as abortion? Hardly. The number of capital punishments executed in this country since our founding days are at best, 4 days of abortion. The war in Iraq? 15 days of abortion. Are there morally grave “proportionate” reasons that may qualify a vote for a “pro-choice” candidate? Perhaps. But it requires more than word gymnastics and rhetoric (cf. the Democratic Platform on abortion). In the Lincoln v. Douglas election, no one cared about taxes or the economy. Lincoln wanted to abolish slavery and Douglas wanted to keep it and on that single issue, everyone voted. People who were abolitionists did not settle for reducing the number of slaves or simply better the quality of life for slaves. They realized the very existence of slavery contradicted fundamental moral principles and they could not get around it.

    Do I have a solution to all our political problems? No. We need to change the political landscape, somehow. And I think it is evident that we need to remember that our civic duties extend beyond voting—creating a “Culture of Life” cannot be something we talk about every 4 years.

    There are 30 days to Election. Mary Immaculate, pray for us.

  2. I agree with Paul. Let’s pray for a day when the Democratic Party wakes up from its nightmare association with the culture of death and its flawed and highly secularized view of human nature. Because if it comes down to mere differences in health care plans and tax policies, Catholics will have less angst when it comes to election time.

  3. Darwin,

    The connection you make between the US being an intentional country and US voters bringing a religious mindset to political questions is very intriguing. I hope to see you develop the idea in future posts.

  4. It will happen. I don’t know how or when, but it will. I would love to run for office. God and I are still working out that plan. If He wills it, I’ll do it. It would be a glorious day in America to see a Democrat say “refuse to choose because women deserve better than abortion.”

  5. I have been a registered Independent for around 30 years. “Conservatives” used to be environmentalists and in favor of preserving communities, including their economic base, like small farms. Liberals used to wan to be generous with their own money. Feminists, believe it or not, were originally one of the biggest opponents of abortion.

    Aristotle pointed out that people in democracies had a bad habit of voting for what they wanted rather than what was good for democracy. This was over 2,500 years ago.

    Some things never change.

    I don’t want to be discouraging. But if we want the situation to really change, we have to be realistic. We have to look candidly about how far we have wandered off on the wrong track and what it will cost to drag ourselves back on the right one.

    In this context, I am especially grateful for Eric Brown’s comments; being willing to recognize fully the faults his beloved Democratic party has fallen into without being disloyal.

    Loyalty does not mean pretending the object of your loyalty has not gone wrong, nor defending its ongoing wrong conduct.

    Jay Maupin

  6. Jay Maupin,

    The founders of the feminist movement were ardently against abortion and were adamently pro-life.

    Conservatives used to be for small government.

    Archbishop Chaput stated in his book, Render Unto Caesar, there is no poloitical party that satisfies all the teachings of Catholic Social Doctrine.

    What we can do is observe the hierarchy of values and go from there.

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