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They’re Baaack…”

It’s that time again: the every four year run-up to the presidential elections is upon us. The debates have started--both on television and in living rooms, lunch rooms and around water coolers all over the country. These debates, both official and un-official, will get more intense as we get closer to next November. They will highlight, reinforce and potentially deepen the political and ideological divisions that are already such a big part of modern American life.

So, as disciples of Jesus Christ, where do we fit in to this whole picture?

 

Since I like experiments, let’s start with a little two-part thought-experiment to get the discussion started.

The Matching Game

For the first part of our little experiment, we’ll play a simple matching game. Look at the following list of hot-button topics and, in your head, match them up to the political party/ideology/end-of-the-political-spectrum that they belong to:

  • End legalized abortion
  • Abolish the death penalty
  • Provide universal health care
  • Protect traditional marriage
  • Reform immigration laws
  • Protect religious freedom

Not too difficult, right? Most of us are all too familiar with the cultural, political and ideological divisions in our society and it is pretty easy to assign ‘issues’ to ‘teams’.

Now for part two of the experiment…

A Different Kind of Matching

So what do all of these issues have in common? They are all things for which the Church, specifically the U.S. bishops, have advocated in recent years.

Yep…every one of them.

Now, immediately hit ‘pause’ on whatever thoughts you are having after reading that statement. What were those thoughts? Did you become uncomfortable? Did you start making excuses in your head about certain items on the list and why the bishops are ‘confused’ or it’s “more complicated than that”?

If you did, you are probably among the hundreds of millions of Americans that have joined one of the ideological ‘teams’ we were talking about above. You aren’t alone; your friends and neighbors have too.

The Problem of Discipleship

So what can we learn from this little experiment?

Many of us strongly identify as liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, etc. It affects the way we view the world and the choices that we make. In and of itself, that isn’t necessarily bad. However there is a risk for us as disciples of Jesus Christ. As disciples, our primary allegiance and obligation is to the Gospel. As St. Paul tells us (emphasis is mine):

Through him we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:5-6)

St. Paul, as an apostle of Jesus, was obligated to call the disciples to the obedience of faith because those disciples belong to Jesus Christ. The successors to the apostles, the bishops, have the same grace and the same mission: to remind us that, though we may identify as Democrats or Republicans, we belong to Jesus. As such, His word has to come first in our lives and be the primary standard by which we judge the things of this world.

The risk is that we forget this and, instead of judging political platforms and positions according to how well they correspond to the Gospel, we start judging the Gospel based on our political leanings. Let’s be honest, we have probably all fallen into this trap at times. That is why the Lord has given us the Church: to stand as the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim 3:15) and help us to adjust our vision. Clearly, given the list of issues above, the Church is not ‘campaigning’ for a particular party or party platform. It is simply trying to carry out its mission of applying the principles of the Gospel of Christ to the modern world.

The Separation of Church and Life

Should the Church be involved in politics at all? I have had many people over the years make the comments along the lines that “it isn’t the Church’s business to get involved in politics--the Church should be concerned with individuals and their salvation.” Well, the Church certainly is concerned with individuals and their salvation; that is precisely why she finds herself in the middle of political disputes.

People are social creatures. It is not good for man to be alone (Gen.2:18). We naturally form families, tribes, nations and societies, which is ultimately a good thing. But with those structures comes politics. Because humans are social creatures, they are also political creatures. So, while there can be separation between Church and state, there can be no separation between Church and life--and politics is part of life as a human being.

Could the Church, though, not limit herself to addressing personal virtue and personal sin? If people behaved like Christ, wouldn’t this be enough to fix nations and societies?

The short answer to the second question is “yes.” If we all behaved like Christ, the world would be transformed. But this is precisely why the answer to the first question is “no”: Christ himself addressed unjust social structures--particularly the prejudices and hypocrisy of the ruling elite of his time, the Pharisees and the Temple Priests. If we are going to behave like Him, we must do likewise. In the Gospel, Jesus reveals that he will judge the nations based on their care for the least of His brothers (Mt 25:31-40).

The Salvation of Souls Requires It

The Church has a moral obligation to her Savior to instruct us is in this regard. The Catechism puts it this way:

The Church makes a moral judgment about economic and social matters, "when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires it." In the moral order she bears a mission distinct from that of political authorities: the Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, our ultimate end. She strives to inspire right attitudes with respect to earthly goods and in socio-economic relationships. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2420)

To paraphrase that statement, the Church is concerned about political matters because political matters affect people and their salvation. The same human brokenness and sin that affects our individual relationships has a way of creeping into our social structures. Our laws, governments and, yes, party platforms can become infected with that brokenness and sin. As a result, sin can become institutionalized and therefore ‘normal.’ This is why otherwise good Christians were able to tolerate the degrading inhumanity of slavery for centuries: it was ‘just the way things are’. People were able to invent excuses and rationalize their behavior on that basis.

It is the Church’s job to call us to repentance on these things and that can be a painful process. We don’t like our firmly held convictions challenged. But if we are going to be committed disciples, we have to accept that this is part of our journey.

Be Transformed by the Renewal of Your Mind

So, I would encourage you this election season: regardless of where you place yourself on the political spectrum, try looking at the issues as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Go back to the list of issues above and pick those that make you most uncomfortable. Find out what the Church teaches from her own documents rather than from political pundits or your favorite talk-radio host. Read them with an open mind and an open heart. Ask questions. Struggle with the answers.

Finally, offer that effort up to God as a sacrifice for the salvation of souls. Maybe you’ll find that He changes your own mind and heart on some issues in the process. As St. Paul reminded the church in Rome: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

May the Lord send his Spirit to bless you and enlighten you in your efforts of transformation!