Let’s face it: Catholic voter’s guides are terribly abstract and unhelpful. Catholic political speakers often leave us with more questions than clarity. They offer bad advice or no advice at all.

Before the 2004 election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, a respected Catholic philosopher, Alastair MacIntyre, made a claim I heartily disagree with. He said, “in this situation a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote cast for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives. The way to vote against the system is not to vote.” I can only imagine what he would have had to say about the recent election between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump.

He is basically arguing that when there are no good options, the best choice is not to choose. As Catholics, this is unacceptable: both our faith and indeed our fallen nature call us to political involvement.

Aristotle once famously said that man is a political animal. His argument is that man’s natural state is one of involvement in the runnings of the city (the polis). Aristotle takes this idea so seriously that he believes that human beings cannot achieve their true purpose (telos) without taking part in political life. Without engaging politics, human beings can never be happy.

St. Augustine takes a remarkably different stance on this issue. Unlike Aristotle, Augustine does not believe that complete happiness is possible in this life. The Greeks taught that happiness was indeed achievable here and now. Evil done to us need not make us unhappy and by cultivating virtue we can completely avoid the evil we might commit. In his City of God, Augustine claims that this is a remarkably overoptimistic view of the human condition. Anyone who has suffered great loss knows that such loss does impact our happiness. We would consider a man coarse, even cruel, if he could claim upon the death of his daughter, “This evil does not make me unhappy.” Further, St. Augustine claims that it is impossible to avoid moral evil entirely. We are human, all too human. We err. We sin. It isn’t great, but it’s our lot in life.

Because the Greek philosophers believed that happiness was achievable, they overemphasized the importance of political life and its orientation. St. Augustine teaches that the goal of the State is NOT the inculcation of virtue in its citizens that will lead to their happiness, but rather the State exists to ensure temporal peace. Temporal peace is primarily comprised of the health of the body, well ordered social life among humans, and the acquisition and security of temporal goods. The State, says Augustine, has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with peace.

Being the faithful Catholic bishop that he was, however, St. Augustine also knew that there was far more to the human being than simply the safety, security, and satisfaction of the body. We also have a soul, and therefore temporal peace is not the whole story. St. Augustine gives a separate account of eternal peace, which is the goal of the City of God in heaven and its manifestation here on earth in the Church. Eternal peace deals with the health of the soul, the relationship between God and man, and the acquisition of eternal goods (like salvation). This division between the City of God and the the City of Man is very real, but for Augustine, that doesn’t mean it’s natural. 

In the Garden of Eden, God declared that man should rule over the animals. Never and in no way did God intend for man to rule over other men. Made in His image and likeness, we are His alone to rule. But human beings fell. We sinned. We ate the apple and imposed upon ourselves a condition of slavery. When we sinned, we created the domain of the State. In Eden, temporal goods were the free gift of God, but now we need an institution to safeguard them.

Seen in this way, Augustine understands that the State, which is slavery, is not simply the result of our sin, it is the just punishment of our sin. We betrayed God’s command and have thus bound ourselves to temporal goods and are punished with political life. Politics is the punishment for sin, says Augustine, but it is the just punishment—imposed by God. This all makes for a very ironic way of interpreting the election of 2016. Ironic though it may be, it makes perfect sense. The reason we had to choose between two less than perfect candidates was because we are less than perfect beings and we deserve no less.

Abstaining from this election because the two candidates were immoral or unjust, was a rejection of our punishment. We need to remember that the State’s sole purpose, in St. Augustine’s analysis, is to keep the peace: government isn’t about justice or even about virtue. It isn’t about how things should be, but about how things are. Additionally, we have an obligation to partake in the life of the city, in politics, as just desserts for our sins. An imperfect world makes for imperfect candidates. The mental turmoil or duress that is caused by having to choose between bad choices is meant to be an opportunity for redemptive suffering. To shirk that opportunity of experiencing what we deserve by not voting or even voting 3rd party amounts to weakness.

The political apathy promoted by Catholic intellectual circles during the last election was appalling. Armchair, self-righteous political philosophizing neglects a fundamental aspect of the life that the Church calls us to. It’s not enough to preach about about subsidiarity or solidarity or any other social principle without explaining what they mean for me right now in these political circumstances. Christ came into the messiness of human existence. We Catholics who bear the Incarnational Faith are compelled to live in and amongst this messiness. We are called to live in the world, but we are not of the world. The decision to vote for Donald Trump was not easy at first, but when confronted with the possibility of his opponent becoming president, the decision became clear. The appeals which are made to and by Catholics to get on board with the Democratic Party platform are all based on the same errors that St. Augustine points out. The State is not meant to be an arbiter of justice, social or otherwise, but rather to be a bulwark of law, order, and peace. The kind of government that the Democratic Party proclaims is one which St. Augustine would argue is encroaching on the role of the Church. Beyond that, some of the core tenants of its platform fly right in the face of human nature, Church teaching, violating the sacredness and dignity of human life and reducing the Sacrament of Matrimony to a social contract.

So let this be a final encouragement. Get involved in politics, not because it will make you happy, but because it will make you unhappy. Vote. Especially in less than ideal elections. And be mindful that we continue to choose this for ourselves every time we act contrary to the will of God. Run for office. If we do these things and keep this in mind, we will more adequately bring our faith into our politics—and God knows we need more of that.

[This article was proudly written and published from the Washington Mall waiting for President Trump’s Inaugural Address.]
01 20 2017
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  • Pablo González Casanova

    It is a well written article but with a very dangerous conclusion: Catholics are forced to vote an alternative that may disgust them just to avoid a greater evil. This is consequentialism and it is against the Church's teaching. The article would have been right had it limited to state the necessary participation of Catholics in public life even when, as in the present times, circumstances are not very good. But stating that it would have been "weak" voting for a third candidate or abstention is going too far. For many Catholics, who would never vote Democrat due to this party's stances against tradicional marriage and abortion (among other evil secular policies), voting for Trump was also a motive of serious concern and not because of some dark episodes of his personal life (we are all sinners) but mainly because of his stance for torture as a valid punishment for prisoners and his famous wall with Mexico. The famous wall has been downplayed by many as a mere issue of domestic policy, it is not: it goes against the free movement of people which is a right based in the Roman law "Ius Gentium" and even in the natural law (Genesis: "go forth and multiply") and although it is true that the state (and borders are legitimate) it is a lesser evil caused by sin and it cannot justify other evils (nationalism based on a supposed superiority) in furtherance of it. And the wall is meant to negate asylum to our brethren. Mexicans at the other bank of the Rio Grande are fellow Catholics, many of whom have ancestors in what it is today's US rooted long before Mr. Trump's or other wasps politicians' ancestors fled from Europe. Denying help (asylum) to fellow brothers in Christ for the sake of the economic welfare of a (secular) republic like the US (founded by Puritans who hated and persecuted Catholics) is something that any good American Catholic should consider seriously; since it could be a breach of the commandment "love your neighbor as I loved you" to which no caveat was known in the line of "provided the economic welfare of your secular republic is not in jeopardy". I am not at all suggesting that Trump's wall could be a valid excuse to vote for Hillary (I think no good Catholic could vote for her nor her party); but if Trump has to be taken seriously for what he says in relation to a wall to be built against fellow Catholic brethren escaping from their evil governments (like Cuba); a good American Catholic had not only the right but also the duty to consider the ways through which to show his love, support and fraternity to those brethren in Christ: either by voting for a third candidate, voting for Trump but demonstrating against the wall or any other political stance he might deem fit. The welfare of a secular republic cannot be prioritized over our commandment to love one another as Christ loved us for it is ultimately the salvation of our souls what it is at stake (and that is far more important to any Catholic than the political stability of any republic).

    • mr. producer

      So I take it you were against the Vatican State building walls to protect itself against invaders throughout the centuries? Also, your comment about "WASP" politicians is clearly racist. The USA is one of the most welcoming countries to LEGAL immigration in history.

      #BUILDTHEWALL

  • Michelle Jones

    Doyle,

    Two brief points. First, I think you have done an excellent job interpreting Augustine as a serious political thinker. There is a rather strong interpretative tradition that has frequently seen Augustine as so overtly negative regarding human affairs as to consider his positions somewhat dubious. I think you have done well to show that there is much more nuance in Augustine, and that he should be understood as continuing the Platonic tradition of political philosophy and considering the question of the best regime as a serious and worthy one.

    My second point is not so much a critique as a proposal for drawing out your insights further. I recognize that your essay length is limited and thus you cannot treat everything in one go round. That is why I don't want this to be seen as a critique. More like questioning to draw out further conclusions. Perhaps I am setting up the next essay for you.

    You write that we should "get involved in politics." What does this mean? You seem to almost want to say that this means "voting." Now, as I am sure you know, this is precisely one of MacIntrye's critique in line with his 2004 essay you aptly cite in the beginning. MacIntrye's concern is that most of us as Americans consider our participation in politics in a reductionistic way. We think that politics means "voting." What is lacking here is a genuine account of citizenship, one that is more in accord with Aristotle's notion of political rule and our share in "ruling and being ruled." So I am wondering if you would draw out the implications of citizenship, saying what this means, and perhaps showing how this relates to a fuller account of politics that is more than merely voting. These are just some ideas for further rumination.

    Thank you for your piece. It was excellent!

    Pax,
    Brian Jones

  • Christopher Helle

    Like oil running down the beard it is a refreshing experience to read the comments section to see well reasoned and respectful responses an article.

    With that, I sense that there is a lot of missing the forest for the "trees" in the comments, here and on Facebook. Many are taking issues with particular points expressed in the article (and well reasoned in their disagreement).

    However, I think the seminal point of Mr. Baxter's words here is that Catholics tend to come out of hibernation when contreversey emerges only to lazily snipe "this and that" so as not to unfaithfully support the "so and so's" for fear that "moral complicity" with the "not REAL Catholic" thing currently supported by this (insert pejorative modifier) modern culture. We reject Trump and Hillary and with the righteous anger talk about other options...but here's the thing...It's empty and lifeless. If we want a third party option, we need to be building it NOW and tomorrow and the day after - Not throwing our weight at Gary Johnson or half heartedly voting the Solidarity Party resigned to the comforts of our smug sense of being in the right.

    The reality is this: As Catholics, we live the faith in an incarnational way (as the article above says). We do not simply affirm and acknowledge true things, we live them while inviting others to do the same. Immigration is a real issue affecting real people. So is abortion. So is legislation that would redefine or disregard the family. So is healthcare. And on and on.

    We, as Roman Catholics need to be a force with which the world around us reckons. As it stands now, our contribution can be relegated to the snarky and impotent peanut gallery of modern American politics.

  • I agree with your premise, i.e. neither hope nor fear too much from government and politics, because our ultimate home is elsewhere, but do not despise it either because our responsibility is to engage with the messiness of the world. I disagree that voting is the best or only way to do that, or that it is even an essential way to do that. Simply washing my hands of the whole messy business is one thing. Making an informed and responsible decision not to support either of two immoral candidates, or to support a third party candidate in protest, is a moral decision. Choosing neither horn of an immoral dilemma is a time-honored Christian tradition going back at least as far as Jesus' responses to His interlocutors.

    Deciding not to vote is not "shirking our punishment. Death is also a punishment for sin, but that does not mean we don't eat well, exercise and take reasonable medical treatments. There is a significant breadth of medical treatment or refusal of treatment that are in keeping with a proper perspective on the role of bodily health. In politics it is also the same. Voting is one route to be involved, but I would argue that voting is the least important and meaningful part of our social and political responsibility. Voting local is more meaningful and probably more important than the presidential election. At least your vote counts. Attending town hall meetings would be better. Personally taking care of the poor, the sick and the needy even more so. That would virtually guarantee getting involved in politics, if only to cut through governmental red tape.

  • Gabe Jones

    Doyle, I respectfully disagree with the assertion that "voting 3rd party amounts to weakness" or is somehow a shrinking from the opportunity to experience redemptive suffering. Quite the opposite in my view. The argument could be made that voting for terrible candidates on either side based on political pragmatism instead of strong conviction is a flawed moral justification. You didn't say this exactly, but in essence, I think your premise that we should just "go along" with someone like Trump is, I believe, contrary to what it means to be a strong, faith-filled Catholic. We are called to stand on principle, which often means doing the unpopular thing that may not be politically expedient or give us a victory in the temporal sphere of things. To paraphrase a famous quote: We don't fight because we hate what's in front of us; we fight because we love what is behind us.

    Additionally, if getting terrible candidates and flawed leadership is a direct result of our sin, then why didn't Hillary win? Wouldn't that have been a just reward for our transgressions against divine law in recent years? I think that is a flawed assertion.

    I believe St. Augustine would also have something to say about our intent, and the state of our will, when taking a certain action. Did an individual vote third party as a way of throwing up their hands? Or did they vote based on a strong moral conviction? Was it an act of the will or not?

    As someone who voted for a pro-life third party candidate, I don't agree with or appreciate the disparaging attitude towards my decision. I stood proudly by my principles in this election and will continue to do so.

    Finally, just to be clear, what I'm saying should by no means be taken to justify any of the disrespectful attitudes and displays we are seeing from those who would say "#NotMyPresident." That's a completely different topic.

  • Ben Shirk

    I do appreciate that you bring up new arguments that many people don't consider, and it was overall an interesting article. The only part that concerns me is, following your line of logic, there is only one possible course of action: vote for Trump. I don't think that Catholics should be obligated into fulfilling an action -- especially such a major decision -- to which they conscientiously and morally object to. I further more might be skeptical about when you said that voting for a third-party is equivalent to not voting at all. True, the way that the system works, none of these individuals were likely to get elected. But i do believe that voting for a third party has merits in itself as well. It is still a rational choice that someone might make in truly believing that person would be a good president. And honestly it's no more a wasted vote then, for instance, a person in California voting for Trump or a person in Wyoming voting for Hillary. But if we were to look into the long-term health of our political system, i believe a growing trend of third-party support would be a strong benefit.

    • Ben Shirk

      The situation actually kinda reminds me of a recording of a radio show i listened to once by Fulton Sheen. He said that God will judge us for embracing evil. I was interested because it was a recording from before the liberal revolution of our country, and as i listened on he was referring to World War Two. He said that we were choosing the "least of three evils", and that God will one day judge us for it. Eventually it became clear he was referring to three humanist philosophies that all emerged in Europe around the same time. We chose Communism as being "less evil" than Nazism or Fascism. Looking back from this side of history, it's clear that we picked our own poison, as we spent decades trying to undo the effects of that choice. We allowed Communism to spread across the globe later on by supporting it in it's infancy.

  • opinionated1945

    Great article! Thank you for it!

  • Great quote: Get involved in politics, not because it will make you happy, but because it will make you unhappy.