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.]