In the coming week, citizens in California go to the polls to participate in the Presidential Primary election. Locally we are also participating in elections for a broad array of offices and positions in our judiciary, as well as in our city, state and federal government. There are also a couple of additional measures on the ballot.
I’m often asked by parishioners how I manage the challenges of voting in a time when there is such apparent disrespect and disdain for politics and for politicians. While I join with fellow citizens in at times being frustrated with the process and with the “shenanigans,” nonetheless, I think that to vote is one of the most sacred trusts we hold as citizens, and it is important that we participate as fully as we may in the democratic process.
In the United States, the principle of the separation of Church and State is one of the great gifts of U.S. democracy for the world. Some people might be surprised to know that the Church itself holds that what is proper to the state is the provenance of the state, and what is proper to the Church is the provenance of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI clearly articulated the following point in his encyclical, God is Love: “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State.” The just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics. Pope Benedict XVI then goes on to try to offer some guidance when the matters being considered are challenging both for the state and for the Church. He writes: “Yet at the same time she (the Church) cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.” The imperative identified here is that of justice, understood broadly. We will always be striving to improve and to work towards a completely just society, and that takes the efforts and contributions of everyone, and of all institutions concerned with the common good, including both the Church and the State.
Keeping in mind, then, that the just ordering of society is the responsibility of politics, and not the Church, it is no surprise that when we vote, we are both stepping up in our responsibility as citizens, and also that we are discharging a responsibility we hold in faith. It is primarily in the act of voting that men and women of faith, guided by the light of reason and with the conviction of a well-formed conscience, participate most directly in the work of the just ordering of society. When we vote for particular issues or for particular candidates, that is often one of the greatest opportunities we have to concretely act to make the world a better place.
In our age, making choices is sometimes difficult, and in making political choices, those difficulties are often magnified. How do we chart our course, as citizens both of this world and of heaven, when the way is not clear? How do we discharge our responsibility as citizens to choose wisely and well when the choices all-too-often seem to be among the lesser of evils rather than a clear good and a clear evil?
I don’t subscribe to the idea that faith has no place in the public square. I can’t set aside my values, which are rooted in my faith and in my belief in God, and which are embodied in the work I do to try to leave the world a better place. I believe that all people, whether faith is of importance in their lives or not, have a right and responsibility to participate in public debate and civil processes, and to do so with integrity. I reject the implication that people of faith are somehow less intelligent than those without it, as well as any suggestions that those with faith are somehow more insightful than those without faith.
I choose to believe the best of people and their intentions, and if someone wants to take advantage of that in me, that’s on them, and it reflects a poverty of humanity on their part. I’m not so naive as to think that we can avoid struggles and differences, but neither am I so foolish as to withdraw from the civil process when things don't always go as I might hope. I expect the best from others, as I strive to give of my best also. When people of goodness strive together for the betterment of society as a whole, I believe that we all benefit. We may not always agree, but we all benefit, and ultimately, when we secure a better future for ourselves, for our children and for our children’s children. In doing this, we recognize it as an expression of our faithful discipleship, and we also discharge our responsibility as citizens to making a meaningful contribution for the betterment of our society.
Prepare for Tuesday, and go vote.