On November 2nd, U.S. citizens, braving long lines and many complicated ballot initiatives, turned out in record numbers to exercise their right and their duty to vote. Despite the repeated references of the pundits to the “divided electorate” we still remain one nation. What unites us as Americans are not ties of blood or language or class solidarity but a common allegiance to the high ideals set forth more than 200 years ago in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.”
That unity is not an imposed uniformity (for only tyranny can impose or enforce uniformity among its subjects). Our unity is not afraid of differences. It is not threatened by debate, nor is it weakened by diversity. On the contrary, the freedoms we enjoy assure that differences can be aired, positions debated and diversity celebrated. Our national unity grows through the free and full participation of all our nation’s citizens, including those who take their religious faith seriously.
When we act as citizens, we do not impose our views. The Church has no army, she has no police force to impose her views; all the Church can do – all we can do as members of the Church and at the same time as members of an earthly City – is make our proposition. We don’t impose, we propose – and hopefully in the give and take of the democratic process, we can convince our fellow citizens of the wisdom of what we propose and thereby affect changes in law and custom. In this light, the exit polling that indicated many voted according to their concerns about “moral issues” is indeed heartening.
In the early 1960’s, a Jesuit Father, John Courtnay Murray, wrote a book entitled, We hold These Truths. In it, he outlined the compatibility between Catholic teachings and the democratic experiment. His thinking led to a ground-breaking document on religious freedom during the Second Vatican Council and a new attitude towards democratic governments. The Council Fathers said: “The principle of secularity is legitimate in itself if it is understood as the distinction between the political community and religions.” ( Guadium et Spes) But secularity does not mean a secularism that would “privatize” faith and exclude it from the public square.
During WWII, my father’s generation proved that you could be Catholic and American. Catholics of that era – of many different ethnicities – served our nation honorably. And I would say that today in Iraq , Catholics are still overrepresented in our armed forces. And, in secular New York City , where The New York Times has hardly ever a kind word for Catholic teachings, as the post 9/11 memorial services brought home so clearly, the majority of the policemen, firefighters and emergency workers who died were Catholic. No one should be ashamed of being a Catholic in America today. And no one should question our contributions as citizens to our country. And no one should think that he or she has to abandon faithfulness to Catholic teachings as a price to enter into the political arena.
As Catholics we cannot opt out of the political system. In the first place, if we allowed ourselves to be cowered into “staying in our place”, we would reduce ourselves to being “second class citizens”. In the second place, opting out is not our Catholic way. It would be a failure of charity for, in our Catholic tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue; and, participation in the political process is a moral obligation.
What does America need from the Catholics today? It needs for us Catholics to be truly Catholic – that’s the best contribution we can make for in being better Catholics we can be better citizens.