It’s been a little over a year since the 2016 election that polarized the nation and left deep political divides among family and friends.
Another election may be the last thing many Americans want to think about, but with midterm races just 10 months away, the already tense political rhetoric is about to become even more heated.
This election season comes at a time of broad dissatisfaction with America’s major political parties. Harvard’s Institute of Politics recently found that only 29% of young Americans age 18-29 had a strong party affiliation.
An NBC / University of Chicago survey found that just 26% of American adults said the Republican and Democratic parties are doing an adequate job representing the American people, while 71% said a third party is needed.
What would a viable third party look like? Is a third party even possible, or is it more likely that we will see major party leaders scramble to recover eroding loyalties by redefining party values and principles?
It’s always tough to predict what will happen in politics. But since Catholics make up roughly 1 in 4 U.S. voters, they have a chance to shape the trajectory of existing and new political parties over the next few years.
And in fact, Catholics have a duty to shape the political landscape. The US bishops have repeatedly taught that Catholics should take an active role in the political process; discouraging blind partisanship, and encouraging that, “our participation should help transform the party to which we belong.”
In order to do this, we first have to understand what the Church teaches about politics. What exactly is the nature and purpose of the state? Catholics on both sides of the aisle often claim that their party’s view of government embodies the vision of Christ. But is that true?
In 1991, as the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War drew to a close, Pope John Paul II penned a momentous encyclical, Centesimus annus. In it, he reflected on another encyclical, Rerum novarum, the work by Pope Leo XIII that had laid out the foundations of Catholic social thought one hundred years earlier.
Through the lens of Rerum novarum, and looking at the events taking place in his own time, John Paul II wrote:
“The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice.”
However, the Pope didn’t stop there. He continued:
“Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty. The collapse of the Communist system in so many countries certainly removes an obstacle to facing these problems in an appropriate and realistic way, but it is not enough to bring about their solution. Indeed, there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.”
The words of John Paul II have been echoed by his successors. Both Benedict XVI and Francis have had sharp criticisms for Marxism and for an “unbridled capitalism” that relies entirely upon the machinations of the free market, without recognizing the need for values that can only be upheld through intentional human action.
So what does the Church propose? John Paul II clarifies: “The Church has no models to present; models that are real and truly effective can only arise within the framework of different historical situations, through the efforts of all those who responsibly confront concrete problems in all their social, economic, political and cultural aspects, as these interact with one another.”
In other words, it’s up to Catholics to work for the best solution we can in our current circumstances.
What does it mean to put the Church’s social teaching into practice in 21st century America? It’s a complex question, but before we can even start proposing answers, we need to know what the Church’s social teaching is.
What does it mean to say that the dignity of the human person “is the foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church's social doctrine,” or to say that “society and the State exist for the family”? What are the principles of the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity? What is the universal destination of goods and how does it relate to private property? What is the preferential option for the poor?
Again and again, the bishops have clarified that it is not the Church’s role to tell people whom to vote for at the ballot box. Rather, the Church talks about issues and principles. To understand what the Church teaches about the issues - from abortion to migration - and to exercise the prudential judgment necessary to turn those ideas into policies, we must first understand the foundational principles. John Paul II describes the Church’s social teaching as “an indispensable and ideal orientation,” a viewpoint, and a framework on which to build.
As we enter into what is certain to be a heated election year, why not make it a (belated) New Years Resolution to learn more about Catholic social teaching? Centesimus Annus is a great place to start. So is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. To catechists, teachers, and members of the clergy: Why not resolve to teach the Church’s social doctrines more frequently, to help equip Catholics as they prepare to vote?
Educating ourselves on these issues can help us be better citizens, and better Catholics. In the words of Pope Francis: “A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern.”