2016: The Year Catholic Politics Broke

2016: The Year Catholic Politics Broke November 3, 2016
("St. Ambrose Barring Theodosius I from Milan Cathedral," by Anthony van Dyck, 1619-1620. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).
(“St. Ambrose Barring Theodosius I from Milan Cathedral,” by Anthony van Dyck, 1619-1620. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).

Every day I log onto Facebook and, against my better judgment, end up observing or participating in some digital political brawl. I’m particularly susceptible, I suspect, because my Facebook friends span the political spectrum—mostly tepid Hillary-supporting anti-Trumpers and adamant Trump advocates, fewer “I’m with Her” types. Regardless, that diversity manages to cause me an unjust anger on an almost daily basis. Now, aside from the clear truth that I need to spend less time on social media (as most of us should), this repeat occurrence has got me asking something so simple, I’m amazed it’s slipped my mind for so long: how can any Catholic actually be excited to vote for a major-party presidential candidate in 2016?

I’m not talking about hold-your-nose Trump voters; I don’t care about those defecting to Hillary because they can’t tolerate Trump’s immaturity. These are positions I can readily comprehend, even if I myself do not agree (I’ve already voted. More on that here). What has taken more thought is how people with sincere (or so one hopes) religious convictions can twist and shout for two of the least likeable—and likely least efficacious—candidates in American history.

I have an idea.

But before I get there, I’d like to make one thing clear: I am not concerned with for whom a Catholic can licitly vote. If you’d like a well-reasoned (and not too long) guide, this piece is very helpful (and honest, unlike a lot of what lots of well-intentioned Catholics are disseminating). But again, my interest here is in the why and how of Catholic politicking, not debated ecclesiastical restrictions.

Especially on the Trump side, there’s been a notable shift: people who supported other Republicans like Cruz going from anti-, to tepid, to rabidly pro-Trump. It’s the sort of political miracle we see every four years, but on a grander scale, with more intensity. Strangely enough, I actually know more Bernie supporters who remain tepidly pro-Clinton than I do ex-Cruz supporters who remain tepidly pro-Trump. Many of the latter have simply sold themselves, jumped on the Trump wagon and now speak of the absolute necessity of a Republican victory. By contrast, lots of ex-Bernie people remain highly critical of Clinton, either voting for her or abstaining entirely.

In a sense, this isn’t all that weird. Parties always push their members to support whomever they nominate. This was, of course, what happened when Hillary supporters flocked to Obama after the 2008 Democratic primaries.

In most elections, though, the primary candidates are not all that different. Getting Obama over Hillary upset a few people because of the historical import of the nomination, but ultimately their politics are two different shades of blue, so to speak. It’s typically the same with the Republicans—even though Romney and Santorum were very different in some ways, their differences were clearly bridgeable. In these cases, it’s easy enough to support the new nominee with nearly the same fervor as your favored candidate.

In 2016, this was not so. Bernie supporters initially held out on Hillary. Trump, the joke candidate, crushed his serious rivals—establishment and rebel, setting off alarm bells for “real conservatives.” Now, it’s like a normal election year on growth hormone. Anti-Trumpers, totally sensible Catholics, are now campaigning for him with more fervor than I have ever seen from, well, virtually anyone in an election year. I’ve seen less, but some of the same from ex-Bernie supporters (for Hillary, that is).

There are lots of obvious reasons: the opponent is especially unlikeable, misinformation regarding Catholic voting obligations, the apocalyptic tone this entire year seems to have taken on. But these are all symptoms. In my view, the real problem, the cause of the symptoms, is the American Catholic idolization of politics.

It hasn’t always been this way. We didn’t always start with the principle that the winner of the election determined the eschatological essence of the future. In fact, Augustine would tell us politics is messy; it’s fallen; ultimately, it’s the sort of place worth staying out of unless you’re absolutely obligated, because there’s almost no chance that it’s not going to involve cooperation in sin.

Good enough so far—I can imagine most rabid Trump and / or Hillary supporters agreeing here. But the implication, then, is that penance is the most reasonable answer. Augustine, after commending Theodosius for his piety, goes on:

He was not like Cinna, and Marius, and Sylla, and other such men, who wished not to finish civil wars even when they were finished, but rather grieved that they had arisen at all, than wished that when they were finished they should harm any one [sic…] And what could be more admirable than his religious humility, when, compelled by the urgency of certain of his intimates, he avenged the grievous crime of the Thessalonians, which at the prayer of the bishops he had promised to pardon, and, being laid hold of by the discipline of the church, did penance in such a way that the sight of his imperial loftiness prostrated made the people who were interceding for him weep more than the consciousness of offense had made them fear it when enraged? These and other similar good works, which it would be long to tell, he carried with him from this world of time, where the greatest human nobility and loftiness are but vapor. Of these works the reward is eternal happiness, of which God is the giver, though only to those who are sincerely pious.

At the end, he’s referring to Theodosius’ submitting to the episcopal authority of St. Ambrose.

Regardless, the point is clear enough: penance takes precedence over justifying the doubtfully ethical practices of a particular candidate. And I cannot help but think that so many have begun to ignore the wrongs of their side and thereby choose a dubious idolization of politics and its power in the world over the requirements of Faith. This has never been clearer than in 2016, when both candidates are so deeply disliked, so clearly flawed, so, frankly, un-Christian.

And so my only advice can be: pick your poison, but pick it with sackcloth and ashes, not with shouting and jeers.

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