Faith Meets Politics
Voting with a Catholic conscience
By Carolee McGrath
Fred Glidden understands the awesome privilege and responsibility that come with voting. The proud father and grandfather fought in the Korean War, put himself through college, and worked long hours as a pharmacist to support his family. He married a girl from his hometown, and together they raised four children. You could say he lived the American dream. But keeping that dream alive for all Americans is what motivates Fred every time elections roll around.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to put my Catholicity above party affiliation,” explains Fred, now a registered Independent. Fred, an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, voted Democrat for decades. It’s simply what you did where he grew up, he recalls.
“Most of my peers and my family, we belonged to that group that believed if you’re a Catholic you’re a Democrat. That’s the way you voted.”
Fred says it wasn’t until years later that his views started to shift and he started to take a hard, critical look—not only at politics but also at life itself. In an incomprehensible span of just a few years, Fred lost not one but two of his children, a son and a daughter. Both had melanoma. Both were married and left behind young children. “They were two of our jewels, the joy of our life,” he says. “It was a tough pill to swallow.”
The grief was crippling for his family. But he says God rescued him from the inescapable heartache and hopelessness and gave him a new mission. “It’s devastating. What do you do? Do you crawl in a hole, or do you try to do something?” Fred says, looking back. “We became very active in the American Cancer Society. Then we found ourselves active in the pro-life movement, because we found it [life] was so important from cradle to grave.”
Through his own grief, Fred, a member of the Knights of Columbus, has reached out to help others: the poor, the disabled, the terminally ill, and the unborn. And he puts his Catholic teaching first when he casts his vote. Sometimes, he says that means voting Democrat, sometimes Republican. “On the political side we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And you say to yourself, if you can’t have life, there’s no liberty or the pursuit of happiness. You have to start with life.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released a teaching document several years ago for Catholics to help the faithful weigh the important issues. In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops applied Church teaching to major issues and discussed the political responsibility all Catholics share. This year, the bishops added six priority issues in the introductory note of Faithful Citizenship: the protection of life from conception to natural death; religious liberty; efforts to redine marriage; the economic crisis; immigration reform; and international justice and peace.
“I think the first thing one needs to do is pray for discernment, pray for wisdom, prudence and pray for a genuine concern for human dignity and the common good,” explains Archbishop William E. Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. “The second thing that can be done is to study the Church’s teaching on social justice, read Faithful Citizenship, and become well informed quite apart from the sound and fury of the overheated political campaigns that have been underway for some time.”
Archbishop Lori chairs the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty for the USCCB, and has been out in front on the issue, testifying before Congress. Last January, the US Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate forcing Catholic institutions to pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs for their employees. He says the HHS mandate, which forces a Catholic institution to violate its conscience, should be a concern for all Catholic voters.
“I think it’s important that those running for office at every level identify where they stand on religious liberty issues. We as Catholic voters along with others who take their religion seriously should ask the candidates where they stand on these things.”
Archbishop Lori is clear that no Catholic bishop will tell people how to vote. He says Catholics need to decide for themselves and should look at the moral weight of individual issues. “There are some issues that involve intrinsic evil—that is to say they are always wrong, everywhere, under every circumstance. They are so inwardly flawed that they can never be justified—such as abortion, the taking of defenseless human life.”
He adds that there’s not always a clear choice in either party. “You might look at a given race. You have two candidates running. They both stand for something intrinsically evil, such as abortion or the redefinition of marriage. You might say, ‘I’m not going to vote for either candidate, it doesn’t matter what party they belong to.’”
Archbishop Lori says even though Catholics belong to different political parties, they can strive to transform the party from within on important Church teaching. “You have to seriously say, ‘Can I vote for this person?’ The more voters do this, the more we move the needle in the right direction.”
Catholics Called to Witness, a nonpartisan group based in Florida, is trying to encourage Catholics to live their faith at the polls and everywhere. The group was founded by a small group of Catholic couples in Florida, including Dr. Manuel and Adriana Gonzalez. They produced a video for this election cycle called Test of Fire that challenges Catholics to vote for values that will “stand the test of fire.” The clip highlights three issues: life, marriage, and the protection of parental rights in the education of their children. The video, which has had nearly two million hits on YouTube, has aired on EWTN, Catholic TV, Fox, and other local networks across the country.
“Pope Benedict XVI specifically mentioned these three non-negotiables, and that made so much sense to us,” says Adriana Gonzalez, a homeschooling mother of seven. “So many things are important, and we do need to deal with them, like taking care of the poor and needy. These are things we don’t set aside and say they don’t matter, because they do. They are biblical; Jesus told us to take care of the poor,” explains Gonzalez. “At the same time, we cannot neglect these critical, non-negotiable issues of today: life, marriage, and the right of parents to educate their children.”
Gonzalez adds the threat to religious liberty is another major concern. “I know that the Lord has put us here to communicate these truths,” continues Gonzalez. “We want to be able to say that these things need to be upheld and protected. We need to uphold our Catholic teaching in voting and in all of public life.”
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are more than 77 million Catholics in the United States. People like Adriana in Florida and Fred in Massachusetts say all Catholics have a common connection: Christ. And they’re hoping their fellow brothers and sisters will pray for discernment and lean on their Catholic teaching on voting day.
“You start to think what a mountain this is to climb, like in the Navy trying to turn around a battleship,” says Fred. “It’s difficult, but you just become more and more convinced of the righteousness of the cause and then it becomes easy, because you know you’re on the right course.”
“We encourage all citizens, particularly Catholics, to embrace their citizenship not merely as a duty and privilege, but as an opportunity meaningfully to participate in building the culture of life. Every voice matters in the public forum. Every vote counts. Every act of responsible citizenship is an exercise of significant individual power. We must exercise that power in ways that defend human life, especially those of God’s children who are unborn, disabled or otherwise vulnerable. We get the public officials we deserve. Their virtue–or lack thereof–is a judgment not only on them, but on us. Because of this we urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest.”
— Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics 34, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 1998