Cascadia Catholics

A left-leaning Catholic discussion forum.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Truth Matters

People my age and older like to go around asking each other this question: “Where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot?” You see, this was such a shocking event that we can never forget the moment when first we heard the news. Something like 9/11, I imagine.

Well, I don’t remember where I was, not really. In school, I figure, but the day’s a blank in my mind.

It's tough to admit that I turned 50 this year, but there you go. That means I was six years old when Kennedy was shot; old enough to remember his funeral, Jackie and the kids, that riderless horse, my father’s tears… But I don’t remember when or how I was told that someone had shot and killed the President.

But what’s interesting, I think, is that I do remember Oswald’s death. Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by a mafia thug named Jack Ruby, two days after Kennedy was killed. I remember Jack Ruby, boy. I remember his hat, his black suit, his gun shoved into Oswald’s gut. And I remember Oswald’s “Ooooof!” as he was shot dead on national TV.

Now to my small mind, this was some kind of perfect justice. Boy, was I glad they got the guy who shot our president! When I mentioned the happy news to my father, he just looked at me, this grinning six year old kid, and then he told me something I will never forget: “But don’t you see?” he said, “Oswald was the only person who knew why Kennedy was shot, and now he’s dead. Now, we will never know the truth.” And suddenly, for the first time in my life, I got it. I understood. “Oh,” I said. “Ohh… Ohhhhhhh!!!”

I spent the rest of the week trying to convince my little friends that they shouldn’t be so glad that Oswald got killed. Some of them got it. But most didn’t. Few things ever change, I guess. So that’s what I remember from those days, one choice little epiphany; and I’ve been in a bad mood ever since.

So what does this have to do with conscientious voting? Well, maybe I should start again.


Some weeks back I was asked to give this talk on how I, a conscientious Catholic, apply my values to the political realm – specifically, to how I vote. Key to any Catholic's formation of conscience is an understanding of Church teachings.

1. So the first thing to do is study the Social Teachings of the Church, which have been conveyed to us through Papal letters, encyclicals, council documents, and Holy Scripture. Together they express some key themes about the life and dignity of the human person. Namely: Our innate human rights, including the right to life – which is primary; the preferential option for the poor and most vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; the solidarity of humanity regardless of national, racial, ethnic, or ideological differences; the rights of nations; the care of God’s creation; and an overall obligation to promote the Common Good for all people.

2. Second, we must discern the good of social issues as we come to know them in the concrete, circumstantial experiences of our lives. Remember, there is a law written on every human heart which aids us in this discernment. This Natural Law is based on the notion that truth is knowable, and that we have access to the truth. This is important, and I’ll be getting back to it.

3. Third, we reflect on what we’ve learned, what we’ve experienced, and pray for God’s guidance.

4. Fourth, we take a hard look at the candidates and their political parties – not only to ensure that they profess these values, but that their actions manifest what they profess; that there is a real, workable, social benefit as a result of their actions.

5. Fifth and finally, we must take action. We apply the virtue of prudence, or moral wisdom, to the act of voting, trusting that the political process will bear out our good intentions, and that our elected officials will carry out their promises.

So voting itself is a moral action that Catholics should take very seriously. It is also, to a certain extent, the duty and obligation of every Catholic to participate fully in the political process.

Now I happen to know that Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement made a point of never voting. This always struck me as an odd position to take, as I think anyone so committed to serving the poor, and so politically minded as Dorothy Day indeed was, would leap at the chance to actively express her values in the voting booth. But she had no use for it. She considered the political system so corrupt, that to vote at all was to participate – even marginally – with evil. Well, few of us are as radical as Dorothy Day. Fewer yet as sainted.

But I’m certainly not of that mind – though I suspect I could get there. For me, being politically active means taking sides in our country’s two-party system, and I come down hard on the side of the Democratic Party. I always have.

Now contrary to what you just heard, Kennedy’s assassination did not seal me as a Democrat. At six years old? Give me a break! I was a Democrat long before Kennedy was shot. My parents were good, union-card-carrying Catholic Democrats - which was a perfectly normal thing to be in those days. In our house, there was never a question of which party to support. There were issues, sure, and we argued about them plenty, but there were never disloyalties. I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life. That’s not my dilemma, believe me. I am a Democrat precisely because the Democratic Party was formed by Catholics and based on the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. This is our party.

Historically, it was the party of immigrants and labor unions. In 1928, New York’s Democratic Governor, Al Smith was the first Catholic candidate ever nominated in this country. He ran for president on such progressive issues as Civil Rights and fair labor practices, as they were outlined in Rerum Novarum: that “… wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.” Anti-Catholic bigotry and corporate interests did him in by a landslide, and the economy collapsed the following year under Herbert Hoover.

Monsignor John Ryan shaped the New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, from Quadragesimo Anno: “… the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.” Fr. Ryan helped pull this country out of the Great Depression and, for so many, out of devastating poverty. Roosevelt was no Catholic and he didn’t much care for them, but he listened to their guidance and he took their advice.

In the 60’s John Kennedy established the Peace Corps and the New Frontier (later the Great Society), he championed Civil Rights and proclaimed an all-out War on Poverty. When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate even mention poverty? [Besides, incidentally, John Edwards.]

So then what happened to all these Catholic minded Democrats? Well, I think we know. Two were assassinated – which ended an era. Then, in 1973, abortion was legalized in this country. And in an attempt at what I consider to be some misguided appeasements, the Democratic Party ran on a platform that was radically Pro-Choice. As a result, many Catholics simply walked away. [And the Party let them go, too, saying that was just fine with them, ‘bye-bye!’ In essence, I think, the Democratic Party left the Catholic voter, not the other way around.]

Still, a lot of us stayed. I stayed because I’m fiercely loyal, tenacious, and pragmatic. I don’t want to see my Party led by the likes of NARAL, or any other tunnel-visioned faction. I stayed because this is my Party, and I believe in the principles that have formed it.

Now there’s talk that maybe Catholics should go make up their own third party, one that is wholly pro-life. That might sound well and good, but a lame third party would only serve to disenfranchise the Catholic vote, and that would be tragic for our country.

I’m not going to go vote Republican. Are you nuts?

So where does that leave me? Just a lonely voice under the big tent of dissident, disorganized Democrats. But you know, I am working to bring the Democratic Party back to her moral roots. I go to my Party caucuses. I was a delegate in 2004. I’ve spoken up for life issues when the party platform was being debated. I mean, how can we engage in the political dialogue if we don’t even show up for the discussion? It takes more than a bumper sticker to change the course of this country. It takes involvement, imagination, and the guts to say: “These things are wrong, here’s how we might change them.”

Still, I would rather stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside someone with whom I have a deep, honest and profound disagreement, than stand in the same room – the same arena even – with a liar who tells me everything I want to hear.

This is the key point. It gets back to the whole issue of truth I touched on earlier. You can’t form a Catholic Moral Conscience without access to the truth – which I don’t think we have – and without caring very deeply about it.

When government officials spin, distort, waffle and down-right lie to us, then we no longer have access to the truth. When the media, which has an overriding corporate interest in forming public beliefs… when the media no longer reports the crucial news of the day, no longer asks the tough questions of our leaders, no longer investigates incompetence and corruption, then we no longer have access to the truth. And when our Judicial system turns a blind eye to criminal activity at the highest levels, then our country has lost its moral compass, truth becomes irrelevant, and only power – raw power – is left to rule, creating its own reality.

Listen carefully to what Pope Benedict XVI had to say just last year, on World Peace Day, in a message he called: “In Truth, Peace”

Who and what, then, can prevent the coming of peace? Sacred Scripture… points to the lie told at the very beginning of history… Lying is linked to the tragedy of sin and its perverse consequences, which have had, and continue to have, devastating effects on the lives of individuals and nations. We need but think of the events of the past century, when aberrant ideological and political systems willfully twisted the truth and brought about the exploitation and murder of an appalling number of men and women... After experiences like these, how can we fail to be seriously concerned about lies in our own time, lies which are the framework for menacing scenarios of death in many parts of the world? Any authentic search for peace must begin with the realization that the problem of truth and untruth is the concern of every man and woman; it is decisive for the peaceful future of our planet.

Who do you think he’s talking to?

You see, what I learned that day in 1963, the insight that has remained with me to this day, is this: Truth matters. It really does. Because there are powers in this world that are bigger than good guys and bad guys; bigger than cowboy sheriffs; bigger than presidents, governments and even nations. We come to know these powers by the way they speak to us: which is never honest, never humble, and never true.

You want to know how to comport yourself as a conscientious Catholic? It’s really not that complicated. You study the issues, you study and honor the teachings of the Church, and you love and demand the truth above your own life, your own ego, your own loyalties, prejudices, and even your own perceptions of God. Then speak truth to power, it’s a sin to tell a lie.