Catholics are in a unique position to change the culture of partisanship and division that has plagued our political process. But to do so requires courage and an embracing of Catholic ideals and Social Teaching.
We must create a new environment in which such change can occur. To do this, Catholics first ought to engage in the public debate in a way that is civil and with a tone that calls everyone to the “better angels of our nature.” Saints Augustine and Thomas More both remind us that those we disagree with today may be in heaven with us tomorrow, and we ought to pray that this is so, and reflect this in our words.
Second, we must extend that charity in speech to actual acts of charity towards our neighbors, leading by example and extending a helping hand to all in need.
Third, we must build a consistent commitment to Catholic Social Teaching among Catholic voters in America.
We are the inheritors of a very comprehensive Catholic Social Teaching – addressing nearly every political issue from the Catholic perspective – and contributed to significantly by the Second Vatican Council, and Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
It can transform our country, if we take it seriously and learn from our country’s history.
Taking the long view, we can learn much from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Consider the situation of the Democratic Party when the Supreme Court effectively ended segregation in its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s the Democratic stronghold of the South remained in the hands of entrenched segregationists. Yet, in little more than two decades the segregationist base of the Democratic Party was gone and a Democratic governor from the Deep South committed to civil rights was elected president.
Catholic social teaching could create such a scenario again, but we must act boldly.
During the 1980s, some Catholics came to regard the “Cuomo Doctrine” as a kind of “truce” in the culture wars.
In 1984, Gov. Mario Cuomo had argued – in reference to abortion – that a Catholic politician may be against something in conscience because of his Catholic beliefs, but may still advocate for policies contrary to his conscience and beliefs lest he impose his religious views on other people.
Catholics in public life took up this idea and argued they were free to practice their faith while not taking positions consistent with fundamental Catholic teaching.
But this “peaceful co-existence” with secular culture has ended as a result of the HHS mandate.
Catholic public officials, who for years maintained that they would not impose their religious morality on others, now appear entirely comfortable with imposing secular values on their fellow Catholics and Catholic institutions.
Our bishops tell us that, if implemented, the HHS mandate will affect the autonomy and integrity of our Church and its institutions and will dramatically change the mission of the Catholic Church in the United States.
It confronts us with a challenge very different from that of social issues such as legal abortion: it is a challenge to the integrity of our Catholic institutions and our own lives as Catholics.
The HHS mandate has profoundly raised the stakes for our political choices – by targeting not simply public policy issues, but the sustainability of the mission and integrity of Catholic institutions.
In these circumstances Catholics can no longer accept politics as usual.
Today, Catholic voters must have the courage to act boldly and insist that every candidate for public office respect the autonomy, integrity and mission of the Catholic Church and its institutions and the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching such as the sanctity of human life before birth as well as the institutions of marriage and family.
Catholic voters should insist that candidates measure their political platforms by Catholic social teaching – especially if they are Catholics and should settle for nothing less.
Catholic voters should have the courage to withhold their vote from candidates who fail this test – even if it means at times that they will withhold their vote for both candidates for a particular office.
The bishops’ document, Faithful Citizenship, tells us that some actions are intrinsically evil and must always be opposed. As Catholics, we wish we could debate and vote on the full range of Catholic social teaching – including prudential issues that raise serious moral questions. But to be able to effectively do that, we must first refuse to support candidates who advocate policies that are intrinsically evil.
And withholding a vote may at times be the most effective vote.
In 2005, an Italian referendum that would have legalized in vitro fertilization and embryonic research failed because of low voter turnout. The Italian Bishops Conference had urged Catholics to boycott the referendum. Italian pundits believed that the referendum would easily pass, but what the bishops had described as the “double no” of a Catholic voter boycott reversed the expected result in a dramatic fashion.
Only days before the vote Pope Benedict XVI appeared to endorse the bishops’ strategy, noting that they were “involved in enlightening and motivating the decisions of Catholics and of all citizens concerning the upcoming referendum.”
Obviously, there is a difference between a referendum and the election of candidates, but consider what we could achieve over the next decade if we insist that politicians seek our vote on our terms: on the basis of an authentic appreciation of Catholic Social Teaching.
We once had the chance.
In the 1976 Jimmy Carter and Sargent Shriver were both seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. As we know, Jimmy Carter won the nomination and become president. But what if Shriver had won and he had gone on to become president?
Is it likely that four years later Ronald Reagan would have been able to build a winning coalition of so-called “Reagan Democrats” composed primarily of blue-collar Catholics to defeat an incumbent pro-life, Catholic President Shriver?
How would American politics have been different after eight years of a Shriver Administration rather than of a Reagan Administration?
Shouldn’t our goal as Catholics be a political environment where Catholic voters can choose between candidates who are in agreement on the fundamental social teaching of the Church?
And if so, how would that new reality change the platforms of both our major political parties regarding other principles of Catholic social teaching?
I cannot predict the answers to these questions, nor can I say which political party would benefit, nor how our political parties may change during the next decade if politicians take seriously Catholic social teaching.
But the outcome could be a new political coalition in which Catholics would play an irreplaceable role: one that is not promoting partisan politics—but is the opposite of partisanship: that transcends partisanship on the basis of Catholic social teaching.
It was in our grasp to transform American politics in 1976.
And it can be again.
No political party in America can be successful and at the same time lose a majority of Catholic voters.
The solution is as simple as this: We should exercise our right to vote on our own terms and not on the terms of others.
If we do, America will be a better place.
As Americans and as Catholics, we have a responsibility to make this happen.
There may be those who say that now is not the right time. But we must look not to the next election, but to the next decade.
Dr. King had the courage to dream a great dream, and I believe that Catholics can dream great dreams as well.
Carl Anderson is the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book is "Beyond a House Divided: What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World."