‘Live and let live’

The 2012 national election process is beginning in earnest. We will have nine months of bickering, accusations back and forth, promises, and unending advertising. 

It gets to be tiring. Still, serious issues are at stake. The results of the November elections will set the stage for the discussion, and perhaps the resolution, of many important issues. The people whom the voters elect will be in these discussions and able, by virtue of office, to resolve the issues or not. 

It is amusing when people speak as if the members of Congress possess unlimited power and are subject to no one. Because of our system of elections, they all are responsible to the people. 

The history books are filled with the names of once seemingly invincible politicians who lost elections and thereby overnight lost their power. 

This control over government, and national destiny, exercised by the citizens precisely through elections, indeed with all the flaws in the system, vests in the voting public a serious responsibility. 

Catholics have been active in American politics for a long time. Granted, in 1800, they made little difference, being so few. With the passing of years, the number of Catholic citizens steadily and considerably increased. Today, Catholics have reached the stage whereby they can have a genuine impact on the formation of policy. Arguably, however, they have little influence. 

At first glance, this is odd. Catholic citizens should have a moral foundation on which to stand in politics. Further, they should want to assert their values. It is not about imposing their personal views on others, but giving to the lawmaking process a sound moral footing — sound because it is based on God’s revealed truth. 

Historically, even after their numbers were enough to be noted, Catholics have hesitated about voting upon the basis of their religious beliefs. True, at times, some of these beliefs, as they relate to public policy, have not been taught well or widely. On other occasions, Catholics have taken one teaching to heart but rejected another. 

Beyond these considerations, and beyond the particulars of any one issue or moral principle, is the historic Catholic American habit of lying low, a strategy by the way not unique to Catholics in American history. Many minorities have adopted this strategy. 

It comes from fear, and behind this fear is the wish to survive in a culture overwhelmingly Protestant and Anglo, as the United States once was, and now in a secular culture. 

It is “live and let live.” Building upon the constitutional guarantees of freedom, followers of this philosophy reassure the majority that if the majority lets Catholics live as they wish, Catholics will not challenge anyone else’s views. 

This attitude is as thoroughly American Catholic as supporting Notre Dame football or giving up candy for Lent. 

The modern politicians who “personally are opposed to abortion” but tolerate, or even promote, abortion in public policy squarely are within this tradition. So were presidential candidates Alfred E. Smith in 1928, John F. Kennedy in 1960, and John Kerry in 2004, but none of them, or any of the living politicians, invented this frame of mind. It was developed long, long ago. 

It is very, very strong among American Catholics yet. Add self-interest to the mix and in November 2012, very many Catholic Americans will vote, just as their forebears voted. “Live and let live.” 

Catholic Americans cannot expect every law and policy to reflect Catholic values, but Catholics would be better citizens if they believed that their moral principles would be good for the society as a whole. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.