Wikileaks has been active in these latter days of the 2016 Presidential Election; the organization has released thousands of emails from Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s election team. However, these potentially damaging missives are blunted by nearly round-the-clock news coverage concerning multiple alleged sexual assaults by Republican candidate Donald Trump. Likewise, the polls demonstrate the voting public’s serious misgivings about both candidates. As a result, the two main candidates are in a statistical “dead heat” as the campaigns march on to Election Day on November 8th.

In his First Things article from October 13th, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia responded to recent anti-Catholic remarks that have been attributed to the candidate’s staff as part of these leaked emails. He clearly expressed his wish that the former Secretary of State would decry their sentiments. At the same time, Archbishop Chaput expressed his disappointment in the paltry “menu” of our Presidential choices ahead of Election Day.

Indeed, the choices are slim for serious-minded, informed Catholic voters. Both of the major candidates have serious flaws; candidates from the alternative parties have virtually no chance at election, and perhaps for good reason.

Nevertheless, we ought not to despair as passions run deep and rhetoric turns shrill during the campaign’s final weeks. From a purely historical standpoint, the Presidency has endured through assassinations, impeachments, resignations, and terrorism. Moreover, a deeper theological reflection on basic Catholic teachings concerning our participation in the political process yields far more cause for hope.

Using the time-tested sources of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, as well as thoughts from Archbishop Chaput and others, I offer a few insights to Catholic Voters. In doing so, I hope to capture the essence of faithful witness as we go to the ballot boxes in the coming weeks.

Remember: We Live in a Fallen World

The myriad moral and humanitarian problems in our world makes sense only if we accept the thesis: we live in a fallen world. For Catholics, this truth means that we constantly fall short of what God expects from us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls this inclinations to sin “concupiscence” (Catechism, para. 1264). Thus, we should not expect our political leaders to be perfect. Still, we are responsible to God to do our best, and so are our elected officials.

A few years ago, Archbishop Chaput wrote Render unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Random House, 2012), a helpful text that draws from the heroic Catholic saints and striving Catholic politicians throughout Church and American history. One of the Archbishop’s exemplars who chose integrity over politics is St. Thomas More. However, we should not lionize St. Thomas because he was a martyr. Instead, we should admire him because he did not want to be one. When faced with the ultimate, fundamental choice of obedience to the king or to his God, though, St. Thomas chose the latter.

“More was deeply skeptical of human power. He understood that every political system would need to struggle to keep the inevitable human faults of its leaders in check – which is why obedience to proper authority and law was at the heart of More’s political vocation” (Chaput, 2011, p. 166).

And More’s powerful political witness still applies today more than ever, according to Archbishop Chaput. While martyrdom is not expected from American politicians, they could very easily lose their earthly reputation, along with their careers (p. 168).

The Archbishop of Philadelphia joins his brother Bishops in the U. S. in reminding us that moral weakness is a part of the human condition. In their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, they point out that all structures of social sin are rooted in personal sin. Citing the Catechism, the U. S. Bishops affirm that we “must address our own failures and the ways in which these failures distort the broader ordering of the society in which we live.” Such actions include reflecting on the areas of politics and education, where our “wounded nature” can lead to serious errors (para. 9, cf. Catechism, para. 407).

That, as one might say, is the bad news. While it is true that sin is always with us, it does not have the final answer. Jesus Christ has redeemed the world, founded the Church, and instituted the sacraments. We live in a graced world, with God’s help readily available to us. More importantly, the sin of others cannot keep us from the Kingdom of God. Now, we can turn to the positive steps that we can take as we choose the next President.

Praying for Our Political Leaders

Prayer is at the top of St. Paul’s list of activities regarding Christian conduct in his First Letter to Timothy. It is also no coincidence that he urges us to pray first for “kings and all in authority,” because it is “pleasing to God our savior” (1 Tim 2:2-3). We might also infer that by praying for them, they might be saved by God, “who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Could God turn the heart of even the most cynical, Machiavellian politician? If God can change St. Paul from persecutor of Christians to the Apostle to the Gentiles, I think it is safe to answer affirmatively!

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also encourages us to pray for authorities with these words from Pope St. Clement of Rome:

“Direct, Lord, their counsel, following what is pleasing and acceptable in your sight, so that by exercising with devotion and in peace and gentleness the power that you have given to them, they may find favor with you” (Catechism, para. 1900).

It is important to notice that neither Pope St. Clement nor St. Paul urged us to pray only for the candidate for whom we voted!

More importantly,we must remember that in the U. S., the President’s power is supposed to be limited by the other two branches of government. We can also pray for each elected and appointed member of our government.

But prayer is only one side of the coin. Even if we lack enthusiasm for the Executive Office’s candidates, perhaps we can at least vote for those faithful legislators who enact our laws. How do we determine who is (or at least might be) faithful to our core beliefs?

Sins of Commission and Omission

At Mass, we pray the Confiteor, where we seek forgiveness for “what I have done, and what I have failed to do.” As we vote this November, these words have struck me during my prayerful reflections. Given the rather poor choices, is it possible simply to not vote?

On the one hand, there are certainly some issues which are non-negotiable for Catholics to be able to vote in good conscience for a candidate. Typically, care and protection for the unborn is at the head of that list. Here, one party’s candidate has a long, clear record of voting against the most innocent of citizens. However, the other candidate has no Congressional record, though he now claims to be pro-life. The quest to uphold the sanctity of every human life from conception to natural death will most certainly return to the Supreme Court during the next President’s term; there is already one vacancy on the High Court, with a few more likely to follow as some long-serving Justices begin to retire. It is the President’s duty to nominate the Supreme Court’s new members and the Senate’s role to “advise and consent” (or withhold that consent). As Pope Francis recently reminded us, we “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice” (Evangelii Gaudium, para. 183). Staying home, then, is not really an option for us.

On the other hand, this call to justice does not mean that we must vote for any candidate. The U. S. Bishops teach that responsible, faithful citizenship is a virtue, and “participation in political life is an obligation” (Forming Consciences, para. 13). If, in good conscience, we truly cannot support a candidate, then we can leave the “box” unchecked for that candidate. Refusing to vote for a poor candidate can be both prudent and just. In fact, it might be an even more fruitful way of transforming American politics! The Bishops go on to write:

“As citizens, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts” (Forming Consciences, para. 14 – emphasis added).

And here is where the true “sin of omission” can be found. It is not sinful to refuse to vote for candidates who, in our estimation, are unfit for the Executive Office. In fact, it might help the losing party to consider our strongly held beliefs as it looks ahead to 2020 by withholding our vote. Instead, we fall short when we fail to inform our consciences according to the Church’s norms.

So, we arrive at the critical moment of decision in these last weeks of the 2016 Presidential Election. We are also in the final month of the jubilee Year of Mercy, which is a wonderful opportunity to ask that God’s mercy might wash over our land! We ought to pray for our leaders, that our Lord might guide them to be the faithful stewards of our rights. When we do vote for a candidate, let our choice be informed by the Good News instead of a political platform. Rather than tuning in nightly to the “scream machine” of extensive yet superficial discourse, perhaps we can prayerfully turn to our sources for faithful, Catholic citizenship.