The Lay Apostolate

"You can't trust politicians!" This is a claim often heard these days. Perhaps we have said the same thing ourselves. It is an attitude that reflects widespread disillusionment with politicians in our society. It is also the reason offered by many people for their non-involvement in the political process.

This unfortunate attitude is clearly at odds with the approach to politics that we find in our Church's social teaching, and we need to do all we can to oppose it. Pope Pius XI wrote: "Politics has to do with the interests of the whole of society; from this angle, it is the domain of charity in its largest sense, of political charity, of the charity of the City." Vatican II stated, "The Church praises and esteems the work of those who for the good of men devote themselves to the service of the state and take on the burdens of this office" (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 75). Politics is a noble profession, dedicated to the common good. The fact that the occasional politician, like the occasional member of any other profession, may act unworthily or dishonestly, is no reason to call the political profession itself into disrepute.

Politics alone cannot bring about the kind of change in people that is only possible through religious conversion and good education. Yet it is also the case that without good laws and without good social institutions created by the legislative process, individual persons alone, no matter how good they are, or how wise they are, cannot bring about a good and just society. What politics can accomplish by itself, therefore, is limited, and yet there is no substitute for what politics can bring about.

That is why the Church insists in its social teaching on the moral responsibility that we have as Christians to be involved in the political process. Vatican II's Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, states, "All citizens, therefore, should be mindful of the right and also the duty to use their free vote to further the common good" (no. 75). When we reflect on the fact that only about half of eligible voters actually cast a vote in the last Ontario provincial election, it seems obvious that many Catholics are ignoring a serious moral obligation.

One of the features of a representative democracy like our own is that the persons we elect to office are not simply our delegates. In other words, their role is not just to canvas the views of their constituents and then reflect those views in their legislative activity. If that was their role it could be accomplished much more effectively by a computer. We need to elect people who are honest, knowledgeable, competent, committed to moral principle, and possessed of the moral virtues. The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, in a 1996 document, stated that we should also give special attention to the candidate's stand on life issues, but not ordinarily be single-issue voters. The hope is that the people we elect, possessed of the ability, the dedication, the time and the resources needed, will craft good laws to enhance the common good.

However it is not uncommon for people to say: "I don't like any of the candidates who are running. So I simply won't vote." That attitude ignores the fact that politics is also the art of the possible. That means, among other things, that we need to vote for the best person we can find among those who are running. This is the principle of accepting the lesser evil, a principle that has been reaffirmed in a number of Church social documents. For example, at the 1985 Synod of Bishops in Rome, Bishop Bernard Hubert of Canada said that we in the Church must become "accustomed to actions such as endorsing the least evil solution, relying on analyses that are never definitive nor complete, accepting the fact that, in spite of good will, a certain action can meet with failure, or that, in the sequel, a choice may even turn out to be mistaken."

Finally, we also have to vote wisely. In casting our vote, we need to consider who has a genuine chance of being elected. If the issues dividing the candidates are quite serious, then we should ask ourselves where our vote has a chance of doing the most good. So we need to consider all aspects of an election, including who has a genuine chance of winning, and then do the best we can.

Réflexions par le père Mike Ryan