Catholicism and Citizenship

"I can’t be a good citizen if I don’t love my country," says Stephen White. "That doesn’t mean ignoring the country’s flaws and failings. … It does mean that I strive to do what’s best for my country…"


Perhaps no election is recent memory has left faithful Catholics so perplexed as to how exercise faithful citizenship. Stephen White (no relation to this article’s author), a Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, has penned a helpful new book, Red, White, Blue, and Catholic, which serves as a helpful guide to understanding what it means to be both a faithful Catholic and a dutiful citizen. He recently spoke with CWR about the nature of citizenship, love of country, and what Catholics can do to help society recover a true and robust understanding of family, community, and citizenship.

CWR: Faithful citizenship is far more than just voting—but is the “Catholic vote” still important in U.S. politics today?

Stephen White: Roughly a quarter of American voters are Catholic, which means that in terms of sheer numbers the Catholic vote matters tremendously. The deeper, more complicated, question is whether—and to what degree—the voting behavior of Catholics is influence by their being Catholic. Do Catholics vote in a way that is distinctively Catholic? As I said that’s a much more complicated question, but the short answer is: not as much as we might hope.

CWR: You note that in the book that at the heart of good citizenship is love. What do you mean by this?

Stephen White: I can’t be a good citizen if I don’t love my country. That doesn’t mean ignoring the country’s flaws and failings. That doesn’t mean making excuses for it. It does mean that I strive to do what’s best for my country: to make her better, to heal her wounds, to strive against her vices and work to promote her virtues. All of that is work best accomplished in love.

CWR: The Church speaks a lot about both the role of civil society and the individual person. What is the proper relationship between the two?

Stephen White: Society exists because of the kind of “thing” the human person is. We were made by God—in His image and likeness—and made for communion—with others and ultimately with the Holy Trinity. So our forming and entering into civil society is an expression of our personhood.

The good of the person and the good of society are mutually reinforcing. If society doesn’t protect the person, society fails to do what it exists to do; and if individuals shirk their responsibilities to others and to society, the conditions for their own flourishing will cease to exist.

CWR: If family is “the font of civil society,” how can we as Catholics help society to recover a true understanding of this, particularly since our culture and our legal system has tried to separate sex and marriage, the two essential things that help form a true family?

Stephen White: The simplest answer is also the hardest answer: Live family life as the life-giving, God-imaging, vocation it is, rather than a life-style choice aimed at personal fulfillment. As the Pope Francis insisted in Amoris Laetitia, “The Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed!” A Christian family life is not only possible, it’s attractive—especially amidst the wreckage of the sexual revolution.

CWR: When Pope Francis spoke to Congress last September he spoke in support of the work of the U.S. Bishops to end capital punishment. Most non-Catholics are aware of the Church’s opposition to abortion, but fewer know about the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. Do you think this could be a bridge-building issue?

Stephen White: That depends on what divide you’re hoping to bridge. Sparing a few dozen (presumably) guilty lives every year—however worthy and noble that work may be—doesn’t seem likely to heal the gaping wound caused by, e.g., the eradication of nearly a million innocent lives through abortion every year.

That’s not to say the Church shouldn’t work to end the death penalty—recent efforts by the bishops in Nebraska are noteworthy and admirable—but the question was about bridge-building and I just don’t see this issue as the way forward.

CWR: For years there has been an impasse between so-called “social justice Catholics” and “pro-life Catholics.” Wouldn’t both sides benefit by offering a united front in the religious freedom battles, particularly if both sides seek to help the poor?

Stephen White: I certainly think a unified defense of religious freedom would be a good thing. When the government refuses to allow the Church to take her proper place in society, it hurts the Church, but it is society itself which suffers most because it’s denied the presence of the Church!

Some of the lack of political cooperation among Catholic reflects a simple failure to set aside secondary differences in order to work toward common ends. That said, I think there are also real disagreements within the Church about the nature of the Church and thus its relationship to, and role in, society.

CWR: What are some practical ways that families and individuals can actively improve their communities, and as a result, be better citizens?

Stephen White: I’ve already mentioned family life. In the book I offer a variety of specific suggestions. One of my favorites—and maybe this is just because it’s getting to be grilling season—is that we should celebrate our national holidays with enthusiasm. Not only are holidays like Memorial Day and the 4th of July great chances to spend time with family and neighbors; their opportunities to remind ourselves of what’s good about our country.

These days it’s easy to focus on the bad. But it helps to take time to remember the good, too. Gratitude is a catalyst for love, and good citizenship is rooted in love. So celebrating national holidays is to citizenship what a good date night is to a marriage.

CWR: And finally, for the hot button question: Many Catholics feel as if the two leading contenders for President this November will leave them unable to vote for either. Could faithful citizenship include not voting for something as important as the Presidential election?

Stephen White: There’s no obligation to vote for a moral reprobate, even if the only other candidate is also a moral reprobate. In “extraordinary” circumstances a Catholic might refuse to cast a ballot. But in those same circumstances, one might judge a vote for the lesser of two evils to be appropriate.

However one resolves the dilemma presented by this year’s election, two points are worth remembering: First, the presidency isn’t the only office up for election this year; there are lots of other races that Catholics certainly ought to vote in, even if they won’t cast a vote for president. Second, this election is almost certainly going to be a cause of division between and among Americans, even (perhaps especially) between folks who usually agree with one another about politics.

So my advice is: let’s not let friendships and family relationships be ruined by the likes of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton!

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.