My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
With the general election coming up in just a few weeks, people are pondering and praying over their choices. Although candidates are also running for state and local offices, the presidential election this year is unprecedented and most challenging. Those who are concerned with protecting human life from conception until natural death, promoting marriage and family life, and defending religious liberty point to the Democrats’ aggressive pro-abortion stance and activist agenda expanding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, while restricting religious liberty, as expressed at the Democratic National Convention this past summer and reflected in the 2016 Democratic Party Platform. On the other hand, Republicans historically have not fared very well in these same areas in practice, as Supreme Court Justices appointed by Republican presidents in the past have rendered decisions advancing abortion rights, recognizing same-sex marriage and restricting religious freedom. Conversely, Democrats articulate strong concern for the poor, but half a century of the War on Poverty has yielded little progress in this regard.
Both candidates for president are seen as having such serious flaws as to lead some people to wonder if they can vote for either candidate of the two major parties or if they should skip voting in this year’s election. In the end, people must follow their consciences, but they should also take care to form their consciences properly and make informed decisions.
In this regard, the Catholic Bishops of the United States provide guidance in their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, saying, “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation” (no. 13). This reflects the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which reminds us, “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person … . As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (nos. 1913-1915).
The phrase “as far as possible” indicates that there may be legitimate limits to our active participation in public life. For example, priests do not normally hold public offices in the civic sphere. Voters may also legitimately conclude in conscience that they cannot vote for either candidate of the two major political parties. In such cases, voters in most jurisdictions can write in the name of a candidate of their choosing. In all cases, voters can skip voting for a particular office, but still vote for other offices on the ballot.
A phrase that has been coined to describe those who opt out of participation in political life is the “Benedict Option,” named not after Pope Benedict XVI, but St. Benedict of Nursia, who lived from about 480 to 537. St. Benedict was an educated young Christian who left Rome, the city of the recently fallen Empire, out of disgust with its decadence. He went south, into the forest near Subiaco, to live as a hermit and to pray. Eventually, he gathered around him some like-minded men, and formed monasteries. Benedict wrote his famous Rule, which became the guiding constitution of most monasteries in western Europe in the Middle Ages. The monasteries were incubators of Christian and classical culture, and outposts of evangelization in the barbarian kingdoms.
The idea of the Benedict Option was suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre, professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in his book After Virtue, in which he drew certain parallels between our own age in Western Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages, writing that a “crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another — doubtless very different — St Benedict.”
Others have suggested something more engaged with the world, such as a Dominican Option, a Franciscan Option or a Norbertine Option. In the end, however, we really do not need to choose Benedict, Dominic, Francis, Norbert or any other saint after which to name a new option. These are all wonderful saints who point us to a more compelling person. Heaven is full of saints who found different ways to imitate Christ. The real figure to whom we should configure ourselves is Jesus Christ. Moreover, Jesus Christ is not an option in the sense of being optional. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. We are called to live lives of ordinary virtue and heroic, saintly holiness in imitation of Christ, as intentional, dedicated and faithful disciples of Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
May God give us this grace. Amen.