Commentary: What does it mean to be a ‘good Catholic’?

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Back in the 1980s, during a holiday get-together, one of the family elders, who was known for sweeping declarations, made a sweeping declaration:

“You can’t be a Republican,” she said, “and be a good Catholic.”

From couch to couch, we looked at each other and smiled gently. This woman in her 70s was upset with the efforts of GOP politicians at the time to cut services to the needy and boost military spending, including nuclear arms. But those of us in the room, good Catholics all, knew it wasn’t that simple.

Roman Catholicism may have a pope who has the ex cathedra power, used rarely, to state that a particular dogma is absolutely and essentially at the core of the faith. But the reality is that the church’s nearly 1.3 billion adherents across the globe have a wide range of personal and often idiosyncratic views about what is most important in the Catholic belief system.

That holiday family scene came back to me recently when I heard that a priest in La Crosse, Wisconsin, put up a YouTube video in which he asserted, “You cannot be Catholic and be a Democrat.”

Later, in an interview, the Rev. James Altman labeled liberal Catholics and other liberals as “fascist bullies,” acting “just like Hitler’s Nazis did.” For him, the only test of whether one is a Catholic is whether one supports Republican candidates, especially President Donald Trump, because of their opposition to abortion.

You don’t have to be Catholic to know that the church has long taught that abortion is morally wrong.

By the same token, you’re also likely to know that, for millenniums, popes and Catholic teaching have prophetically warned the world against a host of other moral wrongs. For instance, a half-century ago, Pope Paul VI told the United Nations, “War no more. War never again.” St. Pope John Paul II was a staunch opponent of capital punishment, and, following on his lead, the present pope preached its abolition.

In addition, Pope Francis has called for a “broad cultural revolution” to confront and make amends for “our sin” of destroying the natural environment, and he has preached against huge income disparities as the result of “the idolatry of money.”

At times, individual priests and bishops assert that Catholic citizens need only consider one issue — abortion — when casting their votes, but the official church has never done so.

So, I got to wondering: What would Citizen Jesus do?

I doubt he would vote for Joe Biden simply because he’s Catholic. And I doubt he would vote for Trump solely because the president has nominated another Catholic to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

The thing is: Jesus never wrote out a political platform. All he had to say about politics — “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” — leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Of course, Christians have spent 2,000 years interpreting what he said and what he did.

For me, I don’t think so much about who’s a “good Catholic.” I think more about who Jesus said were “blessed.” According to Matthew’s gospel, he spelled this out in the Sermon on the Mount. (Luke’s gospel has fewer items, and says the sermon was on a plain, not on a hill. Just another example of the ambiguities around Jesus.)

I would never claim to know how Citizen Jesus would vote in November. But it seems to me that the Beatitudes — the “blesseds” — from the Sermon on the Mount would come into play as he got ready to mark his ballot.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says as he starts. Blessed, too, he says, are those grieving, the meek, the merciful and the clean of heart.

He’s describing people who are on the edges of things, not those in the center of power or trying to get there. No politician is going to fit that description, but maybe the measure of candidates is the degree to which they see these people on the margins as blessed.

Jesus has two other things to say: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. … Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Oh, and one more: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Great saints and great geniuses over the past 20 centuries have struggled to understand what Jesus is saying in that sermon and what the implications are for those who want to follow his example and live by his teaching.

I can’t say what Citizen Jesus would do in five weeks. But when Citizen Reardon goes to vote, I’m going to keep those Beatitudes in mind.



Patrick T. Reardon is the author of nine books, including “Faith Stripped to Its Essence: A Discordant Pilgrimage Through Shusaku Endo’s ‘Silence,’” the poetry collection “Requiem for David” and the forthcoming “The Loop: The ‘L’ Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago.”


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