COARSE LANGUAGE, extreme rhetoric, and highly charged exchanges—Nick Cafardi, Catholic lawyer and voter, is tired of them. The professor of law at Duquesne, a Catholic university in Pittsburgh, doesn’t claim to have a simple, surefire solution to the negativity in the U.S. political system. But he does offer an intriguing, if challenging, path to get there: holiness, through a fully informed conscience.

“It is our job to be holy, to be holy in everything that we do, including when we vote,” says Dr. Cafardi, who is the editor of Voting and Holiness: Catholic Perspectives on Political Participation (Paulist Press, 2011) and writes the introductory chapter. Other leading Catholic thinkers, teachers and writers contribute essays that explore the connection between politics and religion.

St. Anthony Messenger turned to Dr. Cafardi to ask how we got to the troubling state we’re in and how we can surmount it. In particular, we wanted to know how Catholics and other well-meaning citizens can play a constructive role in the way they go through the 2012 campaigns—local, state, and, most important, national.

Though he is no political junkie (“I just follow the broad strokes”), Dr. Cafardi, 63, is an informed and committed Catholic who is eager to put the focus on the positive and to “get beyond campaign ads that seek to destroy the reputation, the character, and the good name of candidates. We need to advance the political discourse in our country. We cannot live in armed camps on either side of a great divide. Sometimes it feels we’re headed that way,” he laments.

Dr. Cafardi holds two legal degrees: one in canon law from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, the other a civil law degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Today, as a faculty member at Duquesne, he teaches courses such as Family Law as well as Taxexempt Organizations and Canon Law. He also serves as president of the faculty senate.

At the invitation of the U.S. bishops, he was an original member of its National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People and served as its chair (2004-5). He is the author of Before Dallas (Paulist Press, 2008), a history of the child sexual-abuse crisis in the Church in the United States. He is often called on to represent archdioceses, dioceses, and religious orders across the nation as a canon lawyer.

Holiness and Voting

Contacted last spring, Dr. Cafardi was eager to explore the notion of holiness and voting in an hour-long telephone interview and a follow-up call. He was also ready to acknowledge that holy voting doesn’t happen easily: “Holiness in general is a struggle. Being holy is a lifelong endeavor. Voting is part of it,” he observes.

For Catholics, he believes, holy voting begins with “a fully informed Catholic conscience.” That includes awareness of Church teaching and tradition, Scripture, the extensive papal writings and teachings that exist on social-justice issues, as well as bishops’ documents. He especially values the U.S. bishops’ voting guide, commonly known as Faithful Citizenship.

“It’s the foundational document for Catholics who want to inform their consciences as citizens,” he says, “though it’s not well known among American Catholics.”

The entire document can be read in less than an hour, says Dr. Cafardi, a husband, father of two grown sons, and grandfather of two whose own teaching, writing, Church and other professional involvements put his schedule somewhere between demanding and grueling.

“I’m a type A. I’m driven,” he offers in a tone that suggests he’s very driven. He has little patience for excuses like “Sorry, I’m much too busy” or “I just don’t have the energy for serious reading at the end of a long day.”

“Please find the time,” he pleads. “This is an important moral obligation, one we cannot delegate to others to tell us what to do.”

In Faithful Citizenship the bishops acknowledge that American politics can, at times, be nothing more than a contest of powerful interests and partisan attacks, of sound bites and media hype. But they call for something more—a different kind of political engagement, one shaped by moral convictions in search of the common good.

“I find the document to be very well written, very nuanced,” says Professor Cafardi. “The bishops speak of the need to protect the dignity of human life from unborn children to the vulnerable and the sick, the unwanted and the elderly. Certainly for any informed Catholic conscience, the life issues are going to be front and center.”

Ultimately, he says, “the voter makes prudential judgments based on his or her informed conscience.”

Facing Challenges

Getting to that place can be a challenge, he acknowledges, because Catholics “may come to different conclusions or could see issues differently.” As the bishops note in Faithful Citizenship (no. 42), Catholics should not be single-issue voters when they are weighing one candidate against another. They certainly came to different conclusions in 2008: in that election, 54% of Catholics voted for Barack Obama compared to 45% for John McCain.

The Iraq war offers another example. “There were some who thought that it met the criteria for a just war,” Dr. Cafardi recalls. “But there were other Catholics who thought they heard in
the pleas of Pope John Paul II against the war that it did not meet those criteria—and did not vote for the candidate who would prolong the war.”

For Cafardi, one of the clearest areas of concern, as a Catholic who strives to be holy in his voting, is the pursuit of the common good through the protection of the weak and the vulnerable. It goes to the heart of his faith. “I believe that government is another word for what we have chosen to do together: loving other people as we love ourselves. Jesus Christ commanded us to love others.”

That commandment compels Dr. Cafardi to confront social evils in the best way he can. “There are so many evils in society that are incapable of solution except on a society-wide basis. Sometimes, one-on-one personal charity is not enough.”

He believes in supporting candidates who back programs “that help me help my neighbors who have no food, who are poor, who lack adequate health care.” He adds solemnly, “We are going to be judged by how we treat the least among us.”

Ironically, he himself struggles with Church teaching on what he calls “probably the most important issue” Catholic voters weigh—abortion. “I see abortion as an abhorrent act,” he emphasizes. “I have absolutely no doubt that life starts at conception, and I think abortion ends that life. But I do understand that some women literally feel they have no choice” because “society is not there to support them.”

He notes that the Church has a history of helping women facing unwanted pregnancies. “That’s what we should be doing. Anybody who is thinking about having an abortion should be able to walk to the nearest Catholic Church . . . for help. We can be proud that the help is there—and that the Church consistently supports legislation that will provide a safety net.”

Clearly, holy voting doesn’t offer simple answers to complex questions, and it doesn’t mean a slam dunk for one political party or the other when Catholics are in the voting booth. But that’s just how it should be, Dr. Cafardi believes.

“It’s never good for the Church to be seen as partial to one side or the other,” says Dr. Cafardi (who himself is partial to Gregorian chant and mystery novels). “Once the Church is perceived to be partisan, it begins to lose credibility. It has a way of sapping the vigor from the Church’s ability to teach credibly on moral issues.”

Professor Cafardi wants his Church and its teachings guiding him. But as a recognized authority in the law of nonprofit organizations, he is especially wary if the Church would seek to steer him or its members toward voting for or against particular candidates or parties. “Tax-exempt organizations aren’t allowed to participate in electoral campaigns, and I think that’s a good rule. The combination of religion and politics historically has been toxic.”

Not that he wants to exile discussion of religious issues and religious values from the public square. “They are an important part of the discussion,” he believes.

He welcomes the voices of the U.S. bishops. “There are aspects of our culture that are moving away (or moved away long ago) from what the Church teaches on same-sex marriage, birth control, the sanctity of marriage. Our Church is going to find itself—and this may not be a bad thing—more and more countercultural.

“We need to continue to engage the culture, to reevangelize the culture. There’s a richness in Catholic social teaching that I find—and most people find—very appealing. The Church has so much to offer the current culture and the current political debate.”

Voting with Faith

On November 4, Dr. Nicholas Cafardi plans to attend Sunday Mass at his parish, St. Catherine of Siena, in Crescent, Pennsylvania. His pediatrician-wife of almost 35 years, Kathleen A. Shepard, will likely be with him. He hopes to use “the grace of the Eucharist” to make his final decisions about how he will vote two days later.

Has he ever been surprised at where his prayer and preparation take him? Has he ever ended up voting in ways he wouldn’t have anticipated?

“Yes, of course,” he responds. “The self-education that is required in order to inform one’s conscience can always take you to unexpected places if you do it honestly. But one is never completely sure. We wouldn’t be human beings if we were completely certain that we are doing the right thing.”

 

Fourth Century Theologian or 21st-Century Pundit?

From St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), one of the most distinguished theologians in the early Church, come words that, some speculate, could qualify him for a job as a well-paid political pundit during this year’s elections.

“Let us, on both sides, lay aside all arrogance. Let us not, on either side, claim that we have already discovered the truth.”

Ironically, the quotation, which dates to 397, has become something of an online political lightning rod between the right and the left. Some insist the fuller context in which Augustine spoke the words is important—and missing. Others welcome them as wisdom and an antidote to today’s toxic political environment.

The divisiveness itself is a metaphor for Election 2012.

We Can Do Better

Few would say the American electoral system is perfect. Many would say it’s dysfunctional. Dr. Nicholas Cafardi offers a few prescriptions for Catholic voters and other well-meaning persons, as we officially move into the political season.

Do not question the motives of people who have different opinions from you. “The fact that we don’t agree doesn’t make people on the other side evil. It doesn’t even necessarily make them wrong. We could be the wrong ones.”

Beware of negative advertising, especially as a result of the influx of money from political action committees. “Having unlimited money available whose only purpose is to tear down the opposition is not good for our politics or our country.”

When evaluating candidates, look not only at what they say, but also at what they have done. “Check their voting records to see that they have acted the way they are speaking—with integrity.”

Note that some politicians “use religion for their own purposes.” When candidates for office try to use religion to add to their vote totals, “it’s a misuse of faith. Our Church is meant to be a means of salvation.”

When engaging others in political discussion, “bring Christ with you—not by presuming to know ‘This is what Christ would do or think’ and not by using him as a club. Ask yourself how Christ would act in this situation. Would the Lord tear this person down? Or would the Lord, in fact, show respect and love for the person with the opposing viewpoint?”

“Stay engaged. Be informed. Be charitable. Be humble.”