Many American Catholics are suffering a hangover from last week’s Republican convention and experiencing an equal sense of dread over this week’s Democratic convention.
Faced with the choice of candidates, the question of how a faithful Catholic should vote in the 2016 presidential election looms large.
In March of this year, a group of over 35 prominent Catholics signed a joint declaration in National Review Online arguing that Trump was “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.”
Decrying his vulgarity, his questionable commitment to life issues, his own track record on marital fidelity, and a host of other issues, this band of conservative Catholics issued a cri de coeur against Trump.
While some Catholics may attempt to cling to certain pledges he’s made to alleviate their concerns, a sizable number of Catholics, like myself, look at both his record and many of his positions and join the chorus of “Never Trump.”
Meanwhile, those following this week’s convention in Philadelphia will likely witness Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton proudly defend her support for unbridled abortion access, physician assisted suicide, capital punishment and a host of other issues that make her a poster child for the throwaway culture that Pope Francis has routinely condemned.
Those appalled by such stances — and I put my hand up here too — will conclude the week by pleading “Never Hillary.”
And while I’m content to let all parties involved exercise prudential judgment as they see fit, the fact remains that a sizable number of Catholics and other Christians are doing some deep soul searching as to how best to navigate the 2016 elections.
Maybe the answer lies not in Philadelphia or Cleveland, but here in Kraków.
Some one million plus pilgrims are gathering this week for World Youth Day—a weeklong youth festival headlined by Pope Francis.
Last week the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that this would be the third largest delegation of American pilgrims to attend a World Youth Day: 40,000 (including almost 100 bishops) are joining members of the Church worldwide to explore the theme, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.”
For those escaping the ugliness of presidential politics, this will doubtlessly prove a welcome reprieve. But the experiences gained by pilgrims in Poland can be a lesson to those back at home.
The Church’s social doctrines of solidarity and subsidiarity serve as bookends for the World Youth Day experience.
Pilgrims sleep on gymnasium floors, forgo proper meals and showers, walk countless miles from event to event, and find themselves fueled only by the realization that their fellow pilgrims from Nigeria or Bolivia they end up next to on a park bench or a crowded tram possess a shared love of Jesus Christ and his Church.
Cultural differences, while contributing to the flavor of the event, are no barriers to friendship.
Indeed, it’s this introduction to individuals from a wide range of life experiences that forge meaningful connections and provide witness to the universality of the Church.
The next time these pilgrims hear of an earthquake in a faraway land or the plight of migrants, that place is no longer foreign — it’s the homeland of their fellow World Youth Day pilgrim and they stand in solidarity with them.
Yet along with the global attraction of World Youth Day, it’s very often a formative time for individual pilgrims to deepen their bonds with their own communities.
The overwhelming majority of pilgrims will travel to Kraków not as sole adventurers, but with their parish, school, or family, and it’s here that they come to know each other in a richer, deeper way.
The pilgrim experience, defined by high levels of both fun and fatigue, is a time of vulnerability where individuals that have known each other their entire lives see a new side of one another and gain new perspectives for viewing each other and the world around them.
World Youth Day is a time when pilgrims learn what matters most—both for themselves and their neighbors.
They may be drawn to the event by the celebrity attraction of Pope Francis, but what they will take away has much more to do with their experiences in the fields and streets, rather than the man on the main stage.
And that may be the lesson many of us can take into the 2016 presidential election.
Just as World Youth Day invites pilgrims to see both the larger world and also their local settings in a new light, so this presidential election is revealing something important about how we think of politics. Too often we’re so captivated by the power and prestige of the highest office of the land that we forget about what’s happening in our own backyards.
When is the last time that we even thought to give serious consideration to our local school board or city council representatives?
Instead of an exclusive focus on presidential power, maybe this disillusionment with the national stage is presenting an opportunity to revisit and rethink how decisions are made at the level closest to where we live our everyday lives.
Subsidiarity is a key value in Catholic Social Teaching. It means that the real action is down in the community, in civil society, at the local level, and that the purpose of higher-up bodies is to enable that to happen.
Cries of “Never Trump” and “Never Hillary” do not have to mean simply sitting out this election. The repudiation of the presidential candidates can cause us to switch our focus to our communities and to begin to effect change from there — the starting point for a renewal of our politics.
Renewal, in other words, must begin from the ground up. Forming our consciences and acting as faithful citizens shouldn’t be reduced or sacrificed for one single election cycle.
So if you’re a politically homeless Catholic, join me in learning from those great crowds of pilgrims in Kraków. They’ve come to build from the ground up. We can do the same.