by Sylvester Tan, SJ
November 10, 2020 — In a recent interview with Pope Francis, activist Carlo Petrini told Francis a story about a conversation his grandmother had with a priest. In 1948, Petrini’s grandmother was a pious and active Catholic, but her late husband had been a leader in a political movement that had a confrontational relationship with the church. After a priest heard her confession, he asked her what party she had voted for in the last election. When the priest heard that the woman had voted for the party to which her late husband had belonged, he responded that he could not give her absolution unless she repented of her vote. The woman reflected on this for a moment and then responded, “Then you can keep it!” Pope Francis’ response? “Wisdom! It was wisdom! … ‘You can keep it!’ (laughs) That’s a highbrow way of telling him to go take a walk!”
Pope Francis’ response to Petrini is not surprising. The priest in Petrini’s story pressured his grandmother, attempting to replace her conscience with his own political preferences. This might sound familiar to those of us who just lived through the United States’ presidential election season. Many people with moral authority in our lives and communities have bombarded us with claims that we are not good, moral people unless we vote against a candidate or party. While these arguments may have merit, the logic behind them often tries to deprive the individual of genuine freedom by demanding that they vote in a certain way or risk exclusion.
For the Holy Father, a believer’s personal practice of Christian discernment in making political decisions is of utmost importance. Civic engagement requires discernment because pursuing the common good is a complex business with no silver bullet solutions. Discernment demands that we are grounded in genuine encounter with our neighbor and a grace-filled sharing in the life of Jesus Christ. Through grace, Pope Francis reminds us, “we do not serve ideas, we serve people” (Fratelli tutti, 115).
There are real obstacles to discernment in civic engagement today. I have walked with people from across the political spectrum who mourn relationships that have been strained or even severed because of political polarization. Spouses separate or adult children “excommunicate” their parents because of their views. A woman recently came to me mourning the loss of her son, who would no longer speak to her because of the candidate she supported, and of her grandkids, whom he would no longer allow her to see.
In the wake of an election season full of this sort of division and anger, Pope Francis’ teachings on civic engagement remind us that our political choices do not end once we have cast our vote.
Rather, they begin with the way we gratefully acknowledge God’s action in our lives and unfold when we respond to God’s gift by seeking to cooperate with that saving action in the world. Our work in the public square continues year-round as we encourage elected leaders to promote human dignity and the common good. Our work of reconciliation across political divides continues, too — especially in our families and local communities.
“After” does not necessarily mean “too late.” St. Ignatius of Loyola says that even after a choice that cannot be changed — and however we may have voted or not voted is a choice that cannot be changed — we can revisit how and why we may have made a certain choice. This sort of regular examination of how we live every aspect of our lives is something that Ignatius encourages us to do daily through the Examen.
If we had not properly and freely discerned our choice in Christ before, now is the time to discern, in the presence of Jesus, how we could have lived this experience better. We can ask ourselves: When I voted, was I filled with anything other than genuine love for God and loving concern for my neighbor? How can I purify any fear, rancor or unfreedom that may yet remain?
However we may have acted, we place it all in Jesus’ hands. We can ask for the grace to move forward in hope, anchoring our lives in his life. Let us try to do our part to recognize just how much we need God’s grace and become a reconciling instrument of that grace for others in the midst of a world that so needs it.
Sylvester Tan, SJ, is the associate pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Previously, he spent time in Africa and Asia studying global Catholicism through the Watson Fellowship.