Our Faustian Bargain: Catholics Caught Between Parties

In following the presidential contest this year, I have been at times amazed and disgusted at the kabuki theater our political discourse has become. The two major party candidates have presented themselves as both more and less than what they really are—trying to capture voters by simultaneously promising that they will solve our problems and assuring us that their opponents will bring about far worse evils than we already face.

And, as in elections past, Catholics have aligned themselves on both sides, for all manner of reasons—some good, some trivial, some venal. But what has struck me about Catholic voters is this: Whether Left or Right, Democrat or Republican, Catholics are identifying and aligning themselves with the candidates and parties in question. Catholics look at the parties and candidates, see how they line up with their values and priorities, and then perform a sort of moral calculus, weighing the positive and negative aspects of each candidate’s and party’s positions before deciding, “I’m going to vote Republican,” or, “I’m going to vote Democrat.”

At first blush, this seems normal enough. After all, what else are we supposed to do? But if we look at how our Faith impinges on our lives in other areas, we’d find that we don’t behave that way outside of the political sphere.

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Take an example: Suppose someone were looking for a job, and he interviewed with a company that offered a promising position. He is excited at the prospect of working there; they make an excellent product and the job has great potential for advancement. Unfortunately he discovers along the way that the company’s business practices and financial procedures are corrupt and dishonest. A person of integrity who possesses a well-formed conscience would not engage in some sort of moral calculus about taking the job. He wouldn’t try to decide if the evil business practices were outweighed by the greatness of the company’s product, and the wonderful personal possibilities the job offered. No, the person of integrity would say, “Sorry, I’m not interested,” and pass up the job.

But our current method of participating in the political process places us in just such a position: Many of us are volunteering to cooperate with evil, because we see no way out of the dilemma of aligning ourselves with one party or the other. In essence, faithful Catholics are forced to accept whatever bones the major parties and candidates throw us: If we think the Democrats offer more compassionate social policies and the prospect of ending the war in Iraq, we must tolerate their embrace of abortion and same-sex unions. If we think the Republicans offer the best hope of eliminating abortion-on-demand and defending marriage, we have to be willing to tolerate their embrace of “preventive” war and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. Catholics, it would seem, are being forced to make Faustian bargains every time they enter the voting booth.

This attitude is perpetuated by our own clergy and bishops. Bishops, both as a body and individually, have said that, since no one party or candidate completely lines up with Catholic teaching, individual Catholics must decide which candidate comes closest to fidelity to the Magisterium according to both the number of issues and their degree of importance.

And once again, the moral calculus appears. Are we all condemned to be proportionalists in our politics?


The idea that we need to align ourselves with the party or candidate who most closely lines up with Catholic teaching is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is that it does not go far enough: It is hardly the robust, evangelistic, sanctify-the-world posture that our vocation to holiness and call to apostleship requires. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose stood up to and rebuked the Roman emperor Theodosius. Were he transported to our own time, I cannot imagine that he would find this policy sufficient.

As Deal W. Hudson has recently pointed out, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” has some serious flaws. But it does provide a valuable teaching that addresses our Faustian bargain:
As Catholics, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong [emphasis mine]; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths (14).
Looking across the Catholic political landscape, it seems that we have far more Catholics who are in danger of being—or have been already—transformed, than we have Catholics who are making any headway in transforming politics.

So where are the Catholics in politics? The teaching of the Church and of our bishops instructs us to take our faith as our starting point and build our politics around that. Instead, we choose our politics and then see how we can shoehorn it into our faith. We find ourselves having to explain away the conflict between the tenets of the Faith and our political allegiances in order to defend our Faustian bargain.

If Catholics were really serious about “transforming” our parties and politics, things would look much different than they do today. For example, where is the Congressional Catholic Caucus? There is a Congressional Black Caucus, a Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a Serbian Caucus, and even a Congressional Boating Caucus. So where is the caucus devoted to bringing Catholic representatives and senators together across party lines to promote, defend, and advance Catholic teaching on matters of justice and the common good? Imagine how much could be accomplished by Catholics in Congress who joined together to put the Faith first in shaping their agendas.

But, of course, there is no Congressional Catholic Caucus, and the reason is simple: Far too many politicians, and those in power in their parties, are more interested in how they can use their Catholic faith for political advantage than they are in applying their faith to their political activities. They use the teachings of the Church as talking points to win votes. Both parties do it: Republicans co-opt pro-lifers every four years; Democrats, play to the peace-and-justice types.

And when we make our Faustian bargain, we play the game on their terms. As Mark P. Shea has written, Catholics have been acting like the abused wife in relation to the political parties: We need to be good and loyal and support our political leaders, because if we don’t they might not throw us even the scraps they occasionally deign to leave us. Make no mistake, those in power are primarily concerned with consolidating and extending that power. They will be perfectly content to use us to advance their own ends as long as we play according to their rules.

Catholics are thus at an impasse; we have divided along the lines that the parties give us. We defend the indefensible and engage in tortuous apologetics for advocates of intrinsic evil, and the Kingdom advances not at all—all because we are not truly making the gospel the starting point of our politics.


So what is the solution? First, we need to quit prostituting ourselves to the political power class. We have to stop serving on the advisory boards of parties and candidates who advocate intrinsic evil. Furthermore, we have to be willing to say “Enough! We won’t play along anymore.”

And then what? Some of my fellow Catholics have decided that the best option is to vote third-party. Steve Skojec explains:
We’ve heard a lot of talk this election cycle (and the one before it . . . and the one before that . . .) about stopping a great evil by voting for a lesser one. And yet, the only certain outcome of constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is the perpetuation of evil.
The problem is that third-party candidates have little to no chance of being elected in national races. Those who do vote third-party are frequently accused of “throwing away” their vote.

But this need not be the case. If sufficient numbers of Catholics decide to opt-out of electoral politics as currently played and organized themselves, wouldn’t they begin to exercise greater political clout? That is how politics works, after all.

What if Catholic Democrats, tired of having to choose between social policy and defending the right to life, said, “We’re going to withhold our votes until the leadership takes our life-issue concerns seriously. When the national party is ready to countenance a legislative initiative that will meaningfully restrict the abortion license, we’ll give you our support”?

And what if Catholic Republicans said, “For 30 years you have taken our support for granted on life issues. Unless you seriously reign in foreign adventurism and reject the Guantanamo-and-rendition assaults on human rights, we will withhold our support”? Eventually, political necessity would force them to pay attention (or if they didn’t, we’d at least have our integrity). But as long as we are willing to sell our principles for a mess of political pottage, we will continue to be weak and ineffectual.

Catholics make up some 25 percent of the population, but we exercise an influence far smaller than our numbers. We have been manipulated and divided by partisan political hacks: Whenever someone raises the point of the primacy of life issues in making political decisions, he is automatically considered by those on the Left to be shilling for Republicans. Whenever someone makes an argument for protecting those who are injured by the rough-and-tumble of the free market, he is automatically dismissed as a tool of the Democrats. Surely we can do better as disciples of Christ.

Will any Catholics step forward to lead us beyond the constraints of the two-party game? Whether it means a third party, or making our power felt within our existing parties by changing the rules of the game, something must be done. If we are to fulfill our call to sanctify the world, we must engage in politics in light of the gospel, and not by the categories of those more concerned with elections than the Kingdom.


  • Fr. Robert Johansen

    Fr. Robert Johansen is a priest of the diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He holds degrees in Classics and Patristics, and also has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, where he is currently a candidate for the Doctor of Sacred Theology. He has presented a number of papers on musical and liturgical subjects at academic conferences, and published articles on the same topics in several academic and popular journals.

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