For Catholics, every day brings midterms – tests great and small that measure our progress in holiness. Each one prepares us for our final examination that will occur before Christ, our teacher and our judge, on the day of our death.
Many of the midterms we take as Catholics are written by events over which we have little or no control – the people in our families, our offices, our communities, our governments. As believers, we see all these things as products of God’s will for us. He allows each of us to have a unique set of trials – that is, spiritual tests – by which we are to prove ourselves worthy of Him. He always provides us with His divine assistance, but how we respond is up to us.
If we had the same fervor for these “midterms of salvation” as many have for “the midterms” taking place in the political sphere today, the world would be a happier and holier place. The emphasis that we as a nation place on federal elections – we look ahead two years to the next one immediately after the polls close on the current one – has morphed into an unhealthy obsession. “If we don’t do well in this election we are finished” is the lone sentiment that both parties agree on today. This way of thinking is a sign that we have been swallowed by the world when we are called to remain above it.
Without question, elections matter, and we are right to desire, to work for, and to pray for the outcomes that will be most conducive to a flourishing faith environment. A government that supports the free exercise of religion and Christian morality reinforces the message of faith that is transmitted through churches, families, and communities.
Yet our Lord promised not supportive regimes but the Cross. Elections do not always break in religion’s favor, and numerous actions by federal, state, and local governments are continually challenging our ability to exercise our faith – to say nothing about those innocent children who will never draw breath thanks to legal abortion. The painful reality is that the political mess we face is God’s will for us: he allows election results to set the nature of the tests that follow. Jesus explained this phenomenon to Pilate before His final test: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11)
In God’s providence, then, we are never “finished” or “doomed” by unwelcome or even hostile government regimes. Each challenging political reality presents new opportunities for personal and communal religious growth even as public religion is forced to contract. History shows that as persecution of the faith abounds, opportunities for sanctity abound all the more.
Amidst Israel’s slavery and forty-year wanderings, God revealed His law to guide them and gave manna to sustain them in the desert. Amidst the seemingly endless Roman persecutions, God raised up countless saints to inspire others and, at long last, prompted the most unlikely of conversions when Constantine legalized Christianity. Amidst the isolation and oppression of the Russian gulags, God brought a fellow prisoner, Father Walter Ciszek, to bring faith, hope, and love to the suffering.
We ought not to be naïve that trials generated by government regimes are somehow always great gifts to all of us. We know from the Roman governor Pliny, writing in the year 110, that for every Christian sent to his death for refusing to worship the emperor many more renounced Christ rather than undergo torture. We know from Father Ciszek’s memoir, With God in Russia, that while he kept his faith, many others gave in to their animal instincts.
And we know that, depending how this latest round of elections goes, the potential for losing more Americans to abortion, to lies about human sexuality, to fears about employment termination will only increase.
We take tests to measure how well we have learned, how much we have grown. The nature of a test includes the possibility of failure. With the stakes high – and they seem to get higher each year – we must have recourse to prayer for ourselves and for all our fellow Americans so that regardless of how “the midterms” shake out, we pass our midterms of salvation, and, in doing so, draw closer to the Lord.
We pray for the ability to overcome trials each time we pray the Our Father: Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Pope Benedict explains in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth what this petition communicates to God:
I know that I need trials so my nature can be purified. When you decide to send me these trials, when you give evil some room to maneuver, as you did with Job, then please remember that my strength only goes so far. Don’t overestimate my capacity. Don’t set too wide the boundaries within which I may be tempted, and be close to me with your protecting hand when it becomes too much for me.
Whatever this election’s outcomes, Catholics are called to discern God’s will within the bigger picture that encompasses the red-and-blue map. The temporal realm, with all its shortcomings, is our means to arriving at the eternal realm. May the latest opportunities and obstacles prepare us for salvation, which, unlike governments and politics, lasts forever.
*Image: Election Day by Norman Rockwell, 1944 [Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, Iowa]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Elections
Hadley Arkes’ On the Moral Alchemy of the Political Party