This week I attended a talk entitled, “Why Your Young, Catholic Vote Matters”. Before the speaker took the podium, each table group answered a few questions, including: “What brings you here tonight?” The responses from the seven talented, college-educated millennial professionals at my table ranged from curiosity to confusion. A handful expressed outright disengagement with the political process. “I’m starting to think maybe I won’t vote this year,” exclaimed one, after citing the prospect of choosing between the lesser of two evils. Another remarked that she did not vote in the last presidential election after trying unsuccessfully to secure an absentee ballot while away at college. One person went so far as to say, “I’m here because I hate politics.”
Thankfully, the speaker, Dr. John DiIlulio, is no stranger to the bewilderment and vitriol that characterizes the modern body politic. He cheerfully took on the task of explaining to the forty or so assembled why their vote does indeed matter on November 6th. DiIulio is the Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society and Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, noted for a career examining religion in the public square. He is also a native son of Philadelphia. He began his talk by pointing out that the group was sitting in a historic parish hall that was once threatened by the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment rampant in the city in the 1840s. Not too far away, parishes were actually burned to the ground when attempts at pluralism were abandoned in favor of destructive acts levied against those who were different.
DiIulio argued that young Catholics are precisely the citizens that can be a “tonic” for the similarly escalating polarization of American Catholics. He described new survey data that shows that millennial Catholics “get” the teachings about solidarity and the preferential option for the poor. Some come to this understanding through education, but far more through hands-on service in vulnerable communities, an experience that is markedly different than previous generations of voters. According to DiIulio, this is the groundwork for a new electorate that could impact the future of politics in this country.
“Subsidiarity, solidarity, and human dignity” are the three elements of Catholic Social Teaching that DiIulio feels young Catholics “can bring to the voting booth this year on election day.” Audience members pressed him to explain his assertion. One person asked that if the consideration of human dignity is essential, how does one decide between a candidate who emphasizes the dignity of the life of the unborn versus the candidate who focuses on the dignity of those already born who are poor? DiIulio encouraged the group to examine the Faithful Citizenship document prepared by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which places a priority on the individual’s conscience. A vote for candidate A over candidate B, against the backdrop of a fully formed conscience educated by the richness of Church teaching, is all that is asked of citizens.
As DiIulio said at the end of the evening, when it comes to human dignity, “democracy doesn’t make sense without it.” The republic is founded on individual rights and duties that prioritize the participation of individuals to elect leaders who shape policies that affect all of us. Rarely have I heard a more compelling case for how personal and collective faith can inform political choices. I hope that the rest of the audience walked away with a similar feeling, resulting in forty more informed and conscientious millennial Catholic votes on election day.