We have previously considered whether Catholics can vote for a self-professed socialist or a candidate on the basis of his stance on religious freedom. It is, of course, perhaps a comment on the 2016 presidential election that we have considered those questions at all. However, one question has been rolling around in our mind for several weeks, becoming especially insistent in the last several days: must a Catholic vote at all?
At the outset, we note once more that we are not attempting to propose a course of conduct or, indeed, to dissuade you, dear reader, from a course of conduct. However, as we noted above, we ourselves have had some questions in recent days about the permissibility of staying home, as it were, on Election Day in our jurisdiction. Indeed, we readily admit that the notion of a contest in November between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is not hugely appetizing. It would be, in fact, a very hard pill to swallow. Consequently, we have pondered simply abstaining from voting this fall. However, acknowledging that even our political decisions have a moral dimension, we have undertaken to find out what the moral dimension of that decision would be. And it has been an interesting effort.
We also acknowledge briefly that we have looked at this problem from another angle: Catholics have participated, more or less enthusiastically, in the political process for some time. And many doctrinally aware Catholics take voting for one party practically as a requirement of Pastor aeternus or Munificentissimus Deus. Yet, it seems to us that Catholics have not gotten much—anything?—in exchange for this political participation. If anything, Catholic social and moral teaching seems to recede further and further from the scene. Wheeled out, if at all, every two or four years to be mentioned in passing and then returned to the shelf when it comes time to govern. It seems to us that a very reasonable response to such a disastrous bargain would be to stay home.
We began, as many do, by consulting readily available sources on the internet. One of those sources points to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In the Latin typical edition, approved by St. John Paul II in Laetamur magnopere, we read:
Civium officium est cum potestatibus civilibus ad bonum societatis collaborare spiritu veritatis, iustitiae, solidarietatis et libertatis. Amor et servitium patriae ex officio oriuntur gratitudinis et ex ordine caritatis. Submissio auctoritatibus legitimis et servitium boni communis exigunt a civibus ut suum in communitatis politicae vita exerceant munus.
Submissio auctoritati et corresponsabilitas boni communis moraliter exigunt tributorum solutionem, exercitium iuris suffragii, defensionem nationis […]
(Emphasis supplied.) In the Vatican’s English translation, this is rendered:
It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.
Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country […]
(Emphasis supplied.) This is, perhaps, simple enough: It is “morally obligatory” “to exercise the right to vote.” But the interesting thing for us is that voting is obligatory as a consequence of “submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good.” This, of course, opens the door to questions of legitimacy in authority and what pursues the common good, both of which are complicated, to say the least. However, it seems to us that this provides a reasonable framework for understanding the obligation to vote. That is to say: we’re required to vote because we’re individually responsible for the common good (considering our stations in life), not because voting is per se endowed with some strong moral component.
When we have a doctrinal question, while we might stop by the Catechism, we rarely stop at the Catechism. And, in this case, we did not. One of the other sources we consulted pointed to a series of statements in the mid-1940s by Pius XII. We certainly encourage you to read that source, consisting of old articles from The Angelus closely. It has, as you’ll see, informed our thinking strongly, and not just by pointing out sources for consideration. (Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s The Angelus.) This got our attention, naturally, since Pius XII was, like his predecessor, the great Papa Ratti, a visionary pope in many regards. (Don’t believe us? Read Exsul Familia when you’ve got an idle hour.) And we have found the several statements identified by the article hugely interesting, not least because it collects the sources conveniently.
The first statement, a March 1946 address to the parish priests of Rome, included this statement:
L’esercizio del diritto di voto è un atto di grave responsabilità morale, per lo meno quando si tratta di eleggere coloro che sono chiamati a dare al Paese la sua costituzione e le sue leggi, quelle in particolare che toccano, per esempio, la santificazione delle feste, il matrimonio, la famiglia, la scuola, il regolamento secondo giustizia ed equità delle molteplici condizioni sociali. Spetta perciò alla Chiesa di spiegare ai fedeli i doveri morali, che da quel diritto elettorale derivano.
(Emphasis supplied.) The Angelus rendered this passage thus:
The exercise of the right to vote is an act of grave moral responsibility, at least with respect to the electing of those who are called to give to a country its constitution and its laws, and in particular those that affect the sanctification of holy days of obligation, marriage, the family, schools and the just and equitable regulation of many social questions. It is the Church’s duty to explain to the faithful the moral duties that flow from this electoral right.
(Emphasis supplied.) This is an important point: Catholics have a grave moral responsibility to vote for legislators who can “affect the sanctification of holy days of obligation, marriage, the family, schools, and the just and equitable regulation of many social questions.” This gives us immediate pause. For one thing, the American constitutional order has largely completely excluded these issues from legislative action. Indeed, issues relating to “marriage, the family, schools, and the just and equitable regulation of many social questions” have largely been taken over by the federal judiciary, which would likely prevent legislators at any level from enacting truly Catholic laws. Moreover, the Constitution itself takes some of these issues off the table. Finally, on a variety of issues, neither American political party is apt to support “the just and equitable regulation of many social questions.” And we shall pass over, in relative silence, the extent to which protestant legislators are apt to give God his true rights and God’s Church hers. All of this is to say: a Catholic probably could not find a candidate that she could vote for under Pius’s criteria.
A few months later, Pius gave a speech to the leadership of Catholic Action, in which he stated:
Il popolo è chiamato a prendere una parte sempre più importante nella vita pubblica della Nazione. Questa partecipazione porta con sé gravi responsabilità. Donde la necessità per i fedeli di avere cognizioni nette, solide, precise intorno ai loro doveri di ordine morale e religioso nell’esercizio dei diritti civili, in modo particolare del diritto di voto. Su questi argomenti Noi abbiamo dato nella Nostra allocuzione di quest’anno ai parroci e ai quaresimalisti di Roma norme concrete, che valgono sostanzialmente anche per l’Azione cattolica. Questa, beninteso, non è un partito politico e sta al di sopra della politica di partito. Ma appunto perciò essa deve tanto più, in queste settimane e in questi mesi, illuminare i cattolici sugl’interessi religiosi che sono presentemente in serio pericolo e persuaderli, non solo in pubblico, ma altresì in privato, uomini e donne, a uno a uno, dell’importanza e della gravità dell’obbligo, che come cristiani, li stringe alla retta osservanza dei loro doveri politici. — In egual modo anche per l’Azione cattolica vale il dettame di non chiudere l’orecchio alle lezioni e agli avvertimenti della storia. Questa non presenta fino ai nostri tempi alcun esempio di un popolo o di un Paese che, dopo di essersi staccato dalla Chiesa e dalla cultura cattolica, vi sia ritornato integralmente. Coloro che le rimasero fedeli hanno ben potuto lottare coraggiosamente, eroicamente; ma, una volta consumata la catastrofe e compiuto il passo fatale, non si è mai avuta finora una completa riparazione e reintegrazione.
(Emphasis supplied.) Once again, The Angelus provides a partial translation. (But not a complete one. While we have, for some time, tried to avoid quoting large passages of untranslated foreign languages, we will make an exception here.)
The people are called on to take an always larger part in the public life of the nation. This participation brings with it grave responsibilities. Hence the necessity for the faithful to have clear, solid, precise knowledge of their duties in the moral and religious domain with respect to their exercise of their civil rights, and in particular of the right to vote.
It seems to us that, at the risk of running afoul of the prohibitions in Leo XIII’s great letter to Cardinal Gibbons, Testem benevolentiae nostrae, the march of time may have changed the calculus behind Pius’s teaching on this point. For example, the modes of communication and dissemination of opinion have changed enormously since the spring of 1946 when Pius addressed the Roman clergy and the Catholic Action leadership. As a consequence, the way in which people take “an always larger part in the public life of the nation” has changed. It seems to us that one can participate as meaningfully in the life of the nation by blogging, tweeting, or otherwise expressing and sharing opinions with like-minded individuals as by choosing between two candidates, neither of whom have platforms that are uniformly consistent with Catholic teaching. Indeed, one may have more impact on the life of a nation with a tweet than with a vote. However, we acknowledge that a vote has formal, legal consequences that a tweet does not (usually) have.
In this same vein, we note that the little-known-and-little-loved Vatican II decree Inter mirifica addressed social communications back in 1963, making this point:
Praecipuum morale officium quoad rectum instrumentorum communicationis socialis usum respicit diurnarios, scriptores, actores, scaenarum artifices, effectores, diribitores, distributores, exercentes et venditores, criticos ceterosque qui quocumque modo in communicationibus efficiendis et transmittendis partem habeant; omnino enim patet quae et quam gravis momenti officia iis omnibus sint tribuenda in hodiernis hominum condicionibus, cum ipsi, informando atque incitando, humanum genus recte vel pessum ducere possint.
Eorum itaque erit oeconomicas, vel politicas, vel artis rationes ita componere ut eaedem bono communi numquam adversentur; quod ut expeditius obtineant, ipsi laudabiliter nomen consociationibus dent ad suam professionem spectantibus, quae suis membris – etiam, si opus fuerit, inito foedere de codice morali recte servando – legum moralium reverentiam in suae artis negotiis et officiis imponant.
(Emphasis supplied.) In the Vatican’s English translation, this passage is rendered:
The principle moral responsibility for the proper use of the media of social communication falls on newsmen, writers, actors, designers, producers, displayers, distributors, operators and sellers, as well as critics and all others who play any part in the production and transmission of mass presentations. It is quite evident what gravely important responsibilities they have in the present day when they are in a position to lead the human race to good or to evil by informing or arousing mankind.
Thus, they must adjust their economic, political or artistic and technical aspects so as never to oppose the common good. For the purpose of better achieving this goal, they are to be commended when they join professional associations, which-even under a code, if necessary, of sound moral practice-oblige their members to show respect for morality in the duties and tasks of their craft.
(Emphasis supplied.) Thus, it seems to us that there is some basis for believing that communications can affect the common good. And when every man, woman, and child with an internet connection can broadcast news and opinion to the world, it seems to us that every man, woman, and child is “in a position to lead the human race to good or to evil by informing or arousing mankind,” as it says in Inter mirifica. And this might be the crucial point in our meandering analysis; every Catholic has numerous mechanisms by which he or she can affect the common good by advancing the cause of Christ and Christ’s Church. Suffrage is an option, but it is not the only option.
This comment seems to track back, furthermore, to the teaching in the Catechism. Recall that the Catechism holds that we are obligated to vote as a function of our shared responsibility for the common good. Pius, it seems, held a similar view: we are called upon to take an always larger part in the public life of the nation. And this participation includes the obligation to exercise our right to vote. (Though, as we say, it seems possible that one can participate meaningfully in the life of the nation without voting.)
Finally, The Angelus article cited a 1948 address by Pius to, once again, the clergy of Rome. Pius said,
1. Che, nelle presenti circostanze, è stretto obbligo per quanti ne hanno il diritto, uomini e donne, di prender parte alle elezioni. Chi se ne astiene, specialmente per indolenza o per viltà, commette in sé un peccato grave, una colpa mortale.
2. Ognuno ha da votare secondo il dettame della propria coscienza. Ora è evidente che la voce della coscienza impone ad ogni sincero cattolico di dare il proprio voto a quei candidati o a quelle liste di candidati, che offrono garanzie veramente sufficienti per la tutela dei diritti di Dio e delle anime, per il vero bene dei singoli, delle famiglie e della società, secondo la legge di Dio e la dottrina morale cristiana.
(Emphasis supplied.) And, once more, our source provides for us an English translation of this passage:
1. In the present circumstances, it is a strict obligation for all those who have the right to vote, men and women, to take part in the elections. Whoever abstains from doing so, in particular by indolence or weakness, commits a sin grave in itself, a mortal fault.
2. Each one must follow the dictate of his own conscience. However, it is obvious that the voice of conscience imposes on every Catholic to give his vote to the candidates who offer truly sufficient guarantees for the protection of the rights of God and of souls, for the true good of individuals, families and of society, according to the love of God and Catholic moral teaching.
(Emphasis supplied, and reformatted to match Italian text.) Once again, this brings us back to the point we made a little earlier: a Catholic probably could not find a candidate that she could vote for under Pius’s criteria. (We also have some qualms about “in the present circumstances,” though we’ll pass over that for now.) Even so-called conservative candidates are unlikely to “offer truly sufficient guarantees for the protection of the rights of God and of souls, for the true good of individuals, families and of society, according to the love of God and Catholic moral teaching.” Indeed, it would surprise us very much if a candidate understood even what is meant by “the rights of God and of souls,” much less the finer points of Catholic moral teaching.
Thus, it seems that there is a consistent sense—insofar as the sources we have quoted represent continuous teaching—that we have a moral obligation to vote. However, that obligation comes from our shared responsibility for the common good. And it seems to us that, when the common good would be dissolved by any candidate in an election, then it may well be permissible to refrain from voting. Likewise, while a Catholic is certainly morally required to vote for candidates who will govern according to the teachings of Christ and Christ’s Church, if no candidate in an election will so govern, it seems to us that a Catholic could simply stay home and have a “Social Kingship of Christ” party.