Many thoughtful discussions about the difficult choice facing Catholics in the upcoming presidential election make reference to, and argue about the meaning of, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ teaching document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Indeed, even the promulgation of the document in November 2019 caused a good deal of attention because of the contentious debate about how to situate abortion in the calculus of moral reasoning for Catholic voters. Over the objection of some prominent Bishops, the Conference settled on language calling the “threat of abortion . . . our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself,” but also noting that “we cannot . . . ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity, such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.” This attempt to steer the course away from “single-issue” voting has probably been the subject or more debate than anything else the document discusses.
But this is probably not the most important topic in the document.
Less noted, and seemingly accepted as uncontroversial, is the Bishops’ assertion in Paragraph 13 that “in the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” The first half of the sentence is indisputably true; the second half is dubious at best and misleading at worst.
The problem rests in the Bishops’ strong implication that “political life” is an essential corollary of “responsible citizenship,” such that the former is the necessary expression of the latter. The practical application of this is the common assertion that Catholics have an obligation to vote, the most explicitly (and for some the only) political action that most of us ever take. In the context of the upcoming election, this may result in the Bishops insisting on the moral imperative of casting a vote where the better moral choice may be to abstain.
The Bishops’ conflation of political life with responsible citizenship is a mistake because it ignores the much broader notion of civic friendship, of which politics is but one of many expressions. Sections 1913-1917 of Catechism of the Catholic Church, to which the USCCB document refers, takes a more expansive notion of the obligations of civic life than mere political activity. Rooted in the principle of solidarity, one of the four pillars of Catholic social doctrine, the Catechism refers to the obligation of civic “participation,” defined as “voluntary and generous engagement of a person in social interchange.”
This is achieved “first of all” not in political terms, but rather “by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility: by the care taken for the education of his family, by conscientious work, and so forth.” The “so forth” should be understood as those numerous intermediary institutions that constitute civic life, but have nothing to do with politics: from, for example, little league baseball, to the spelling bee, to the local soup kitchen or clothing drive. Tending to domestic duties, in other words, is participation in civic friendship; and it is the primary means of exercising the obligations of citizenship.
Only after accounting for this primary obligation does the Catechism state that “[a]s far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life,” which, presumably may include political activity. This way of accounting for the obligations of citizenship is an expression of a second pillar of Catholic social doctrine, the principle of subsidiarity. This is famously accounted for in Pius XI’s encyclical letter, Quadragesimo Anno:
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.
To reduce the obligations of civic friendship—of citizenship—to political life, surely must be a violation of this essential aspect of Catholic social teaching. Moreover, to do so distorts our understanding of where the primary exercise of citizenship lies—in the myriad social organizations that exist apart from, and more closely to our lives than, politics. To equate civic responsibility with political life reduces citizenship to political activity. This, in turns, leads to the dubious conclusion that one has an obligation to participate in political life by, for example, voting.
This is not to suggest that we should not vote, or that the moral obligations of citizenship might not extend to voting. Probably, it usually does. But it might not. And, in fact, if the range of voting choices forces us to cast a vote that does not contribute to the common good, it may very well be the case that not voting is the more responsible act of citizenship. This is because the Christian vocation is not to effect social change, but rather to witness to the truth of the Gospel. And if casting a vote cannot be consistent with the integrity of that witness, it may be that voting is a violation of the obligations of citizenship, not its necessary corollary.
The major party choices in the upcoming election may present just such a case, and it puts the Bishops’ exercise in trying to balance abortion and other moral issues in stark relief. By their attempt to strike this balance, and implying that voting is an obligation, the Bishops may be pushing conscientious Catholics to make political decisions—regardless of the candidate—that violate the very moral principles that they say animate our concern for public life.
I am not suggesting that a Catholic cannot cast a vote in good conscience. But I am suggesting that we should not engage in moral contortions to justify a vote for one of the candidates out of a mistaken notion that we have a moral obligation to vote. It may very well be the case that the decision most consistent with the Gospel, and thus of conscientious contribution to common good, is to stand as a witness that neither party’s candidate is worthy of our vote. This may not be an abdication of citizenship, but the most morally consistent expression of it.
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