Civic life is not political life

To reduce the obligations of civic friendship—of citizenship—to political life distorts our understanding of where the primary exercise of citizenship lies.

(Image: Element5 Digital/Unsplash.com)

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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About Kenneth Craycraft 2 Articles
Kenneth Craycraft is a licensed attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds the Ph.D. in theology from Boston College, and the J.D. from Duke University School of Law.

15 Comments

  1. Of course, a write-in candidate (assuming that is allowed) is a better expression of disdain for an otherwise unacceptable choice than not voting at all, which is easily interpreted as indifference. Other than that, this article makes some excellent points. While I may vote for Donald Trump based on his pro-life record this time around (I wrote-in the Solidarity Party candidate last time around), I would not fault anyone for choosing some other genuinely pro-life candidate who might better reflect other important Catholic values as well and might promote a more civil brand of politics. In the long run, our goal should be to get better candidates and better choices so that we don’t have to keep choosing from inferior candidates– and we do that through raising the tide in our daily activities that may not be overtly political– “by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility…” A rising tide will raise all boats, which will give us better choices, maybe even real choices among equally good candidates instead of candidates at least some of whom who by their beliefs should be automatically disqualified. Meanwhile, when the choice itself is unacceptable, the only sensible choice is not to choose– unless we want more of the same next time around.

  2. To vote, or not to vote, that is the question (Craycraft); to wash my hands, or not to wash my hands, that is the question (Pilate).

    The author makes a subtle point about the definition of citizenship, but the hour is late. Votes withheld will hand the temple mount over to the Pharisees and modernday Aztecs who will vote.

    • Yes. The analogy has already been made by Catholic historians. Satan’s rage over Hernán Cortés military seizure of Tenochtitlán, and abolition of human sacrifice is satisfied with the more extensive human sacrifice of aborted infants. And the same purveyors of cultural secular humanism who deplore Cortés and the oppression of Aztec culture are the ones most in favor of abortion.

  3. This entire article rests on a particular interpretation: viz., ´participation in political life is a moral obligation´ is interpreted / understood by the author as ´implying that voting is an obligation.´

    Non sequitur, especially in the light of the USCCB document referring to ss. 1913-1917 of the CCC >> implying that the former should obviously be read in harmony with the latter.

    One can participate in political life without voting or exercising the ´none of the above´ option where available – (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/None_of_the_above )

  4. You cannot go down the path of Socialism as it will bankrupt the country – isn’t that partially what finally knocked down the Roman empire?

    too much money spent on elections that’s another thing

    what can the government do for ME — that’s another issue and a problem

  5. In response to Craycraft, it is not that we are essentially voting for a candidate, we are voting in favor of Justice, or in its disfavor. It’s impossible to definitively separate political life from civil life since either is an essential complement to the other. “Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 72). “It must in any case be clearly understood that whatever may be laid down by civil law in this matter, man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit in principle the liceity of abortion. Nor can he take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it. Moreover, he may not collaborate in its application” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, November 18, 1974, 19-22). If there is a circumstance by which a Catholic, or anyone is free to vote in favor of abortion I havn’t perceived one. Most comments simply offer a hypothetical right. A word on a required defense of the exercise of conscience, and what we must be as Catholics. Wisdom would have the bishops remain silent in the midst of a confirmation that will change the moral character of the Court. That is, if these were ‘ordinary’ times. Hiding in the catacombs while Catholicism is under pressure from both the political Left, and a Vatican focused on global interests will have no beneficial effect on political opponents [or Vat policy]. Nor will it likely change the course of the nomination. Rather silence will continue to undermine the loyalty of American Catholics. We’re in a continued process of the secularization of Catholicism both politically and culturally. Not only is the Catholic vote at stake. Church and Nation are. Our hierarchy, the USCCB preferably could well issue an intelligently written statement in defense of Catholics to be Catholic, correctly and prudently whether in politics or in society. Doing so with respect of Just Law that enhances religious freedom, not those that impugn that right. Similar to Justice Amy Barrett’s acceptance speech the Church could clearly define the difference between holding fast to ‘dogma’, and the exercise of jurisprudence, or simply living as Catholics within a pluralistic society. Silence didn’t help previously when our religious freedom was digressed with impunity. We have a compelling interest to assert those rights now, at this very historical moment to assure all of the legitimacy of our claim, as well as to assure the Catholic at large that the Catholic Church is indeed Catholic and supports their right to live as Catholics in every societal venue.

  6. Dr. Craycroft’s attempt to hold us to “a more expansive notion of the obligations of civic life” is truly appreciated, but he has failed to interrogate all relevant sections of the Catechism, which does not present voting as supererogatory:

    “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” (CCC 2240).

    One might plausibly condition this magisterial assertion of a duty to vote in many ways: e.g., distinguishing gravity dependent upon the election and issues at stake, claiming exceptions sourced from other teachings or simple common sense, or, if possible, or adducing other magisterial utterances that controvert the simple claim of a duty to vote and thus necessitate some hermeneutic of continuity.

    But the author has not done any of these because he has elided CCC 2240 and, what’s more, cast its plain, i.e., prima facie, understanding as a “dubious conclusion.” We are not obligated to accept the arguments of our magistri, but we must offer religious submission to the beliefs they command. So an article such as this one cannot succeed without acknowledging and grappling with the fact that the “conclusion” in question is a teaching with a claim to our assent. Failure to do so is unacceptably sloppy. CCC 2240 is not an arcane source known only to specialists; it is something which even moderately-informed Catholics will have encountered amid debates about responsible citizenship.

  7. Don’t worry about the fire in the kitchen, vacuuming the living room carpet is a good thing, too!

    The author is pushing the morally bankrupt seamless garment garbage, bankrupt because it ignores priorities

    Christians don’t want a theocracy; they know Christianity must be freely accepted for it to be genuine in someone.

    Christians don’t want to impose their religion on others. We DO want to impose civilization on society by thoroughly eradicating the irrational and evil notion that the state has the authority to legalize the murder of innocent humanity as a matter of social policy.

    The whole world condemned that barbaric notion at the Nuremberg Trials, the prosecutors of which treated abortion as a crime against humanity.

    A few decades later a godless, leftist Supreme Court resumed the Nazi experiment in “legal” murder with its Roe v Wade decision, even though the Nazi experiment had proven to be an unmitigated disaster that amounted to a return to savagery, even if it hid behind the trappings of civilization.

    Christians want to impose civilization, not their religion, on society.

    The currently reigning worldwide atheocracy lethally imposes their barbaric savagery upon humanity — two billion “legal” murders worldwide and counting.

    The outcome of the November elections will either be the beginning of a long overdue restoration of civilization, or the final nail in Western Civilization’s coffin.

    With so much at stake it is mortally sinful to vote for Democrat party candidates, as is abstaining from voting.

  8. Will abortion be a topic during the presidential debate at 7:00PM 9/29/2021? Unfortunately, no. Currently it is reported that it is not on moderator Chris’ Wallace’s list of issues and that is a disgrace. We align with the Hyde Amendment. Hyde should be the replacement for Roe. We will vote in November with great trepidation. But, we cannot abandon our constitutional rights.
    When both candidates seem to be unclear or lie about their stance on the subject of abortion, our votes will be in favor of the candidate with the principals expected of a Commander-in-Chief and one who will refuse to continue to polarize a nation in turmoil.

    • Morgan,
      No matter what’s said during the debate we know what legislation’s been supported by/voted for by either candidate. And what executive orders have been signed.
      Actions, not words are what tells the real story.

  9. Every priest I have consulted agrees that given the stakes of this election for Catholics and Catholic values/principles, it is a moral obligation to vote. If you “cannot comfortably” vote for either candidate, then go against your comfort zone and vote for the candidate who will do the best for our Catholic values or the least amount of harm to them. The two Presidential candidates stand clearly for opposing values, one of which consistent with Catholic principles and has a record on life issues, religious protections and peacemaking. The other candidate, no good record on the same and supports taking the Little Srs back to court to make them pay for contraception. Therefore, why would Mr Craycraft think it appropriate to encourage abstaining given these high stakes?

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