Op / Ed

You must vote, even if you don’t want to

But the question of whether we should grows more vexing

The Church says you must vote, and this is one Magisterial teaching I really dislike. In its section on the fourth commandment, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (numbers 2239-2240), “It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society” (the italics are the Catechism’s). This duty follows from “the duty of gratitude.”

So far, for me, so good. The Catechism continues: “Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community.” Also so far, so good. But then it says: “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.”

Ambiguous teachings

The first and third seem to me more ambiguous than they appear. Are we required to pay every tax or all our taxes, including those that pay for intrinsic evils, like abortions, torture, and drone strikes that accept the death of civilians as “collateral damage”? Do we have to fight in any war the government chooses to wage, including those fought for the profits of American businesses or the extension of American power rather than the defense of the country?

The Catechism itself leaves this question open just two items later: “The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel.” In the section on the fifth commandment, it explains that the way we participate in public life “may vary from one country or culture to another,” but does not give any way to discern the right manner of participation.

The American bishops give the same teaching on our political duties in their statement Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. They do allow an out the Catechism doesn’t mention: “When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate.” But that’s extra-ordinary, implying rare if not unlikely.

An act of allegiance

Why don’t I like this teaching? Because the voter makes an act of allegiance to a political, economic, and social system, and that act risks being the infamous pinch of incense to Caesar. You may vote for a third-party candidate with no chance of getting elected or write in Donald Duck, but the act itself makes a definite commitment. The risk of a vote being a sacrifice to Caesar grows, or maybe just grows more obvious. Dorothy Day would say it just grows more obvious.

The Church teaches us to love our country, yes. In his Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, Pope Leo XIII taught that “the natural law bids us give the best of our affection and of our devotedness to our native land.” Here’s the challenge: There is a difference between our country and its state. The kind of patriotism the Church requires applies to the first but only questionably to the second, and arguably only to the extent that the second serves the first.

Catholic social thinking assumes a gap if not a break between the two. Patriotism, as St. John Paul II wrote in Memory and Identity, “is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features.” Not its state. This is the usual way Catholics and Catholic teaching speak of the matter.

The state can be a problem, as I think the current election proves. The farther away the government is from the actual lives of people living in real communities, the more distant it is from that country we are called to love. It becomes a system that works for its own ends, which means the ends of the powerful who compete for control, a system only marginally and accidentally concerned with the common good, and the good of the poor — which may, in terms of social power, include the great majority of its citizens (or subjects).

I vote because the Church tells me to vote, and because, at this point, some votes matter. I vote much more happily for the mayor and borough council than for the congressman, senator, and president. And I think the question of voting as a sacrifice to Caesar will only become more vexed for Catholics. We should start now in reflecting on the use of that out the bishops give us.


David Mills

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.