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Chapter 11: Patriotism, Politics, and Citizenship

Question C: What Are One’s Responsibilities with Regard to Political Activity?

Citizens participate in government not only when they hold an elective or appointive office but also when they vote or otherwise engage in the political process, for example, by working in someone’s political campaign, or by supporting or opposing proposed laws or governmental activities.

As in other fields, a person’s actions in these matters should be guided by both relevant negative norms and general affirmative norms, for example, not to lie, not intentionally to harm opponents, not to violate just laws, to integrate commitments with other elements of one’s personal vocation, to work to overcome divisions, and to treat others not only fairly but mercifully. Since such norms are dealt with elsewhere, the treatment here will focus on specific, affirmative responsibilities in the political sphere.

Some jurisdictions require that eligible citizens vote, but, generally speaking, affirmative responsibilities with regard to political activity are legally optional. Morally, however, one’s duty to participate in government is extensive and can be serious. Citizens should try to understand the major issues and take positions on them in line with the requirements of justice. Every eligible voter should prepare and vote conscientiously. Some should participate in party politics and accept public office.

1. Catholic Citizens Should Participate Actively in Public Affairs

Vatican II teaches specifically that Catholics have affirmative responsibilities with regard to political matters: “In loyalty to their country and in faithful fulfillment of their civic obligations, Catholics should feel themselves obliged to promote the true common good. Thus, they should make the weight of their opinion felt, in order that civil authority may act with justice, and legislation may conform to moral precepts and the common good” (AA 14; cf. LG 36, GS 43, 75). Politics can be a dirty business, but if good people fail to do their duty in the political field, they abandon it to those who are less conscientious, and if faithful Christians and other believers keep clear of politics, they weaken the social position of their faith by allowing secular humanists to increase their power. Hence, while avoiding formal cooperation in anything immoral, Catholics should bring Jesus’ truth and love to bear in the healing of the body politic.27

a) One should adhere to the principles of Catholic social teaching. In political activity as in any other, one should be guided by a Christian conscience, conformed to God’s law and submissive to papal and episcopal teaching insofar as it authoritatively articulates that law in the gospel’s light (see LG 24–25, 36; GS 50; AA 7). Thus, one should advocate or oppose public actions, policies, and programs by the standard of what is truly morally right and in accord with the common good (see AA 5–8, 14; GS 43).28

While the unrestrained pursuit of special interests is contrary to the common good, it is fully in accord with the common good to seek justice for various interest groups, for example, one’s region, one’s economic group, and the Church as one social body among others. The state should serve all legitimate interest groups in a balanced way, and prevent any from gaining unfair advantages over others. Hence, one also should oppose pressures for the government to favor one interest group against another to the detriment of the common good.

In line with the Church’s teaching that government’s proper role is to regulate social and economic affairs, and coordinate them for the common good, one should reject the view summed up by the slogan: “the less government the better.” Governmental activities must be appropriately limited, but one should not support a general policy of deregulation, which would allow unlimited scope for the selfish pursuit of private ends.

At the same time, in accord with the principle of subsidiarity, the state should not be encouraged to assume the responsibilities of families and other nonpolitical groups; instead, measures which will provide them with appropriate funding and other forms of help should be supported.29

Those who oppose injustices and support what the common good requires often will appear impractical and unrealistic. However, by challenging entrenched injustices and standing against powerful trends threatening the common good, even a small number of principled and persistent people can make important contributions to public debate. They call attention to truths and values which otherwise would be ignored entirely, help conscientious politicians do what they can to mitigate evil, and perhaps lay a foundation for success in subsequent debates.

b) One should not propose one’s personal views as Church teaching. On some matters, only one position is acceptable for faithful Catholics (see GS 43). For example, abortion and the use of embryonic humans as experimental material should never be permitted by law.30 In such cases, someone who calls fellow Catholics to cooperate in a course of political action and admonishes any who fail to do so, acts rightly in pointing out the Church’s relevant teaching.

On many matters, however, faithful Catholics can legitimately disagree. In some situations, those exercising political power are open only to options incompatible with the Church’s teaching, and the question is which of those options should be considered worse and so opposed in order to mitigate the evil. In other situations, there are two or more positions, incompatible with one another but compatible with the Church’s teaching. In both kinds of cases, even though someone has arrived at a position by applying the Church’s teaching to the facts of the problem as carefully as possible, he or she should not propose that opinion as the Church’s teaching.31 Moreover, a person should respect the views of others legitimately differing from his or her own and avoid bitter conflicts, which tend to damage both the common good and the Church’s unity.

c) The laity are primarily responsible for action in political matters. In political matters, rather than looking to bishops and priests to lead the way, the laity should take the initiative:

 The laity must take on the renewal of the temporal order as their own mission; led by the light of the gospel and the mind of the Church, and motivated by Christian charity, they must act in that order directly and in a distinct way, cooperating as citizens with other citizens, using their own expertise, and acting on their own responsibility, everywhere and in everything seeking the justice of God’s kingdom. (AA 7; cf. GS 43)
Having formed their consciences properly, the laity should make and act on their own judgments about which morally acceptable alternatives to support, which morally acceptable methods to use, and so on. Only in this way can they effectively cooperate as citizens with other like-minded citizens and avoid becoming, and being seen to be, agents of the Catholic Church, with all the inhibitions and burdens that status would involve.

d) In policy debates, one should be honest, courteous, and firm. One should be scrupulously honest and accurate, never arguing from premises one considers false or in ways one considers fallacious. A good end does not justify bad means, and dishonesty and manipulation destroy community. But when, as often happens, one’s view is grounded in both faith and reason, there is nothing dishonest in proposing only those reasons which anyone of good will can understand and should accept. Moreover, when others’ principles which one considers faulty happen to imply a true conclusion, one may point out what consistency with those principles requires. In public controversies, while maintaining civility and charity, and avoiding animosity and contentiousness, one should not fear to be divisive by pressing hard for what is right (see S.t., 2–2, q. 38, a. 1). If adversaries attempt to suppress one’s contribution to public discussion by labeling it an attempt to “establish religion” or “legislate morality,” two things should be pointed out: first, proposals and arguments deserve to be considered on their merits, not dismissed by such labeling; and second, citizens committed to a traditional religious faith have the same right and duty as those who have adopted a secular humanist ideology to promote what they believe is for the true good of the society as a whole.

2. The Church’s Teaching Specifies Many Purposes for Political Action

Since moral principles and the common good provide the standard for deciding whether to support or oppose particular public actions, policies, and programs, the Church’s teaching, by articulating moral norms and clarifying the common good, helps Catholics to make morally sound political judgments. When relevant Church teachings are gathered together and formulated as norms for political action, the result somewhat resembles a political party’s agenda or platform, but the point is different: to assist Catholics’ prudent judgment by specifying many of the purposes by which their actions in the political sphere should be guided—actions which, with rare exceptions, will contribute to political processes not structured along confessional lines.

The Church’s teaching, of course, must be applied prudently to discern which concrete options to support or oppose. Moreover, not all the following norms flow directly and clearly from first principles of practical reason, and not all pertain to Catholic faith or the Church’s constant and very firm moral teaching. Thus, it probably will seem to most Catholics that one or another of these norms is questionable; in such cases, the documents cited should be studied and, where faith is not at issue, the weight of their teaching evaluated in light of the requirements and limits of the responsibility to give religious assent (see 1.I).

a) Catholics should support religious liberty and its implementation. Vatican II teaches that “in religious matters no one is to be forced to act against conscience or impeded from acting, within due limits, according to conscience, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others” (DH 2). The Council explains what is meant by “due limits”: morally grounded legal norms necessary to protect the rights of all citizens, to settle conflicts of rights, to maintain genuine public peace, and to safeguard public morality (see DH 7). Within these limits, Catholics should support religious liberty for every person and religious group. For example, if a governmental policy not justified by relevant norms prevented Buddhists from building a temple, Catholics should support changing the policy so that the Buddhists’ project would be treated in the same way as a proposal to build a church or synagogue.

However, religious liberty by no means requires an absolute or strict separation of state and church (see DH 6). Catholics may and should support not only laws protecting the freedom of religious bodies but measures, such as tax exemptions, favoring religious activities.32 Moreover, they should insist that church-related schools and other institutions be protected against laws and social policies which pressure them to secularize. So, for example, provisions requiring religiously oriented schools, hospitals, and other agencies to compromise their religious character in order to receive their fair share of public subsidies should be opposed.

b) Catholics should support equal justice for all. With respect to human dignity and the fundamental rights of the person flowing from it, discrimination cannot be rational; it always violates love of neighbor and is contrary to God’s intent (see GS 29, NA 5). Catholics therefore should support laws and social policies which protect everyone’s fundamental rights and exclude every form of unfair discrimination against persons of any sort, for example, discriminatory practices in labor markets, educational systems, and electoral politics which create obstacles for certain racial groups.33 They should support laws and policies to overcome discrimination not only against women in general—for example, with respect to educational opportunities and wages—but against “particular categories of women, as for example childless wives, widows, separated or divorced women, and unmarried mothers.”34

John Paul II teaches: “Since disabled people are subjects with all their rights, they should be helped to participate in the life of society in all its aspects and at all the levels accessible to their capacities.”35 Laws and policies should be favored which protect the rights of the handicapped and enable them to fulfill themselves as much as possible and contribute what they can to the common good. For example, Catholics should urge government officials to protect handicapped babies who “are sometimes denied ordinary and usual medical procedures.”36

Within limits consistent with the common good, a nation should receive immigrants, especially those, such as political and economic refugees, who have been compelled to leave their homeland.37 Catholics therefore should support a just and merciful immigration policy and governmental action to prevent the exploitation of immigrants and migrant workers.38 They also should support public policies to lessen the hardship of immigration by helping to reunite divided families as soon as possible (see AA 11) and by enabling more workers to find employment in their own countries so that they will not be forced to migrate.39

Human persons have rights not only as individuals but insofar as they associate in various communities. Laws and policies implementing an egalitarian and exclusively individualistic conception of rights can unjustly interfere with the liberty to form and cooperate in nonpolitical communities. Thus, Catholics should support the right of every legitimate association to use relevant criteria for membership and to regulate its own internal affairs.40 On the same basis, they should oppose governmental actions which threaten the integrity of legitimate associations in the name of individual rights, for example, by using laws against discrimination to require Catholic institutions to entrust sensitive positions to people who are not the best qualified precisely as Catholics.

c) Catholics should support justice with respect to human life. Since the intentional killing of the innocent is always wrong, all innocent persons have an absolute right to life. Catholics should support laws which protect that right by forbidding abortion, infanticide, and the killing, whether by commission or omission, of handicapped, debilitated, or aged persons. They also should oppose the legalization of assisted suicide, euthanasia, and other intentional killing of any person with or without his or her consent.

If unjust laws permit wrongful killing, Catholics should support amendments or supplementary laws guaranteeing every person’s right to refuse all involvement in such killing without incurring any criminal or civil liability, or suffering loss of employment or professional status.

Catholics should oppose public funding and other policies facilitating abortion while supporting legislation to promote morally acceptable alternatives.41 They should support laws and public policies excluding the use and destruction of aborted human embryos and those created in the laboratory, for example, in scientific experiments or in treating someone else’s disease.42 Likewise, they should support laws forbidding “all interventions on the genetic heritage of the human person that are not aimed at correcting anomalies.”43

Catholics also should support laws and public policies to mitigate unnecessary threats to human life.44 Likewise, they should support public programs to ensure that nobody dies of starvation, lack of shelter, the unavailability of emergency medical care, and so on.

Substance abuse not only endangers individuals’ lives but threatens society as a whole.45 Moreover, those who sell drugs to abusers exploit their weakness.46 Catholics therefore should oppose legalizing the possession, distribution, and use of nontherapeutic drugs; they also should support public action to promote drug education and rehabilitation.

The Church teaches that everyone has a right to health care, and that it should be available to people of limited means, insofar as possible, at little or no direct cost.47 Catholics therefore should support laws and policies suitable to ensure that everyone, including the poor and the unemployed, will have access to basic health care, including both preventative care and treatment.48 In accord with the principle of subsidiarity, health care is best provided through voluntary associations formed for that specific purpose, with necessary public help and subject to appropriate governmental regulations. Catholics therefore should support such a system, including governmental action to increase the availability and efficiency of health care and to control its costs. They also should support legal safeguards to ensure that no health care provider will be compelled to do anything whatsoever contrary to his or her conscience.

d) Catholics should support measures to protect marriage and the family. Concerning marriage and the family, Vatican II teaches: “Public authority should regard it as a sacred duty to recognize, protect, and promote their authentic nature, to safeguard public morality, and to favor the prosperity of domestic life” (GS 52; cf. AA 11). Catholics therefore should support governmental protection and support for marriage and family life and oppose abandoning or weakening existing laws and policies which favor them. That includes opposing permissive laws on divorce and remarriage,49 and resisting efforts to extend the legal status and privileges of marriage and family to homosexual relationships and other nonmarital unions.50

Catholics should oppose public programs promoting contraception, sterilization, and/or abortion, whether at home or abroad; especially they should oppose governmental coercion which would make the acceptance of illicit methods of birth limitation a condition for receiving public assistance or foreign aid.51 Prostitution and pornography not only degrade the human person by treating her or his body as a mere thing to be used by others for their sexual gratification but impede the development and maintenance of the virtue of chastity, and especially hinder the education of children in this virtue.52 Catholics therefore should support laws and vigorous law enforcement restricting prostitution and pornography as much as possible, especially to protect children and prevent prostitutes and purveyors of pornography from soliciting those who prefer not to be tempted. (On toleration of prostitution, see 4.E.2.j.)

All persons have the right to a good general education, so that they can use their gifts to serve others and reach the fulfillment to which they are called (see GE 1). Parents have the primary right and duty to educate their children (see GE 3, 6). Catholics therefore should support the laws, programs, and public policies necessary to assist parents in exercising their right and fulfilling their duty to educate. In particular, laws and policies should be supported which ensure that the children of the poor receive adequate education and that all children receive moral and religious education in accord with their parents’ conscience.53

This means supporting not only parents’ freedom to select the schools their children will attend but the steps required for this freedom’s actual exercise, including adequate public subsidies, so that poor parents will enjoy at least as much public help in carrying out their educational role as those who are wealthy, and parents who choose religious schools will not suffer economic disadvantages on that account:

There is a need for Christian families to be guaranteed the right to enjoy, without any discrimination on the part of the public authorities, the freedom of choosing a school for their children according to their own convictions, without this choice imposing upon them economic burdens that are too heavy.54
Catholics also should support the right of parents who can adequately educate their children at home to do so.

Similarly, Catholics should support provisions ensuring parental freedom to choose the provider in any public program of child care outside the home. They also should support legal protection of parental rights to determine what kind of education in sexuality their children will receive, and should oppose the imposition of programs of sexual education against the parents’ will.55 They should oppose school-based clinics which provide children with contraceptives and sometimes even facilitate abortion.56

Catholics should support public policies recognizing the true value of work within the home and public action to ensure that wives and mothers will not in practice be compelled to work outside the home.57 Laws and public policies should therefore be supported which assure families an adequate income, either through a family wage or through adequate social measures (see 10.A.3.g).58 Provisions in laws or public programs making it economically advantageous for parents to separate should be opposed.59 Catholics should support firm and effective governmental enforcement of fathers’ duty to support their children.

“The family has the right to decent housing, fitting for family life and commensurate to the number of the members, in a physical environment that provides the basic services for the life of the family and the community.”60 Homeless individuals also need shelter. Catholics therefore should support public programs and policies to ensure that none will be deprived of adequate housing, that available housing and the resources needed to provide additional housing will be justly distributed, and that families will not be prevented by the cost of housing from moving whenever necessary to fulfill their responsibilities to earn a living, obtain education, and so on.61

Sometimes public policies, laws, and law enforcement result in the division of families. This is likely to be detrimental to the family, especially to children. So, unless a public action leading to the division of families is required by the common good or the protection of individuals from abuse or neglect, Catholics should oppose it. Where public actions which divide families may be necessary for some reason, Catholics should support measures to mitigate its bad effects, for example, provisions in penal law and policy allowing prisoners to maintain contact with their families and ensuring that the latter are not deprived of support.62

e) Catholics should support justice in economic matters. “The right to a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone” (GS 69). Since property is only a way of implementing it, this right is more basic than any right of ownership (see 10.D.1). Thus, public policies and programs necessary to ensure that nobody lacks the necessities of life should be supported: “As regards necessities—food, clothes, housing, medico-social assistance, basic instruction, professional training, means of transport, information, possibility of recreation, religious life—there must be no privileged social strata.”63 Normally, the most important, appropriate governmental action will lie in encouraging and regulating private enterprise, by means of public policies which promote balanced economic activity, so that nobody able and willing to work will lack employment at just wages.64 However, insofar as additional public measures are necessary, they also should be supported.65

Catholics should support laws and public policies, including reasonable limits on taxation, which will foster a very wide distribution of material goods and encourage those who must work for a living to save so that they might own durable consumer goods, houses, land, tools, equipment, and/or share in the ownership of the businesses which employ them.66 They should support public laws and policies which secure property rights—for example, noninflationary monetary policy—so that workers and investors can enjoy the fruit of their efforts.67 They also should support laws and policies protecting and favoring small and medium-sized enterprises in agriculture, the arts and crafts, and commerce and industry—for example, the craftsman’s business and the family farm, and cooperatives formed by such independent enterprises—rather than the increasing concentration of wealth and economic power, and the domination of the entire economy by a comparatively few large corporations.68

While recognizing both the proper roles of a business’s owners and managers and the need for unity in decision making, Vatican II teaches that employees should actively participate in some appropriate way in running a business (see GS 68).69 So, Catholics should support laws and public policies which will discourage the unilateral management of enterprises by executives responsible exclusively to owners or stockholders, and should encourage some active involvement of employees in planning and decision making.

Catholics, of course, should support governmental respect for the right of workers, companies, and consumers to organize in order to pursue their common interests by morally acceptable means.70 But they also should support the public regulation required to prevent such organizations from using their power to the detriment of the common good and to protect their members against corrupt leadership, for example, against criminals taking over labor unions.

“In a system of taxation based on justice and equity it is fundamental that the burdens be proportioned to the capacity of the people contributing.”71 Catholics should support distributing the tax burden so that the wealthier will be taxed more heavily and the poorer more lightly, if at all, and should oppose taxes which are especially hard on the poor.72

Because God created the world and its resources for all humankind, human dominion over the earth is limited by moral norms, which require not only respect for the rights of everyone now living but preservation of the common heritage for future generations (see 10.B.2.b–c). Catholics should support laws and public programs to conserve natural resources, especially nonrenewable ones, and to regulate activities with an aim to eliminating or mitigating damage to the environment. However, measures should be opposed which have an unfair impact, for example, on the poor or on people living in certain regions or engaging in certain occupations; instead, the burdens of sound ecological policies should be distributed fairly among those able to bear them.73

f) Catholics should support international social justice. Since there is a universal common good, the good of humankind as a whole, which neither national governments nor existing international organizations adequately serve, Catholics should support the self-limitation of its sovereignty on the part of their nation and its collaboration in developing a worldwide political authority capable of discerning and evaluating problems which affect the universal common good, and effectively directing international cooperation toward their just resolution.74

Pending the development of such an authority, Catholics should support the participation of their government in existing international organizations to the extent the activities of the latter seem to serve the international common good. However, international organizations sometimes do unjust acts or adopt unjust policies, for example, impose excessive sanctions on some nation or establish programs to foster immoral methods of population control. In such cases, Catholics should oppose their nation’s cooperation in the injustice and support its efforts to prevent or rectify it.

Like individuals, nations are equal in their human dignity and basic rights. Thus, Catholics should urge their nation to follow the Golden Rule in its relations with other nations: to respect every other nation’s right to independence, and to fulfill faithfully treaties and other agreements made in accord with international law.75 They should support their government’s respect for the identity of each people, with its own history and culture, and should oppose treating any nation as inferior, due to its comparative military or economic weakness, smaller size, or the different character of its people.76

Since strict justice requires those with adequate means not to allow others’ basic human needs to go unmet, Catholics living in affluent nations should support public programs and policies to assist poorer nations: to help them develop themselves in accord with their own national character and identity, to regulate trade relations with them so that they will receive what they need in exchange for what they can supply, and to restructure or even cancel debts which they cannot pay without undue hardship to their people.77 Catholics also should support the equitable inclusion of the poorer nations in all bodies which will make decisions about world trade, international monetary arrangements, and other matters which will affect their economic interests.78

If one foreign power has unjustly attacked another, Catholics should oppose abandoning the victim of unjust attack and support assisting it.79 If their government favors one party to an international conflict against the just claims of another, Catholic citizens should oppose that unjust foreign policy.

“The arms race wounds humankind most gravely, and injures the poor to an intolerable degree” (GS 81).80 For their own nations, therefore, Catholics should support arms limitation and mutual disarmament (see GS 82). They also should oppose foreign policies which encourage poorer nations to use their limited resources on armaments. International trade in armaments often is carried on for purely economic motives; laws and policies to eliminate the arms trade should be supported except insofar as that trade is a necessary means to maintaining or restoring just peace.81

3. One Should Vote Conscientiously

Many citizens regard voting as a privilege which, morally speaking, they are entirely free to exercise or not, just as they please. But Vatican II, having taught that it is in accord with human nature that all citizens should be able to participate freely and actively in shaping political structures and choosing leaders, draws the conclusion: “Therefore, all citizens are to bear in mind that it is both their right and duty to use their free vote to promote the common good” (GS 75).82

Perhaps because major, general, national elections receive great attention from the media, some people vote in them but omit voting in other elections and/or in primaries. Similarly, some people vote for candidates for office but omit voting on the issues which have been placed on the ballot. As a rule, however, an election’s outcome is likely to affect many people in significant ways, so the duty to vote is not limited to elections which draw more attention and seem more important.

Totalitarian regimes sometimes conduct elections for mere show, and even in democratic societies an election occasionally offers no option which makes any detectable difference to the common good. In such cases, there is no obligation to vote and there may even be an obligation to refuse to do so.

a) The limited impact of one vote is not an excuse for failing to vote. Since elections are almost never decided by a single vote, many people think their vote will make little difference, and use this as an excuse for not voting. This excuse is unsound for two reasons.

First, even if one’s single vote made no difference, one should vote in order to be fair to more conscientious fellow citizens. If the thoughtful and conscientious do not vote, elections will be decided by those whose motives are not rational or are purely selfish, with disastrous results for the common good. Since any rational person wants others who are thoughtful and conscientious to vote, it is unfair then to excuse oneself from voting because a single vote will not make a difference.

An analogy will help to make the point clear. Many people are tempted to pick a single flower from a lovely display in a public park, but if many give in to the temptation, the display will be spoiled. Therefore, all who enjoy the flowers as they stroll through the park hope that others will not pick them and resent it if they notice someone doing so. Thus, if one makes an exception in favor of oneself—“This blossom will make a fine boutonnière and nobody will miss it”—one violates the Golden Rule.

Second, since politics is an ongoing process, votes can have important political effects even when not decisive. The size of the vote by which a candidate wins often affects the candidate’s power while in office. Hence, it usually is worthwhile to use one’s vote to widen the margin by which a good candidate wins or narrow the margin by which a bad one wins. Moreover, the size of a losing candidate’s vote often determines whether he or she will again be nominated or run for the same office or another one. From this perspective, too, it often is worthwhile to use one’s vote for a good candidate or against a bad one.

b) One should prepare adequately before voting. Since voting is a duty which must be carried out in view of the common good, responsible voting requires careful consideration of what really is at stake in any particular election. What one-sided advertisements say about issues and candidates seldom provides a sufficient basis for judgment.83 Instead, one should critically consider available information, and then judge which choice is more likely to promote the common good. It is not sufficient to weigh how voting for a particular candidate or position on an issue will benefit oneself, since self-interest need not coincide with the common good.

In considering candidates, a voter should assess their qualifications for the office they are seeking. Their past experience and intellectual gifts are relevant. Pleasing personality can help a public official deal effectively with people, but should not be overrated as a qualification; good character is far more important. Candidates who say they are personally opposed to grave injustices but could not refuse to cooperate in them manifest readiness gravely to violate their victims’ rights and, thus, the common good. They are either badly confused, gravely dishonest, or both. For, as John XXIII teaches,

It is quite impossible for political leaders to lay aside their natural dignity while acting in their country’s name and in its interests. They are still bound by the natural law, which is the rule that governs all moral conduct, and they have no authority to depart from its slightest precepts.84
Therefore, one should not vote for a candidate who says, “I’m personally opposed to such-and-such an injustice, but . . .,” unless the alternative is even worse.

Sometimes the best way to judge how to vote is to follow someone else’s advice. As on any other matter, however, no one should trust the advice of others without good reasons for thinking they have the resources to make a sound judgment and no motive for providing unsound advice. Plainly, these conditions often are not met by those who offer unsought advice about how to vote.

Sometimes, one’s deliberation leads to incommensurable reasons for and against each option. In such cases, however, it usually is possible to make a choice supported by reasons and guided by discernment, and this should be done. But if, having done what can and should be done to prepare to vote, one still finds no firm, rational basis for making a choice, it is right to abstain from voting on that office or that matter.

c) One should not vote unquestioningly for a party. Some people follow the recommendations of a certain political party by voting for all its candidates and positions on ballot questions. Even if one party is plainly preferable, however, no party is perfect, and unquestioning adherence to any party is unreasonable. Rather, both the parties and the candidates, as well as any specific issues which will be decided by vote should be considered on their merits.

Parties have different degrees of importance in different constitutional systems. In parliamentary systems, stability often requires that one party win a majority, so that it can organize the government; members of parliament often must vote with their party leaders on important issues. Voters must therefore take into account that in voting for a certain candidate they are likely to be supporting the positions of that candidate’s party and may be voting for government by that party.

In the United States, it is likely to be somewhat less important what party has a majority in a legislative body. But candidates for the chief office in the executive branch—president, governor, mayor—often urge the election of legislators of their party, on the ground that the legislature’s support will be needed for effective government. That argument can be sound in some cases, and insofar as it is, voters should look beyond the merits of particular candidates and consider how the election of each individual would affect each party’s impact, for good or ill, on the common good.

Still, a particular candidate’s election always affects the common good to some extent by empowering not only his or her party but the candidate personally. Therefore, even in a parliamentary system, and more so in a system where parties are less important, the merits of both the parties and the candidates should be considered. A candidate should not be preferred on the basis of his or her party without reconsidering the merits of each party, which, of course, partly depend on the merits of the whole slate of candidates of each.

d) One sometimes should vote for the less bad of two unworthy candidates. As explained above (in a), one usually should vote for good candidates even if they seem certain to lose. However, sometimes there are three or more candidates, no worthy candidate has any chance of winning, and the race is close between two unworthy candidates, one clearly worse than the other. Then, instead of voting for a worthy candidate as a mere gesture which will have little significant effect on the common good, one should try to prevent the election of the worse of the unworthy candidates by voting for his or her less bad opponent.

e) The responsibility to vote can be a grave matter. There can be adequate excuses for omitting to prepare for an election and to vote, such as serious illness or the press of other responsibilities. Moreover, the guilt of many who fail to vote undoubtedly is mitigated by lack of clarity about the duty and/or by the fact that their omission results from inattention rather than from choice.

Yet even though the duty to prepare oneself and vote in certain elections might be light matter, the responsibility is grave in principle, since the common good is very important and will be seriously affected if people fail to vote conscientiously.85 When the duty to vote is grave, it is even more clearly a grave matter to violate conscience or ignore the common good in deciding how to vote, for example, deliberately to vote on the basis of self-interest against the common good or to disregard the common good and sell one’s vote.

4. One Sometimes Should Participate More Actively in Politics

In most situations, most Christians have no obligation to contribute money or services to a political party, work in any candidate’s campaign, promote the approval or defeat of a measure on the ballot, or seek or accept any public office. Many people lack the resources and gifts for such activities, and Christians whose lives are organized, as they should be, in accord with their personal vocations are likely to be preoccupied with other responsibilities.

In some situations, nevertheless, there is an obligation to become more actively engaged in politics. That will be so if one judges that the common good is seriously at stake, the need for one’s contribution is urgent, and involvement will not require doing something wrong in itself or unjustifiably neglecting other responsibilities.

a) Public office should be accepted as a service. Anyone who might seek or accept public office will be encouraged by Vatican II’s affirmation: “The Church considers worthy of praise and respect the work of those who, as a service to others, devote themselves to the public good and accept the burdens of this role” (GS 75). That can include a rather large number of people at some point in their lives, since offices differ greatly in the gifts they require and the burdens they impose. Membership on a local school board or library committee might well be within the capacity of someone unsuited for higher offices; similarly, temporary service in some office might well be compatible with other elements of the vocation of a person not free to make public service a career.

b) Active participation in politics can be virtuous. Typically, someone who takes a proportionalist approach will rationalize particular political acts at odds with the common good on the ground that they are indispensable means of serving it more adequately on the whole: “I must try to satisfy that group’s unjust demands in order to gain (or retain) office so that I can work for social justice” or “To gain the votes necessary to pass this good program we must support an amendment whose whole purpose is to satisfy that group’s unjust demands.”

Nevertheless, someone motivated by a spirit of service to the common good can engage in politics without moral compromise.

To accomplish this requires a full-scale battle and a determination to overcome every temptation, such as recourse to disloyalty and to falsehood, the waste of public funds for the advantage of a few and those with special interests, and the use of ambiguous and illicit means for acquiring, maintaining and increasing power at any cost.86
Of course, the refusal to compromise generally will lead to the loss of some political support and sometimes will result in the loss of an election. Thus, someone uprightly engaging in politics must detach himself or herself from success and be prepared to yield power.

Even when others use dishonest methods, faithful Christians sometimes can cooperate to some extent, provided they avoid formal cooperation in wrongdoing. But no Christian may support any political organization whose main purpose is to further partisan interests at the expense of the common good or whose ideology is at odds with Christian faith and morals. (However, political parties can rightly promote particular interests insofar as these are likely to contribute to the common good, and, while the platforms of parties in liberal democracies often include morally unacceptable proposals, most parties avoid major ideological commitments incompatible with Christian faith.)

27. See Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, ASS 18 (1885) 177–78, PE, 93.44–45.

28. See CIC, c. 222, §2.

29. By the same token, larger governmental units should not assume the responsibilities of regional and local governments, but should support them as necessary in meeting responsibilities. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 48, AAS 83 (1991) 853–54, OR, 6 May 1991, 13, affirms that the state has competence in the economic sphere, namely, to create favorable conditions, to regulate for the common good, and even at times to substitute temporarily for private enterprise. He then criticizes the excesses of the welfare (or social assistance) state, explaining (854): “Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good [note omitted].” The passage quoted in 6.E.5.d follows immediately.

30. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day, 3, AAS 80 (1988) 99–100, OR, 16 Mar. 1987, 7.

31. See CIC, c. 227; cf. GS 43.

32. See Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, ASS 18 (1885) 163–64, PE, 93.6; United States Hierarchy, “Pastoral Letter on Mexico” (12 Dec. 1926), 23, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 1:346–47.

33. See National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” 182, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:434.

34. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 24, AAS 74 (1982) 110, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 5.

35. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 22, AAS 73 (1981) 634, PE, 280.104.

36. United States Catholic Conference, “Pastoral Statement of the United States Catholic Bishops on Handicapped People” (15 Nov. 1978), 8, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 4:269.

37. John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 286, PE, 270.106, teaches: “And among man’s personal rights we must include his right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants and—so far as the good of their own community, rightly understood, permits—to further the aims of those who may wish to become members of a new society.”

38. For example, by regularizing the status of as many undocumented immigrants as possible; see Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Together, a New People: Pastoral Statement on Migrants and Refugees” (8 Nov. 1986), 23, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:340.

39. See John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 77, AAS 74 (1982) 176, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 16.

40. See John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 262–63, PE, 270.23.

41. For example, expanded assistance to disadvantaged parents and their children; on this, see National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities: A Reaffirmation” (14 Nov. 1985), 37, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:207.

42. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Reply to Certain Questions of the Day, 3, AAS 80 (1988) 99, OR, 16 Mar. 1987, 7, teaches: “The law cannot tolerate—indeed it must expressly forbid—that human beings, even at the embryonic stage, should be treated as objects of experimentation, be mutilated or destroyed with the excuse that they are superfluous or incapable of developing normally.”

43. Holy See, Charter of the Rights of the Family, art. 4.c, EV 9 (1983–85) 475, OR, 28 Nov. 1983, 4.

44. The Committee on Social Development and World Peace, United States Catholic Conference, “Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life” (11 Sept. 1975), 9, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 4:67, urges the eventual elimination of handguns with exceptions “for the police, military, security guards, and pistol clubs where guns would be kept on the premises under secure conditions.”

45. See John Paul II, Address at the Therapeutic Center of San Crispino (Viterbo), 2–4, Inseg. 7.1 (1984) 1538–41, OR, 11 June 1984, 8–9.

46. See John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 36, AAS 83 (1991) 839, OR, 6 May 1991, 11.

47. See John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 259–60, PE, 270.11; John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 19, AAS 73 (1981) 628, PE, 280.93.

48. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Health and Health Care” (19 Nov. 1981), 5.56–63, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 4:483–85, is more specific and calls for the development of a national health insurance program.

49. See Pius XI, Casti connubii, AAS 22 (1930) 571–73, PE, 208.84–85.

50. See Holy See, Charter of the Rights of the Family, art. 1.c, EV 9 (1983–85) 473, OR, 28 Nov. 1983, 3.

51. See John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 30, AAS 74 (1982) 116–17, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 6; Sollicitudo rei socialis, 25, AAS 80 (1988) 544, OR, 29 Feb. 1988, 6.

52. See John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 24, AAS 74 (1982) 109, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 5; Paul VI, Humanae vitae, 22, AAS 60 (1968) 496–97, PE, 277.22.

53. See CIC, c. 799; cf. GE 7.

54. John Paul II, Address to Catholic School Pupils, 4, AAS 78 (1986) 1032, OR, 24 Mar. 1986, 10. Also see DH 5, GE 6; CIC, c. 797; cf. Edward N. Peters, “Canonical Responsibilities for Public Aid to Private Education,” Faith and Reason 16 (Spring 1990): 13–22; National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” 343, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:485.

55. Holy See, Charter of the Rights of the Family, art. 5.c, EV 9 (1983–85) 476, OR, 28 Nov. 1983, 4, declares: “In particular, sex education is a basic right of the parents and must always be carried out under their close supervision, whether at home or in educational centres chosen and controlled by them.” Cf. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 37, AAS 74 (1982) 128, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 8.

56. See National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Statement on School-Based Clinics” (18 Nov. 1987), 13–16, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:602–3.

57. See John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 23, AAS 74 (1982) 108–9, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 5.

58. See John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 19, AAS 73 (1981) 627–28, PE, 280.90–91.

59. For example, provisions which condition public assistance to poor children on the absence of the father; see National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” 207 (“The nation’s social welfare and tax policies should support parents’ decisions to care for their own children”) and 214 (on the working of a major welfare program), in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:442–43.

60. Holy See, Charter of the Rights of the Family, art. 11, EV 9 (1983–85) 480, OR, 28 Nov. 1983, 4.

61. See Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission, What Have You Done to Your Homeless Brother? The Church and the Housing Problem (Document on the Occasion of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless), 3, OR, 8 Feb. 1988, 11–12.

62. See Holy See, Charter of the Rights of the Family, art. 9.d, EV 9 (1983–85) 479, OR, 28 Nov. 1983, 4.

63. John Paul II, Homily at Mass in Recife (Brazil), 5, AAS 72 (1980) 929, OR, 4 Aug. 1980, 10.

64. See John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 15, AAS 83 (1991) 812–13, OR, 6 May 1991, 7; National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” 119–24 and 136–69, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:415–17 and 420–30.

65. For example, unemployment benefits, job training or retraining programs, subsidies for jobs in the private sector, and the creation of public service jobs. In addition to the places cited in the previous note, see John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 18, AAS 73 (1981) 622–23, PE, 280.82.

66. See Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, ASS 23 (1890–91) 662–63, PE, 115.46–47; John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 420–21 and 428–29, PE, 267.75–77 and 113–15.

67. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 48, AAS 83 (1991) 852–53, OR, 6 May 1991, 13, teaches that, especially in a market economy, economic activity “presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence the principal task of the State is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labours and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly.”

68. See Pius XI, Quadragesimo anno, AAS 23 (1931) 210–11, PE, 209.105–8; John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 422, PE, 267.84–85.

69. The papal teachings cited in the Council’s n. 7 (n. 219 in Abbott) make it clear that what is at stake here is some form of institutionalized participation in planning and decision making. See also National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” 298–301, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:470–72.

70. See Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, ASS 23 (1890–91) 663–68, PE, 115.48–58; John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 7, AAS 83 (1991) 801–2, OR, 6 May 1991, 6.

71. John XXIII, Mater et magistra, AAS 53 (1961) 434, PE, 267.132.

72. For example, sales or excise taxes on necessities; see National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” 202, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:440.

73. See National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Renewing the Earth” (14 Nov. 1991), Origins 21 (12 Dec. 1991): 426.

74. See GS 82; John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 291–96, PE, 270.130–45; John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 58, AAS 83 (1991) 863–64, OR, 6 May 1991, 15; National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All,” 322–24, in Pastoral Letters, ed. Nolan, 5:478–79. Also see Rodger Charles, S.J., and Drostan Maclaren, O.P., The Social Teaching of Vatican II: Its Origin and Development (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 256–60.

75. See Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus, AAS 31 (1939) 438, PE, 222.74.

76. See John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 33, AAS 80 (1988) 558, OR, 29 Feb. 1988, 8–9.

77. See GS 85–86; Paul VI, Populorum progressio, 43–50, AAS 59 (1967) 278–82, PE, 275.43–50; John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 33–35, AAS 83 (1991) 834–38, OR, 6 May 1991, 10–11.

78. See Synod of Bishops, Second General Assembly (1971), Justice in the World, 3.4, EV 4 (1971–73) 832–33, Flannery, 2:708.

79. See Pius XII, Christmas Message (24 Dec. 1948), AAS 41 (1949) 12–13, Catholic Mind 47 (Mar. 1949): 184–85.

80. See also John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 286–88, PE, 270.109–13.

81. See John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 24, AAS 80 (1988) 541–42, OR, 29 Feb. 1988, 6.

82. A helpful study: Titus Cranny, S.A., The Moral Obligation of Voting (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1952).

83. See Eric Clark, The Want Makers: The World of Advertising: How They Make You Buy (New York: Viking, 1989), 291–314.

84. John XXIII, Pacem in terris, AAS 55 (1963) 279–80, PE, 270.81. Likewise, Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, ASS 18 (1885) 179, PE, 93.47, teaches: “It is unlawful to follow one line of conduct in private life and another in public, respecting privately the authority of the Church, but publicly rejecting it; for this would amount to joining together good and evil, and to putting man in conflict with himself; whereas he ought always to be consistent, and never in the least point nor in any condition of life to swerve from Christian virtue.”

85. See Pius XII, Address to the Lenten Preachers of Rome (16 Mar. 1946); Discorsi e radiomessaggi, 8 (1946–47): 19; Papal Teachings: Directives to Lay Apostles, ed. Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, trans. E. O’Gorman, R.S.C.J. (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1963), 89. Subsequently, facing the possibility that a Marxist regime would be elected in Italy, Pius restated the norm even more forcefully (Address to the Pastors of Rome [10 Mar. 1948], AAS 40 [1948] 119, Papal Teachings: Directives to Lay Apostles, 89–90): “In the present circumstances it is a strict obligation for all who have the right, both men and women, to take part in the elections. Whoever abstains from voting, especially through indolence or laxness, is guilty by that fact of a grave sin, a mortal offense.” Also see Wright, National Patriotism in Papal Teaching, 175–76; John H. Schwarz, “The Moral Obligations of Voting,” American Ecclesiastical Review 105 (Oct. 1941): 289–304.

86. John Paul II, Christifideles laici, 42, AAS 81 (1989) 473–74, OR, 6 Feb. 1989, 14.