Politics can be a messy affair, often distressing, but it is a Catholic’s responsibility in this world to vote his informed conscience, in order to work for the betterment of society and uphold justice and the right. To abdicate our role without grave cause is a sin of omission.

But what is a Catholic to do when he feels that he has no good options? Some people, after serious consideration and prayer, may feel that they cannot vote for any candidate. (We are hearing more of this, this year than at any time in recent memory.) On the other hand, there are those who argue that too much is at stake to withhold one’s vote; we just have to hold our noses, as it were, and vote for the person calculated to be the lesser of two evils. It is dilemma of conscience.

Yet there is a more troubling aspect of our present dilemma. People are frustrated, not only with their prospects in life, or the inequities and difficulties of our present economy; they are increasingly frustrated with democracy itself, and many seem bent on using their vote as a protest against our present democratic system. Frustration has made them reckless with their vote. Different reasons are given for this. But there is one fundamental fact that is often overlooked. The people themselves ultimately govern in a democracy.

Looking back we can see the large number of otherwise decent folk who have been content to complain about the government for years, but otherwise remain personally uninvolved in the important task of working for constructive change, Many feel their job done by merely voting for one of the candidates presented to them, but have never taking any greater part in the selection of those candidates or thrashing out the issues of society. These armchair critics are no frustrated with those in office or those running for office. But don’t they themselves (I am speaking of the greater proportion of the American people) bear some substantial responsibility for the present shambles in government?

This is the problem Pope Francis has rightly and powerfully spoken in correction:

None of us can say, ‘I have nothing to do with this, they govern…’ No, no, I am responsible for their governance, and I have to do the best so that they govern well, and I have to do my best by participating in politics according to my ability. Politics, according to the Social Doctrine of the Church, is one of the highest forms of charity, because it serves the common good. I cannot wash my hands, eh? We all have to give something! […]

A good Catholic meddles in politics, offering the best of himself, so that those who govern can govern.


(Daily Mass Homily, 16 September 2013)

The point here is that making a democracy work requires a great deal of conscientious thought and practical legwork from its citizenry. But too many Americans have relegated all the heavy lifting of politics and government to a professional class of hirelings, who, they have at last discovered, often work for lobbyists and well endowed financial interests. They are disgusted and distressed, but in the end, they still want simple solutions that leave them free to get on with their own private affairs. To think that democracy will ever work well in such a situation is a pipe dream.

But people will ask, “What can we ever hope to accomplish against such a system?”

I cannot say what any individual can do or is capable of doing, but at least we can do what St. Paul suggests for all Christian people: we can pray. To this we might add the simple, commonsense suggestion: get informed and think things through fairly and dispassionately, and pray. Pray earnestly and from the heart for your people and for the world. But then give wings to your prayers, as you are allowed to do in a democracy. Back up your convictions with whatever practical work you can do in conversations with your fellow-citizens, writing letters and opinion pieces for the papers, local meetings, and political and social action on every level available to you.

Long have we Christians complained of being progressively excluded from the public square by an increasingly aggressive secularism in our society. Why should we complain, when we have left the field and fortified the rostrum of public opinion?

Democracy has always been like this, since the first New England town meetings in this country and elsewhere long before. Speak up and press your point or lose your voice. A right unexercised is a right soon lost. That’s the verdict of history.

Alister Cooke, commenting on some ominous trends he saw in America in the 1970s, recalled the saying of “a wise Frenchman” that “liberty is the luxury of self-discipline.” To this I would add that this means a good amount of hard work in persuading and organizing with our fellow citizens. In the end I believe that the foundation of this all must lie in the cultivation of a strong moral character in our people – more work, a never-ending job. The people must possess moral character to be capable of selecting candidates who are honest, of sound judgment and steady temperament, with the same good moral character – and hold them accountable. For the edifice of local and national government must either rest upon a broad moral foundation or surely it will in time fail.

Catholics can no longer deliver the vote, as once we did. And the reason is simple: too many of us are unwilling to do the hard, responsible work of a free people. Let us hope and pray that we can wake up to our duty.

There is no patent recipe for getting good citizenship. You get it by applying the hold, old rules of decent conduct, the rules in accordance with which decent men have had to shape their lives from the beginning… fundamental precepts put forth in the Bible are embodied consciously or unconsciously in the code of morals of every great and successful nation from antiquity to modern times.

There is small need to devise new rules of moral conduct. The need comes, first, in applying those we have to concrete cases; and, second, in acting upon them when thus applied. The first is important; the second is even more important…

You are not going to make any new commandments at this stage which will supply the place of the old ones. The truths which were true at the foot of Mt. Sinai are true now. The truths that were true when the Golden Rule was promulgated are true now.

No man is a good citizen unless he so acts as to show that he actually uses the Ten Commandments, and translates the Golden Rule into his life conduct … in the ordinary affairs of everyday life.

Theodore Roosevelt, on Good Citizenship

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *