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 Gravity of the Obligation of Voting - Episcopal Directives 
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The following is an exact reproduction of chapter 2b of The Moral Obligation of Voting, Rev. Titus Cranny, The Catholic University of America Press, 1952, pgs 63-77.




b. From Episcopal Directives

Advice and exhortation to use the ballot as a means of promoting the cause of religion and the welfare of the country were by no means limited to the Popes. Again and again in many parts of the world the bishops of the Church have raised their voices to urge and command the faithful to discharge their obligation of using the franchise.

In 1921 Cardinal Amette, Archbishop of Paris, addressed a pastoral to his flock on this duty. Later, in a joint letter to all French Catholics, the hierarchy gave this message:

It is a duty of conscience for all citizens honored with the right of suffrage to vote honestly and wisely with the sole aim of benefiting the country. The citizens are subject to divine law as is the Church. Of our votes, as of all our actions, God will demand an account. The duty of voting is so much the more binding upon conscience because of its good or evil exercise depends the gravest interests of the country and of religion.

It is your duty to vote. To neglect to do so would be a culpable abdication of duty on your part. It is your duty to vote honestly; that is to say, for men worthy of your esteem and trust. It is your duty to vote wisely; that is to say, in such a way as not to waste your votes. It would be better to cast them for candidates who, although not giving complete satisfaction to all our legitimate demands, would lead us to expect from them a line of conduct useful to the country, rather than to keep your votes for others whose program indeed may be more perfect, but whose almost certain defeat might open the door to the enemies of religion and of the social order. [76]

Again in a joint pastoral of February 6, 1924, the French hierarchy repeated their advice that the faithful should use their vote and use it honestly.

Cardinal Verdier, Archbishop of Paris, wrote of the obligations of voting in his Le petit manuel des questions contemporaines in the following way. He called the vote “the normal means of contributing to the good management of the public office.” [77]

Since citizens choose government officials by their votes, and to a certain degree control their activities in office, we must say that it is every citizen’s duty to vote. His vote is the normal means of contributing to the good management of public office. If a citizen votes wisely, he will usually be able to check evil, and will, at times, effect real good. In any event, he will always add prestige to a good cause by increasing the number of votes in its favor.

A citizen’s obligation to vote is still more grave when in certain circumstances his failure to vote is likely to bring about the election of a poor candidate, who might do harm by aiding and abetting measures contrary to religion, to morality, and to the true interests of his country. [78]

Cardinal Suhard, also Archbishop of Paris, sent a letter to his clergy (as given in La Croix, April 27, 1946) reminding the faithful of the duty to vote. He declared that abstention would be gravely sinful and asked the “Christians to ensure by their votes respect for the rights of the human person and for the liberty of the family, the protection of the interests and dignity of the workers, the defense of the individual, civic and religious liberties, and the maintenance in France of a spiritual ideal corresponding to the genius of the nation.” [79]

Later the same year for the feast of Christ the King (October 31) he issued a statement to be read in all churches under his jurisdiction. His instructions on the obligation of voting were the following:

1. It is necessary to vote. That is an absolute duty. Abstention would constitute a grave fault. It is inexcusable.

2. It is necessary to vote justly. That is to say: For social progress, particularly the increasing amelioration of the condition of the workers and their effectual participation in the life of the nation, for the affirmation and safeguarding of individual of individual, family, civic, and religious duties.

3. It is necessary to vote usefully. That is to say, with a sense of what is opportune. To know how to renounce partisan bitterness or even legitimate preferences. To bring votes to the list which, taking account of local conditions, seem to have the most chance of ensuring the success of the ideas enumerated above. [80]

In the important elections of June, 1951, nearly all the bishops of France issued pastoral letters on the duty of voting. In printing a selection of these statements, La Croix said it was impossible to quote them all. They were cast in similar terms, insisting (1) upon the duty of voting and (2) upon the duty of voting only for those candidates who were prepared to support spiritual values and in particular to support a true freedom of choice in education that would make it possible for parents to send their children to Catholic Schools. Such were the statements of Cardinal Gerlier and Cardinal Lienhart. [81]

Archbishop Feltin of Paris said that to abstain was treason. [82] Archbishop Richaud of Bordeaux declared that no one was free from grave sin for not voting unless it were actually impossible for him to do so. [83] Archbishop Lefebre of Bourges said there was no excuse for abstaining simply because one had been disappointed with the performance of a party in which he had placed his hopes. [84] Bishop Jaquin of Moulins reminded his flock that none could do anything that would favor Communism, while Bishop Mathieu of Aire and Dax declared that it was not enough simply to register a vote against Communism, since the French Socialist Party had always shown a constant malevolent opposition to Catholic ideals. [85]

When the French people failed to vote in the elections of October 7, 1951, several members of the Hierarchy issued statements condemning such indifference. Cardinal Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyons, and Cardinal Lienart, Bishop of Lille, were particularly outspoken. “To vote,” said Cardinal Lienart, “is a serious obligation, abstention from which would be a sin. Each person has one vote. If he does not express his wishes by casting his ballot, it is equivalent to giving an extra vote to the opposition. One does not escape his responsibilities as a citizen by not voting, he increases them.” [85]

During the restless post-war years in Italy members of the Hierarchy followed the lead of the Holy Father in stressing the moral obligation of voting. They wrote at length on this duty for all the faithful. Some pointed out that abstention from the polls would be gravely sinful; that voting for enemies of the Church would be a mortal sin; and all urged their subjects to vote for candidates who would benefit the Church and the nation.

In his Lenten pastoral of 1946 Cardinal Salotti repeated the message of the Holy Father and went on to say:

As a shepherd of souls I have not only the right but the duty to enlighten my flock on the difficulties and dangers of this moment of historic importance. The present hour is so dark and the dangers of such magnitude threaten, that all citizens must interest themselves in the elections. Absenteeism is today a grievous fault, due to egoism or weakness, fear, if not cowardice. It would be wrong to assume that one vote more or less matters little. Majorities can be won or lost by a few votes only. Enemies of God and the Church will go to the polls in a compact mass – why should Catholics do otherwise? One does not favor the humble or the poor by staying at home on election day. [86]

Cardinal Fossati, Archbishop of Turin, urged the faithful to support those candidates who gave proof of their honesty, of the practice of religion, of obedience to the Church and to the Holy See, and of understanding and observing the principles of Christian sociology for the welfare of the workers and the good of the country. [87] Cardinal Ruffini, Archbishop of Palermo, and the hierarchy of Sicily declared that “No one should abstain from voting for any reason whatsoever” [88] and that to vote for evil men was contrary to religion and moral principles.

In February, 1948, Cardinal Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, whose diocese is the largest in Italy and regarded as the most important politically outside of Rome, wrote a circular to his clergy on the significance of voting. Recalling the instructions already issued by Cardinal Piazza of Venice, he went on to say that absolution must be refused to Communists and to members of movements contrary to the Christian faith, when the people formally adhere to the errors contained in these doctrines and secondly, when they cooperate, even if only materially and especially by giving their vote to these nefarious groups, and by refusing to discontinue their cooperation after a warning. [89] He added:

The Church recognizes any form of legitimate government, provided it is organized according to the laws and aimed at the achievement of the common welfare. It is the duty of Christians to vote in political and administrative elections, and the vote of everyone should be free and given according to his conscience. It is gravely unlawful for any of the faithful to give their votes to candidates, or lists of candidates, that are manifestly contrary to the Church. [90]

In March, 1948, the Sacred Consistorial Congregation declared that all the citizens of Italy were bound to vote, but only for “those candidates in which there is a certainty that they will respect and defend the observance of the divine laws and the rights of religion and of the Church in both private and public life.” [91]

The Archbishops and Bishops of Liguria told their people to use the ballot, especially to oppose Communism, and to vote “in accordance with conscience or else they not only sin mortally, but likewise become responsible for all the consequences of their action. Confessors are bound to comply with this ruling (of refusing absolution to those who refuse to give up Communism) in the execution of their high office…when denying or granting the sacrament of penance.” [92]

Three years later in 1951 Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa of Florence told the faithful of his archdiocese that failure to vote in certain critical circumstances was a more grievous sin than missing Sunday Mass or neglecting the annual Easter Communion. Such were his strong words:

Even township elections can cause enormous damage to our institutions. To realize the importance of this it is enough to observe that whoever abstains from voting, or who votes for individuals who oppose Christian faith and morals, automatically makes himself responsible for all the damages that come after that to souls and to consciences. He thus makes himself guilty of a sin much greater than missing Mass on Sunday or not making the Easter Duty. The latter are individual sins, whereas a badly given vote or a neglected vote is a social sin which damages – and oh how gravely it damages – the community, the countryside and the very state itself. [93]

Cardinal Schuster also told his people to vote in this vital election affecting “our religion and our future” because “it will decide whether Italy will remain free and Catholic, or whether it will be grouped among the states which are satellites of the Soviet Union.” [94] He called upon the priests to offer prayers for three days prior to the election for the defeat of Communism. The bishops of the regions of Liguria and Emilia urged their flocks to vote against the enemies of religion. [95] The semi-official paper of the Vatican, L’Osservatore Romano, devoted a front page article to the “Peremptory Duty” of voting in the elections to subdue the forces of evil. [96]

It will be understood, of course, that these admonitions and commands from the hierarchy dealt with grave circumstances so that the obligation of voting at these times were grave. But they illustrate the gravity of the duty in times of crisis and certainly the principle holds in all times of similar character.

The members of the Dutch Hierarchy stressed the obligation of voting in a letter dated May 12, 1946. After quoting the Holy Father’s words from the allocution of March 16, they reminded the faithful that voting in Holland was a legal duty as well as a moral right and it should be taken seriously since the elections would “decide the broad outline of Government policy, and of the spiritual and material reconstruction of the fatherland.” [97] They continued:

In the past years we have experienced the true significance of the people being deprived of any real influence in State administration. For this reason all Catholics must fulfill the obligation to vote imposed upon them by law; and since political life must also be based on the spiritual principles of Christianity, they must consider themselves bound to elect only those persons whom they may reasonably expect to be guided by these principles in the spheres of legislation and administration. The fulfillment of these ideals is, under the given circumstances, in the opinion of the episcopate, best guaranteed by the Catholic People’s Party. [98]

Perhaps one of the finest and most important statements issued by any member of the Catholic episcopate was that of Cardinal Hlond drawn up at Jasna Gora September 10, 1946. Distributed to the clergy in stenciled copies because the government would not allow its printing, it took six weeks for circulation before it could be read simultaneously in all churches October 20. It was not published in any secular newspapers and Catholic papers were allowed to print only resumes and short tracts The following principles might well be adopted by all the faithful (the full text may be found in the appendix):

The Electoral Duties of Catholics….Participation in voting is an essential necessity for a democratic state, and is both a right and an obligation of all citizens. From this the following conclusions result: -

1. Catholics, as members of a State community, have the right of expressing their political convictions.
2. Catholics have the right to decide by their votes the most essential laws of Polish public life.
3. Catholics have a civic, national and religious duty to take part in the elections.
4. Catholics may not belong to organizations or parties the principles of which contradict Christian teaching, or the deeds and activities of which aim in reality to the undermining of Christian ethics.
5. Catholics may vote only for such persons, list of candidates, and electoral programmes, as are not opposed to Catholic teaching and morality.
6. Catholics may neither vote nor put themselves forward as candidates for electoral lists the programmes or governing methods of which are repugnant to common sense, to the well-being of the nation and the State, to Christian morality and the Catholic outlook.
7. Catholics should only vote for candidates of tried probity and righteousness who deserve confidence and are worthy representatives of the well-being of the Polish State, and of the Church.
8. Catholics cannot refrain from voting without a fair and wise reason; for each vote, given according to the above recommendations, either promotes the common good or prevents evil. [99]

Cardinal Griffin of Westminster delivered a statement on “The Christian Duties in Political, Civil and Industrial Life” as his Lenten pastoral of 1948. He gave special place and emphasis to the obligation of voting by all Christian citizens. We may quote his words in part: “There are some who boast that because of the corruption of politicians they refuse to vote. It is my duty to tell you that the Catholic citizen has an obligation to vote. The Holy Father himself recently declared that when grave issues are at stake to neglect to vote may be a serious sin of omission.” [100]

He then explained that the Church does not interfere with the freedom of Catholics in voting according to their consciences. The faithful may vote for any party or candidate provided they do not hold teachings contrary to religion. IN this connection the cardinal quoted the words of Cardinal Bourne in 1931:

First, in this country a man or woman is free to join the political Party which makes the greatest appeal to his sympathy and understanding. Secondly, having done so, she or she must be on guard against erroneous principles, which, on account of the affiliations which affect these parties, are to some extent at work within them. Thirdly, he may never deliver himself or his conscience, wholly into the keeping of any political Party. When his religious faith and his conscience come into conflict with the claims of the Party, he must obey his conscience and withstand the demands which his Party make upon him. [101]

Cardinal Griffin warned against the thinking that one vote can make little difference; usually the number of people who reason this way is such that the result of an election might have been altered by those who neglected to vote. Catholics, he said, share in the responsibility of the community and they must realize that they who have the right to vote are in some manner responsible for the actions of those in high office. [102]

Another group of bishops who insisted upon the obligation of Catholics to use their right of voting was the Hierarchy of the Philippine Islands who issued their pastoral under date of May 21, 1949. They declared that “It is…the most sacred duty of the voter carefully to examine candidates and their policies and above all, irrespective of political parties or factions, to cast his vote only for those whose principles will advance the best interests, moral and social, of the state.” [103] They exhorted their people to scorn bribes and to vote honestly to improve the working conditions and standard of living. “Treasure the right to vote, “ they urged, “exercise it freely, intelligently, and with the greatest vigilance, lest any man infringe on your legitimate liberty of choice.” [104]

Prior to the General Election in Great Britain February 23, 1950, the members of the Scottish Hierarchy sent out their own pastoral with principles fundamentally the same as those previously quoted but with a special reference to their local conditions.

1. No individual or party has a more pressing right to vote than another, where not particular moral principle is involved. No one may vote for parties or candidates opposed to the teachings of God and His Church. Thus Communism and atheistic materialism cannot have the vote of Catholics….Our Catholic people ought to be sufficiently mature to apply these principles when making their choice of candidates.

Again, our Catholic people should never act under the influence of party slogans, prejudices, or hatred, or at the orders of men who care nothing for them or for the religion they profess. It is common knowledge how Catholics have been induced to vote as Communists, men pledged to our extermination, by means of appeals to class hatred and cupidity.

A healthy realism is desirable in voters in time of an election. Since success depends on obtaining a majority every inducement is held out to attract voters. Promises made by politicians at lection and other times have been known to have been broken, so that it becomes of the greatest importance to judge a candidate by his sincerity rather than by his party label or the extravagances of promises. Our aim should be to elect good, sincere men, and not merely party politicians who have not mind of their own.” [105]

The Australian Hierarchy issued a letter “Morality in Public Life” September 4, 1950, printed in pamphlet form and distributed to all the faithful. Among other matters the document treated of the obligation of voting in these terms: “In the matters of politics…it would be a great mistake to believe that all the moral responsibility rests on the shoulders only of those who play an active part in public life.” [168]

This duty to use his political rights binds the Christian not only in elections to determine the government of the nation, but in local elections, and in others in which he is able to vote, such as his trade union, his employer’s or professional association.

Nor the does the duty of the Citizen begin and end on election day. The good citizen will always watch what is being done in his name, and by using all legitimate means within his power will endure that no legislation or other regulations will be passed which are contrary to the principles of natural law or religion. [107]

Turning to statements from the American Hierarchy we find the following eloquent message issued during the heated presidential campaign of 1840:

…reflect that you are accountable not only to society but to God, for the honest independent, and fearless exercise of your own franchise, that it is a trust confided to you not for your private gain, but for the public good, and if yielding to any undue influence you act either through favor, affection, or motives of dishonest gain against your own deliberate view of what will promote your country’s good, you have violated your conscience, you have betrayed your trust, and you are a renegade to your country. [108]

The in 1933 the Bishops of the Administrative Committees of the National Catholic Welfare Council called attention to the duty of voting as an obligation of piety. They declared:

In our form of government the obligation of bringing about a reform of the social order rests upon the citizens, who by their votes give a mandate to legislators and executives. They make evident a civic duty, and for us Catholics it is also a religious one governed by the virtue of piety; that is, a certain filial piety toward our country which impels us to promote the reform of the social order by voting for competent and conscientious men of high moral principles. [108]

The Most Rev. John McNicholas, Archbishop of Cincinnati, wrote at least three pastoral letters on the obligation of using the franchise. In 1929, 1935, and 1939 he sent out messages to be read in all the churches on the importance of voting and the obligation binding upon all. He asked that both men and women “vote in all elections” and “to make a sacrifice to discharge this important civic duty.” [109] He further asked that all Catholics not yet citizens become such as soon as possible and to use the right of voting as soon as they had secured it. “It is most important,” he declared, “that the good citizens be thoroughly impressed with the importance of voting. Those who habitually vote and those who habitually refrain from voting cannot but exercise an influence for good or evil on the community.” [110]

He rejected the notion that the single vote is of no consequence, asserting that all should form the “habit of voting.” Whether or not elections seem important, the principle of voting habitually is important. Only a conscientious judgment, seriously formed, can justify the voter in remaining away from the polls.” [111] The Archbishop continued:

The Catholic voter is asked to consider whether we can have any responsibility in our civil government except through recognized political parties, which will be held responsible to the people and which will merit either their approval or condemnation. The voter is asked to decide for himself what method of government or what party will impose the greatest responsibility on those who represent the people and who should exercise authority for the general welfare. The decision should be made according to the conscientious judgment of the individual. [112]

Other ordinaries have urged the obligation of voting as Archbishop Lucey of San Antonio and Bishop Mussio of Steubenville. Archbishop Cushing of Boston was particularly emphatic during the elections of 1948 when a Planned Parenthood Bill (birth prevention) sought entrance into the state legislature. “Both as a citizen and as a spokesman for morality,” he warned, “I am bound urgently to remind you of your solemn obligation to vote, and therefore to register and vote..” [113]

Within the more recent past Cardinal Spellman of New York wrote letters to his people informing them of their duty to use the ballot. In a letter dated October 4, 1949, he called the duty to register and vote as “our civic duty, and our religious duty.” He commented further:

As Americans every one of us is responsible for the preservation of our Democratic Republic. The Republic is our guarantee of liberty. The men and women elected to public office have the power to preserve or destroy that Republic. They wield that power as legislators, judges, and executives. We have the power to elect good Americans for these offices. We wield this power as voters on Registration and Election Days.

…Fro the continuation of the United States of America and for the safeguarding of our God-given liberty, I ask every eligible man and woman to do his or her conscientious duty by registering and voting. [114]

One year later he sent out another message to the people of New York (October 9, 1950) with the following content: “Therefore do I ask all of you who are eligible to register and vote, but I beg you remember that while this is your privilege and duty, it is also your sacred responsibility to vote for honest and able men. Dearly beloved, I pray you, be loyal Americans and true Catholics, protect your country, yourselves and your children: REGISTER AND VOTE!” [115]

In their pastoral of 1951 the American Hierarchy spoke of the need to “recover that sense of personal obligation on the part of the voter.” Later they referred to man’s being faithful to moral principles as “citizen, a voter, …and as a member of society.” [115a]

Thus have the official teachers of the Church, the members of the hierarchy, singled out and stressed the obligation of voting in civil elections. They have called it a duty not only to the State, but to God, a duty binding in conscience, a civil obligation with moral implications. They repeated the words of the Pope that in elections of serious moment, abstention from the polls, without reason, would be a mortal sin.

The bishops advised that the faithful must note only for those who will respect and defend the divine law and the rights of religion and of the Church both in private and public life; that they must vote wisely and honestly (or as others said, usefully and intelligently) for it is not sufficient to go to the polls and cast the ballot indifferently; that they must vote so as to ensure the rights of the human person and the liberty of the family, the protection of the interests and dignity of the workers, and to defend the individual, civic, and religious liberties.

They further declared that a person sins who votes for a candidate or list of candidates who are obviously against the Church. No one can belong to any party or organization or support any system whose principles contradict Christian teaching or whose activity undermines Christian morality. Moreover, the good citizen must vote not only in those elections which determine the national government, but all those of lesser magnitude, for upon them often hinges the kind of higher government.

It seems especially significant that these documents should appear in these times when the forces of atheistic dictatorships, Communist blocs, and ruthless, godless men strive to gain control of republican forms of government and of those blessings that so many hold as their precious heritage. However, such interest in the moral aspects of politics is nothing new for the leaders of the Church, for it is their duty to safeguard the faith, to protect religion, and to defend human rights. Courageous prelates of the Church always raise their voices to inculcate Christian teaching when the needs of the times demand it.

76. Given by Ryan-Boland, op. cit., 207-208.
77. (Paris, 1934), 35.
78. Ibid.
79. Talbet (London), 187: 5532 (May 18, 1946), 252.
80. Tablet (London), 188: 5557 (Nov. 9, 1946), 244.
81. Tablet (London), 197: 5795 (June 16, 1951), 485.
82. Ibid.
83. Ibid.
84. Ibid.
85. Ibid.
86. From “Salviamo-L’Italia – Let us save Italy,” Talbet (London), 187: 5526 (Apr. 6, 1946), 173.
87. Tablet (London), 191: 5624 (Mar. 6, 1948), 154.
88. Ibid.
89. Ibid., 150.
90. Ibid., 191: 5623 (Feb. 28, 1948), 138.
91. Ibid.
92. Ibid., 191: 5631 (Apr. 24, 1948), 260-261.
93. New York Herald Tribune, May 15, 1951, 5.
94. Ibid.
95. New York Times, 100: 34084 (May 20, 1951), 1:16.
96. Ibid.
97. Tablet (London), 187: 5532 (May 18, 1946), 252.
98. Ibid.
99. Ibid., 188: 5557 (Nov. 9, 1946), 244.
100. Catholic Mind, 46: 1028 (August 1948), 534.
101. Ibid.
102. Ibid.
103. Catholic Mind, 47: 1041 (Sept. 1949), 568-569.
104. Ibid.
105. “The principles: (a) Everyone has an immortal soul, and is created by God to know and love Him in this life, and to be happy with Him after death. In consequence we all belong to God. (b) This means that the family, the community, and the state, are but a means to a Divine end, and must be used as instruments to that end. (c) The duty of a government is to help its citizens towards God by providing them with the possibility of a decent living consonant with their status as children of God. It must also see that no section is favored at the expense of another. (d) The best help a Government can give is to secure the rights of the individual against public and private domination, and the right of private property, correctly interpreted, is the most important of these.” Tablet (London), 195: 5726 (Feb. 18, 1950), 136.
106. Catholic Mind, 48: 1054 (Oct. 1950), 636.
107. Ibid. Also: “Since the vocation of politics is so noble, it follows that the responsibilities of those who take part in politics are equally great. The men who govern the community, need therefore, to be very conscious of the truth, that although they may have been chosen b the people, the authority by which they govern comes from God. The authority is given to them so that they may secure the well being not only of their own nation, but, as far as they can, the good of men and women everywhere.” Ibid., 635. Again: “When the association of which he is a member adopts policies opposed to the moral law, or to the duties imposed by justice and charity, he cannot decline responsibility simply by saying that he did not vote for the policy in question or for the committee which formulated it. Nor is he free from blame when he failed to vote at all, for his very failure to vote was, in itself, a contribution to the injustice committed.” Ibid., 633-634.
108. Guilday, op. cit., 142-143.
108a. Huber, Raphael, The Bishops Speak (Milwaukee, 1952), 189.
109. Catholic Mind, 26 (1928), 254.
110. Ibid.
111. 1939 pastoral. The other references, unless indicated, are likewise from this letter since the 1929 and 1935 directives are substantially the same as the former.
112. Ibid.
113. The Pilot (Boston), Oct. 20, 1948, 4.
114. The Catholic Mind, Oct. 8, 1949, 1.
115. Ibid., Oct. 5, 1950, 32.

Yours in JMJ,

Sat Jun 14, 2008 3:39 am
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