(A guest post from Kelly Johnson, associate professor in the theology department at University of Dayton. Kelly would like to thank Todd Whitmore, Jana Bennett, and David Cloutier for helpful conversations on the topic.)
In recent elections, the Catholic vote has closely mirrored the nation’s vote. That is to say, Catholic voting as an aggregate has not had a significant effect on elections. It has, however, had a notable effect on the church. Homilists worry about saying too much or too little about hot-button topics. Bishops and other church leaders pour energy into crafting statements to urge Catholics to see certain issues in a certain way. Faithful Catholics gnash their teeth over when material cooperation in evil might be permissible. Politicians distinguish personal faith from political roles, and communities are divided over who should receive Eucharist.
In this context, it may be time for a Catholic fast from voting in federal elections. This is not the same as an individual’s conscientious refusal to vote. It is certainly not a rejection of voting in principle. In a fast, we abstain from some good for the sake of orienting our desires toward a higher good.
As with any fast, what is given up is in itself innocent. Voting can be a method that honors human dignity and encourages the participation of everyone in a society in working together for the common good. Efforts to create free and fair elections in Egypt this week should remind us of the noble goals of this form of participation and the courageous efforts required create it.
But in this case and for this moment, a higher good needs our attention.
Brothers and sisters,
I, a prisoner for the Lord,
urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received,
with all humility and gentleness, with patience,
bearing with one another through love,
striving to preserve the unity of the spirit
through the bond of peace:
one body and one Spirit,
as you were also called to the one hope of your call;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism;
one God and Father of all,
who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:1-7)
This plea for the church to be God’s sign of reconciliation and the epicenter of peace breaking out works at cross-purposes with our current habits of political responsibility. Because national politics in the US is defined by two major parties and constituencies within those making use of colossal amounts of money to create persuasive campaigns. Responsible citizenship—practical and realistic engagement for the sake of truth and justice– means, among other things, gaining power within those structures. Therefore committed Catholics find themselves spinning their account to build a coalition of voters who will defeat other approaches and ensure that their vision should succeed. For the sake of proclaiming the gospel and loving our neighbor in the concrete realities of our day, we are drawn into games of spin-the-news, court-the-money, scare-the-voters. We do aim for and sometimes manage to engage in civil discourse, to remember ‘in all things charity.’ But such charity is difficult to sustain so long as our top priority is making the US more just.
Abstaining from voting for now would recognize that in this setting and for us, elections can be an occasion of sin and a site for scandal. Paul abstained from meat sacrificed to idols for the sake of other Christians; Catholics could abstain from US party politics, for the sake of all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics, who are misled by such efforts.
Hence my proposal. I think it is time for a movement among Catholics to fast from voting for the sake of refreshing the church’s bond of peace. The church, after all, is not only to read the signs of the times. The church is a sign of the times, a sign for the world that God is reconciling all things. That sign is too often lost in our moral battles over elections.
A fast from voting would not mean we would cease to argue about policies and moral priorities. We must and should do so for the sake of the unity of the Body and the church’s love of all God’s people. Freed from the context of voting, we would have those arguments as arguments for the sake of the gospel—not as talking points of lobbyists.
Nor is such a fast permanent. I suspect that a collective fast from one presidential cycle would be enough to significantly alter our vision of the church’s mission and of political engagement. In light of such a fast, our responsible participation could be better ordered within the larger call of the church.
But would it be morally permissible for Catholics to fast from voting?
Some readers will hear the suggestion of such a fast as a reprehensible call for “withdrawal,” based in a desire for the comfort of moral purity or secure identity rather than genuine commitment to the common good. If anyone is hoping for that kind of comfort, then work to build up “the bond of peace” within the church is not the route they should take. The church is composed of people of many cultures, classes, nationalities, and schools of thought, and many of those people have rather strong and opposing convictions. Cultivating any kind of peace within the church is not going to be characterized by many cozy chats with like-minded people who share in some moral purity. It is going to be hard work that draws us into deep and risky argument. This only appears to be “withdrawal” when we despair of there being any other field of engagement than US national politics.
Nor is serious work to build up the unity of the church an evasion of care for the common good. Climate change, health care, the nature of religious liberty, protection for women and children born and unborn, the use of drones, the supervision of global financial markets—these are grave moral matters that must not be ignored. The problem is that we must ignore some of them in order to campaign and vote in the current system, and in doing so we present the church’s teaching – to ourselves and to the world—in a fragmented way. Changing the game is exactly what realism demands, as “Faithful Citizenship” has already claimed. A fast would create the opportunity for new configurations, new forms of engagement to emerge, outside the two-party deadlock.
Of course, not voting means that unjust policies that perhaps we could have prevented may be put into place or that opportunities may be missed. This fast, like responsible participation, requires us to give up our claims to moral purity. I fear that at this point and for us, conscientious and informed voting will not end the injustices committed on left and right in the US. It will only leave the current state of affairs unchallenged.