Regardless of where people may find themselves on the political spectrum, if we were to have an open and honest conversation about voting after the last general election, a simple encounter with those who historically have felt marginalized would reveal their feelings that the right to vote is under attack. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for some voices to dismiss the very real concerns of those among the working poor and the marginalized. Dismissing the legitimate concerns of any of our brothers and sisters does not reflect our obligation to respect the dignity of all people.
My purpose is not to debate any particular piece of legislation; it is to express how each of us has a responsibility, a right and a duty to contribute to the common good by being active in the public square. One of the primary ways to be active in the public square is to exercise the civic responsibility to participate in the electoral process.
Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin reminds us that all people are called to work for and promote a society of truth and justice that benefits the common good for all people. “For this reason, the right to vote is a privilege and civic duty that citizens must take seriously,” he said recently.
Bishop Vásquez has also explained “the Catholic Church has a rich and historic tradition on morals and social teaching, which is the foundation that forms our conscience when we vote.” We are encouraged to zealously engage in the work of advocating for the weak and marginalized. While there are competing voices that will attempt to debate whether, or why, the church has been perceived to have fallen silent over the many years of political strife in the U.S., we should instead encourage each other to accept that a fundamental work of the Christian community is to apply Gospel values to the ordinary and extraordinary situations with which society is confronted (Living the Gospel of Life, 22).
In 2021 we find many young people who take for granted the high prices paid for the freedoms in our society that Black Americans – and many other ethnicities – still have not realized. This is all the more a reason why we should consider the importance of every person’s active participation in the political process. In joyful hope, I choose to believe that when people know better, they will do better. So, as we renew our commitment to respect the dignity of people, we must continue to stand for the more difficult right and just, as opposed to settling for the easy wrongs of indifference, lack of interest and lack of concern.
As I write, I am reminded of a 2013 gathering of Christian Churches Together in Birmingham, Alabama, where we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the landmark moment in the pursuit for racial justice. When speaking about the letter, my friend, Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux challenged the whole church “to remember our collective past as a way to overcome historical ignorance and enact good public policy.”
Today, Bishop Fabre, the current chair of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, continues to stress that the sacraments call us to “engage the conversion of human hearts in racial harmony,” in an effort “to transform attitude and action in ourselves and others.” As we remember our collective past, let us also carefully seek to encounter, dialogue and accompany each other in ways that respect the dignity of one another.
In the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” the church teaches that the Christian faithful have a responsibility to support appropriate advocacy for “procedures which allow the largest possible number of citizens to participate in public affairs with genuine freedom” (Gaudium et Spes, 31). Considering that voter restrictions had already increased prior to now — particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court stripped provisions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 — the church expects that the conditions imposed upon those who seek to vote should reflect equal and appropriate access that reflects the dignity of every human person.
“It is fully in accord with human nature that politico-juridical structures be devised which will increasingly and without discrimination provide all citizens with effective opportunities to play a free, active part in the establishment of the juridical foundations of the political community, in the administration of public affairs, in determining the aims and the terms of reference of public bodies, and in the election of political leaders,” (Gaudium et Spes, 75).
People of good will must agree that “fraud and other subterfuges, by which some people evade the constraints of the law and the prescriptions of societal obligation, must be firmly condemned because they are incompatible with the requirements of justice” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1916). However, public officials and political leaders must never nefariously use such a truth as the pretext to restrict access unjustifiably and excessively to the ballot box for the working poor and marginalized. The current contempt and bitterness that have bred the attempts to restrict voting for the marginalized is reminiscent of have how unjust laws were used to permit limitations and constraints to equal access to voting in the past.
In their 2018 pastoral letter against racism, the U.S. bishops communicated unequivocally, “Many of our institutions still harbor, and too many of our laws still sanction, practices that deny justice and equal access to certain groups of people” (Open Wide Our Hearts, 10). For some, it appears that what is happening concerning voting across our nation does not seem to appropriately meet any standard of justice. If we are committed to respecting the dignity of people, we must stand for what is right and just.
The political firestorms, the social unrest and the absolute gridlock within legislatures are sure signs that we must focus more attention on not only charity and mercy, but also on our responsibility of addressing social inequality. Pope Francis tells us, “We must never forget that true power, at any level, is service, whose bright summit is upon the Cross” (Address to the Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superiors General, 9 May 2013). Referencing the wisdom of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, we are reminded that while for man, authority is often synonymous with possession, dominion, and success, while for God authority is always synonymous with service, humility, love (Address to the Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superiors General, 9 May 2013; cf. Angelus, 29 January 2012).
The Catechism presents to us the obligations of being faithful citizens who work for truth and the common good. The church teaches that political authorities should respect the fundamental rights of the human person, dispensing justice by respecting the rights of person, particularly families and the disadvantaged (Catechism, 2237). We, citizens, have a responsibility to contribute to the common good in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. For out of profound gratitude, we must fulfill our rightful roles in the life of the political community (Catechism, 2238) and exercise the right to vote (Catechism, 2240).
In our daily lives may we continually recommit ourselves to be inspired by the Word of God and nourished by the sacraments, so that we may live with the Lord for eternity. Let us pray for one another, keeping before us that the will of God would never place us where his grace cannot sustain us. May the great challenges facing our state and nation today, and in our future, be met as great opportunities as we endeavor to become ever more faithful citizens!