The US Bishops are Too Quiet on Voting Rights—Ignoring Catholic Social Teaching

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

John Gehring writes:

Religious leaders from diverse faith traditions are speaking out and organizing against a surge of voter suppression in states across the country. Pastors, rabbis, and imams have lobbied lawmakers, written op-eds, and pressured corporations in response to laws that create barriers to the ballot box and disproportionately impact Black voters. When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a controversial and widely criticized election reform package last month, activists (including from my organization, Faith in Public Life) were especially vocal in protesting the law’s prohibition on giving food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

Amid this growing resistance to attacks on voting rights, however, the Catholic hierarchy is silent. The Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Georgia Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, have issued no statements since the law passed. The archdiocese declined to comment for this article. At the national level, Church leaders are also quiet….

But there has been no public reaction from the bishops’ conference to the fact that in forty-seven states, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, Republican lawmakers have proposed 361 bills with restrictive provisions that, among other things, would limit mail-in, early in-person, and election-day voting. Nor have bishops voiced any public support for legislation in Congress—the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—that respond to the proliferation of state-level restrictions with proposals to expand voting access and curb partisan gerrymandering….

The silence from Catholic bishops when it comes to systematic, partisan, and racist efforts to undermine voting rights is a failure to apply Catholic social teaching to one of the most brazen injustices of our time. Church leaders could draw from their own documents and teachings if they need any motivation to get involved. In Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops’ detailed reflection guide issued every four years, “participation in political life” is described as “a moral obligation.” While voting is not the only way to participate in the political process, it’s a linchpin of civic engagement. Fair access to the polls is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.

If civic participation is defined as a moral obligation, according to Church teaching, it would stand to reason that Catholic bishops should be concerned about widespread efforts that will make it harder for historically marginalized people to vote. Given our nation’s history of racism as a motivating factor in suppressing voters, there’s a compelling imperative for bishops and other Catholic leaders to act….

Papal encyclicals and other Church teaching offer a framework for discerning how bishops and other Catholics could do more to address voter suppression.

“Praise is due to those national procedures which allow the largest possible number of citizens to participate in public affairs with genuine freedom,” according to the seminal Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes. In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in terris, Pope John XXIII addressed citizens’ participation in public life by underscoring that “a natural consequence of men’s dignity is unquestionably their right to take an active part in government.” Pope John Paul II, writing in Centesimus annus, noted that “the Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices.”

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, a frequent commentator on the themes of Faithful Citizenship and voting, agrees that voter suppression demands a more significant Catholic response. “Catholic social teaching assigns a central role to the broadest possible participation of citizens in government, so that the powerless are more protected, substantive justice is vindicated, and democratic societies are continually renewed by the ever greater involvement of men and women in their own government,” McElroy told me.

Bernice A. King and William J. Barber II write:

As children of the civil rights movement, we know how faithfully our parents sacrificed to defeat Jim Crow. But we also know that their moral struggle for a true democracy was not only about voting rights for Black people. They challenged Jim Crow’s subversion of democracy because they knew it undermined the promises of democracy for every American. They understood the interconnectedness of humanity, and in particular concerning voting rights, how classism and racism were at work to create barriers. To defeat voter suppression today, we must be equally as conscious of how attacks on democracy are detrimental to a diverse population, including Black people, white people grappling with poverty and brown people….

Our parents taught us that there is a moral high ground above left and right, and that our deepest moral and constitutional traditions point us toward the possibility of a more perfect union when we respect the basic democratic principle of one person, one vote. We must reclaim voting rights as a moral issue in this moment and stand together to demand the passing of federal legislation, such as the For the People Act, which will protect the promise of democracy in every state and without discrimination based on race and class. In doing so, we create a win for justice and equity that serves the whole of this nation and humanity well.