By the time this reflection might be posted, the midterm election of 2014 might very well be over. At this point, here in Pennsylvania, it appears that Tom Wolf will defeat Governor Tom Corbett for the Office of Governor of Pennsylvania, although his margin of potential victory has been slipping in recent weeks. On the national level, it appears likely that the Republicans will win enough Senate seats to take control of the U.S. Senate, although we may not know the actual outcome until January if runoff elections are necessary in certain Southern states. But regardless of the outcome, there is still work to be done, especially in terms of Catholic moral and social teaching.
As the U.S. Bishops remind us in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” In turn, the Catechism of the Catholic Church adds: “It is necessary that all participate, according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This is inherent in the dignity of the human person … As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (nos. 1913-1915).
In light of these moral directives, as much as voting is important, it’s the very least we should expect in terms of putting “faithful citizenship” into action.
When you think about it, voting is essentially individualistic, private, and episodic in character. First, voting is an isolated act whereas many of the greatest political movements “by abolitionists, labor organizers, civil rights workers, and antiwar protestors” entailed face-to-face debate. Second, instead of “treating politics as the most public of activities,” by focusing solely on voting in the privacy of the voting booth we convey that politics is a matter to be concealed. Finally, by stressing elections as the principal political activity we reduce faithful citizenship to just voting as opposed to forms of “collective action, writing to officials or working on campaigns” (Howard Reiter, “Do Voting and Elections Mean Anything?,” Point-Counterpoint, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1989, 127-28). As one of my students years ago aptly put it, voting in and of itself is like going to the bathroom – an individual, hidden, and periodic activity.
No, voting is the very least of the political responsibilities we should expect from faithful citizens. Long lasting structural change to bring about just, right relations ensues in activities that conversely are brought about by organizing that by nature is communitarian, public, and persistent in disposition. This is why at Cabrini, through the Justice Matters curriculum, we strive to give students both the knowledge and skills not only to raise consciousness about public matters, but to gain the tools through which they can bring about fundamental institutional political, social, and economic changes. By all means vote, but post-election please “go organize, early and often….”
John Francis Burke, Ph.D.
Executive Director, The Wolfington Center