“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
Even though the context of the above conversation was to test him, Jesus saw a great opportunity to summarise the Ten Commandments into two broad categories. There were many other instances in the gospel where Jesus talks about the need to love one’s neighbour in the way a person loves oneself. The duty to love neighbour is not something that we are not familiar with. We have heard many homilies about the parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus goes to explain “who is my neighbour”.
The ordinary usage of the word “neighbour” restricts itself to a person who lives near or next to another. However, Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan seemed to have expanded the concept of neighbour not just to proximity. It shows that we all have a responsibility to one another because we share the same humanity and dignity that has been given to us by God.
Chapter 2 of Part 3 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbour and situated the fourth commandment (honour your father and mother) within this context. Not only does this section treat familial relationships but also includes the responsibility of the state and her subjects. Part of being a responsible citizen is to work towards the common good. From a Catholic perspective, the duty to strive for the common good is chiefly exercised by voting, through which citizens elect their representatives and even determine by referendum the laws which will govern them. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
2239 It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfil their roles in the life of the political community.
2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country [Rom 13:7]:
Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due. [Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners…. They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws…. So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.
As the General Election (GE) is drawing near, Catholics must remember that we have a duty to vote and must exercise that responsibility in accordance with the principles of Catholic social teaching, including, first and foremost, the dignity of the human person and the right to life (cf. CANews February 2013, pgs. 35-37). I remember being asked prior to the last GE in 2008, “is it a sin if I do not vote?” In the old Moral Theology manuals, some authors went as far as saying that “Voting is a civic duty which would seem to bind at least under venial sin whenever a good candidate has an unworthy opponent. It might even be a mortal sin if one’s refusal to vote would result in the election of an unworthy candidate” [Heribert Jone,Moral Theology (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1929, 1955)]. However, in modern day manuals, we don’t find such explicit pronouncements and we are more likely to find words like “vote according to your conscience” (assuming that the conscience has been well formed).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the word “morally obligatory” with regard to the duty to vote. A moral obligation is generally defined as “an obligation arising out of considerations of right and wrong”. In other words, a Catholic after having given due consideration to the common good of society, has the duty to vote for a candidate whom he or she considers will promote the same common good of respecting the fundamental rights of the human person and dispense justice humanly by respecting the rights of everyone (CCC 2237). One must remember that, the common good is not the good of a few, of a class or group: “The enjoyment of this common good is common to all persons in human society and cannot be restricted specifically to individuals, classes, races, or nations” (Pope Leo XIII). Pope Pius XI further explained that “the temporal good in the temporal order consists in that peace and security in which families and individual citizens have the free exercise of their rights, and at the same time enjoy the greatest spiritual and temporal prosperity in this life, by the mutual union and coordination of the work of all.”
In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation. This obligation is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do.As the Catechism of the Catholic Church(nos. 1913-1915) reminds us, “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person… As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life” (US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Forming Conscience for Faithful Citizenship, 2007).
In order to help Catholics understand the common good, the Church has an important task at hand. The Church as an institution does not endorse or oppose candidates or tell people how to vote. It is the moral responsibility of the Church to teach fundamental moral principles that help Catholics form their consciences correctly, to provide guidance on the moral dimensions of public decisions, and to encourage the faithful to carry out their responsibilities in political life.
As Pope Benedict XVI stated in Deus Caritas Est, “the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. . . .The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the side-lines in the fight for justice” (no. 28).
It is in this light that the Church, just as the lay faithful, has a duty to equip its members to address political and social questions by helping them to develop a well-formed conscience. In doing so, sometimes this is misconstrued as the Church is getting involved in politics. It is impossible to address political and social issues without placing them within a context and the context here is the life of its people, regardless of race and religion.
Let me conclude with these words: The church’s role in politics is to be there visibly in the context of political policy formulation. The church has to be prophetic, speaking for God. The church has to herald the ethical values that enrich a nation. The church has to be bold and forthright, constructive and innovative. The church has to be “salt and light” in what is so often a corrupt environment, to bring light and health (Jim Harris). Therefore, do not forget to exercise your Catholic duty to vote at the next General Elections… it is your moral obligation!