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By Frances Kissling
Seems like everyone is urging me to vote. I get a dozen or so messages each day on my Facebook wall from friends who both want me to vote and are sure I’ll vote the way they would. These reminders – and those from religious leaders – are important in a country where only 37% of those eligible to vote turned out in the 2006 and 57% in the 2008 elections. Voting is one of the cornerstones of responsible participation in the political community. Catholic Cardinal designate Ray Burke called it a “serious moral obligation” and a “civic duty.” I’ll buy that. And I imagine most Catholics appreciate a Sunday morning reminder about voting even if they don’t consider every civic or political act religious or spiritual; even if they intend to vote for candidates who do not share the bishop’s or their parish priests’ views on any number of issues.
What many Catholics do not appreciate is being told how to vote. Cardinal designate Burke starts to sound like a Tammany Hall ward boss when he says he has an “obligation, in fact, to urge the faithful to carry out their civic duty in accord with their Catholic faith.” Some in the pews are going to get the message that Burke would like them to vote in accordance with Burke’s understanding of the faith rather than their own. And that sucks any sacredness or spirituality a Catholic might have felt right out of the polling booth — and the church.
What people consider religious or spiritual is highly subjective. For some every thought word and deed is spiritual. Some may consider voting a spiritual act; some may reserve the word spirituality for more intimate contact with the divine. Voting is perhaps an expression of call to do justice which is not exclusively a religious instinct. All Catholics, however, consider their parish church a spiritual place and the Mass a sacred event. If faith leaders turn that sacred place into a campaign stop, the people do care. More important the bishops’ squander their moral authority when they spend it on politics rather than spirituality.
A July 2008 poll of 1,003 Catholics voters by Belden, Russonello and Stewart found that “Seven in ten (70%) said that the views of Catholic bishops in the U.S. are unimportant to them in deciding for whom to vote and a similarly large proportion (73%) says they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend.”
I think it would be a good thing if Catholics seriously considered what their bishops say when they make all sorts of decisions about their lives. I also think it would be a good thing if the bishops had a bit more spiritual and less political guidance to offer.
Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania where she is writing a book on Ethics and Abortion. A Catholic feminist, she was the president of Catholics for Choice for 25 years.