Voting is a serious moral responsibility


Rite and Reason:There is no such thing as neutral politics - all sides must be heard on election issues, writes Fr Seán Fagan

In spite of all the posters, speeches and TV exposure of recent weeks, it is still difficult to forecast the election result. Can we even predict the percentage of people who will turn out to vote?

To vote is not just a civic duty, but a serious moral responsibility, and how we vote affects the welfare of our fellow citizens. It can be said that we get the politicians and the government that we deserve.

In 1996 the Roman Catholic bishops of England, Scotland and Wales, in an excellent document on The Common Good, stressed that politics is an honourable vocation, one that often exacts great personal sacrifice from those who engage in it and from their families.

They reminded voters of the social teaching of the church on issues for government: the right to life, the common good and human welfare, morality in the marketplace, a special option for the poor, the mass media, the world of work, ownership and property, Europe and the global common good.

The bishops engaged in teaching, but they did not dictate how any individual should actually vote.

Some secularists might regard such a document as the church interfering in politics, and expect church leaders to be silent. But this is an arrogant assertion of power, excluding a large percentage of voters who have every right to their personal religious convictions and the freedom to express and explain them.

There is no such thing as neutral politics. Politics is about the common good, and this requires dialogue and tolerance, when all sides must be heard, without any a priori exclusion. Of course there can be confusion in this area.

In 1974, when the Dáil was discussing the question of contraception, members of the Fine Gael party were told by their leader, Liam Cosgrave, that they would not be bound by the whip, but were free to vote as they wished because "it was a religious matter, a matter of conscience".

He did not seem to be aware that matters like rent, housing, health and education are equally matters of conscience and morality, affecting people's welfare and, at times, their very lives.

The Irish Catholic bishops have been largely silent on the current election, whereas they were quite vocal in the 1980s referendums, which gave some people the impression that divorce and abortion were religious matters.

While the episcopal conference wisely told people to vote according to their conscience, some individual bishops told them that, as Roman Catholics, they were obliged to vote against divorce.

But morality, in Roman Catholic teaching, is not founded on church dogma or based on specific divine revelation.

It appeals to natural law, which means that everyone within civil society and the church needs to enter into dialogue in order to discover the right answers.

Instead of simply declaring and dictating, our church would be much more persuasive and convincing in its teaching if it were a little more humble and more trusting of our laity. With regard to the voters' choice of candidates, the British bishops, in their excellent document, strongly warned people against voting for a single-issue candidate (eg pro-life, anti-gay).

Electors need to be confident that the person being voted for is the best qualified of those offering themselves for election, one who can be trusted to legislate responsibly on behalf of the elector on all matters before the government, including some that people are not yet aware of.

We are privileged to live in a free democratic society, and millions of people around the world would be only too happy to have that freedom. Not to vote is a failure in moral responsibility.

Seán FaganSM is a theologian, a teacher and writer for more than 50 years. His most recent book, Does Morality Change?,was published by Columba Press in 2003