Father William Byron, S.J.

Father William Byron, S.J.

“Let us not forget that responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation,'” wrote Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel” issued in November 2013.

In reminding the world that “responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation,” Pope Francis was quoting from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pastoral letter, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” issued in November 2007, the year before a presidential election.

Our U.S. bishops issued the document again in November 2015, again one year before a presidential election. This document mentions participation about 20 or 30 times, but not once does it speak of registering to vote. Nor does it refer to the shamefully low participation rates of registered voters in local, state and national elections in the United States. The bishops’ failure to mention registration and turnout is a mystery to me.

I have several simple and practical recommendations. First, every pastor should remind the members of his faith community that responsible citizenship is a virtue and participation in political life is a moral obligation. Let the pastor inquire as to whether all parishioners are registered to vote. Where appropriate, pastoral support can be given to public initiatives to tie voter registration to the process of obtaining or renewing a driver’s license.

Next, the pastor should insist that all registered voters turn out to vote on Election Day. Refrain from directing them how to vote; just insist that they vote to meet their citizenship responsibilities and meet their moral obligation.

Again, in situations where the pastor deems it appropriate, support can be given to initiatives to shift Election Day from Tuesday to Sunday, if it seems likely that this change would facilitate voter turnout. The focus should be on voter turnout and the point to be made is that this is a moral issue.

If all pastors and every bishop — the chief pastor of a diocese — emphasized registration and turnout as an exercise of religion as well as of citizenship, democracy would be strengthened and policies that reflect the convictions of a faithful people would fall into place to prepare the way for the coming of the promised kingdom which, as we know, is a kingdom of justice, love and peace.

Who could ask for more?

Archbishop Oscar Romero once said: “The Church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the Gospel if it stopped being the voice of the voiceless, a defender of the rights of the poor, a promoter of every just aspiration for liberation, a guide, an empowerer, a humanizer of every legitimate struggle to achieve a more just society.”

Is it asking too much, then, if the Church asks the faithful, year in and year out — but especially around November — to get registered and to be sure to vote? Of course not. In doing so the Church would simply be pointing to a moral obligation that is all too neglected in our time.


Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.