Vow of Silence?

U.S. bishops are quiet on voting restrictions.
Demonstrators in Atlanta gather outside the Georgia State Capitol, March 1, 2021, to protest H.B. 531, passed by the Georgia House to restrict voting (CNS photo/Dustin Chambers, Reuters).

Religious leaders from diverse faith traditions are speaking out and organizing against a surge of voter suppression in states across the country. Pastors, rabbis, and imams have lobbied lawmakers, written op-eds, and pressured corporations in response to laws that create barriers to the ballot box and disproportionately impact Black voters. When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a controversial and widely criticized election reform package last month, activists (including from my organization, Faith in Public Life) were especially vocal in protesting the law’s prohibition on giving food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

Amid this growing resistance to attacks on voting rights, however, the Catholic hierarchy is silent. The Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Georgia Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, have issued no statements since the law passed. The archdiocese declined to comment for this article. At the national level, Church leaders are also quiet.

In recent months, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has opposed the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against LGBTQ people; objected to abortion funding in the American Rescue Plan; and expressed support for legislation that would protect faith-based adoption and foster providers that refuse to place children with same-sex parents. The conference has also addressed mass shootings and the Armenian genocide, and has lauded immigration-reform legislation. 

But there has been no public reaction from the bishops’ conference to the fact that in forty-seven states, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, Republican lawmakers have proposed 361 bills with restrictive provisions that, among other things, would limit mail-in, early in-person, and election-day voting. Nor have bishops voiced any public support for legislation in Congress—the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—that respond to the proliferation of state-level restrictions with proposals to expand voting access and curb partisan gerrymandering.

Given our nation’s history of racism as a motivating factor in suppressing voters, there’s a compelling imperative for bishops and other Catholic leaders to act.

The silence from Catholic bishops when it comes to systematic, partisan, and racist efforts to undermine voting rights is a failure to apply Catholic social teaching to one of the most brazen injustices of our time. Church leaders could draw from their own documents and teachings if they need any motivation to get involved. In Faithful Citizenship, the U.S. bishops’ detailed reflection guide issued every four years, “participation in political life” is described as “a moral obligation.” While voting is not the only way to participate in the political process, it’s a linchpin of civic engagement. Fair access to the polls is a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.

If civic participation is defined as a moral obligation, according to Church teaching, it would stand to reason that Catholic bishops should be concerned about widespread efforts that will make it harder for historically marginalized people to vote. Given our nation’s history of racism as a motivating factor in suppressing voters, there’s a compelling imperative for bishops and other Catholic leaders to act.

David DeCosse, a religious studies professor at Santa Clara University, encouraged bishops to grapple with voter suppression in Faithful Citizenship during a 2018 address to the Catholic Theological Society of America. Church leaders could use theological teaching on conscience and an understanding of the Church as the “people of God,” he argued, as frameworks for reflection. “The document should pair its appropriate reluctance to tell the Catholic laity how to vote with an outspoken, prophetic advocacy for the right to vote,” DeCosse said. “There is no justification whatsoever for the voter suppression tactics now being practiced throughout the United States.”

The need for a robust Catholic response to voter suppression is even more urgent given that some wealthy conservative Catholics are helping bankroll these anti-democratic efforts. As Christopher White found in a National Catholic Reporter investigation, “in the wake of the 2020 presidential election and Georgia’s January senate runoffs, which delivered two Senate seats and a narrow congressional majority to Democrats, a number of Catholic-led organizations and donors have pumped millions of dollars into voter-suppression efforts under the banner of ‘election integrity.’”

Georgia’s success in expanding the electorate and bringing new voters into the process was part of a national trend. More people voted in the 2020 election—two-thirds of the voting eligible population—than in any election over the past century. A defeated Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers responded by claiming widespread voter fraud, a desperate claim unsupported by evidence. The fallout from the presidential race has only supercharged GOP efforts to tighten its grip on state election laws.

“We need to make voting more accessible to everyone,” David Key, a longtime faith-based activist in Athens, Georgia, told me. “It’s about fairness and inclusivity.” Key sits on the steering committee of Georgia Catholics for the Common Good, a recently formed group of lay Catholics in the state. He is equally unsurprised and disappointed that Catholic bishops in Georgia have not joined other faith leaders in condemning the new law. “It’s really an issue of power,” Key said. “The religious leaders speaking out and showing up at protests are largely from minority communities that will be most impacted. The Catholic Church in Georgia is now mainline and establishment. We’re not a Church on the margins, but we do have a pope calling us to the margins. It’s not the time for silence. It’s a moment for witness.” Key said that until bishops show visible leadership, most Catholic clergy will not feel empowered to address the issue.

But at least one Black Catholic priest in Atlanta, Fr. Bruce Wilkinson, has used Twitter to challenge the state’s new law:

Papal encyclicals and other Church teaching offer a framework for discerning how bishops and other Catholics could do more to address voter suppression.

Papal encyclicals and other Church teaching offer a framework for discerning how bishops and other Catholics could do more to address voter suppression.

“Praise is due to those national procedures which allow the largest possible number of citizens to participate in public affairs with genuine freedom,” according to the seminal Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et spes. In his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in terris, Pope John XXIII addressed citizens’ participation in public life by underscoring that “a natural consequence of men’s dignity is unquestionably their right to take an active part in government.” Pope John Paul II, writing in Centesimus annus, noted that “the Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices.”

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, a frequent commentator on the themes of Faithful Citizenship and voting, agrees that voter suppression demands a more significant Catholic response. “Catholic social teaching assigns a central role to the broadest possible participation of citizens in government, so that the powerless are more protected, substantive justice is vindicated, and democratic societies are continually renewed by the ever greater involvement of men and women in their own government,” McElroy told me.

Our country has known many moments in its history when government has moved to curb the effective rights of specific groups of Americans to vote. This is such a moment. The intentional limiting of effective voting is a grave violation of Catholic teaching. It is worse when it is contoured to partisan or special interest goals. And it is worst of all when those limitations knowingly lead to suppressing the votes of racial minorities in our society who have been so frequently disenfranchised in our past.

Jonathan Rothchild, professor of theological ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, notes how even past mechanisms to address racist voter disenfranchisement have been undermined in recent years. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is a prime example. In a 2017 journal article for Cambridge University Press, Rothchild wrote about the ruling by using key themes of Catholic social teaching—including subsidiarity, participation, solidarity, and the common good—to critique what he calls the decision’s prioritization of “states’ rights federalism.” While conservatives often preference local and state rights over federal intervention, Rothchild argues that an authentically Catholic notion of subsidiarity can’t be reduced to that narrow ideological interpretation. The Shelby decision opened the floodgates for states like Georgia to turn away from ensuring equitable voting systems.

What we see in Georgia is not new, and it’s a deliberate attempt to disqualify and dissuade Black voters and communities of color,” Rothchild told me. “One of the roles the Catholic Church has to play here is calling all people of goodwill back to a common commitment to justice regardless of what political party is in power.”

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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