Is it a sin for Catholics to not vote in elections?

Election vote ballot box Credit roibu  Shutterstock Credit: roibu/Shutterstock

The year 2024 is considered the biggest election year in history, with more than 60 countries — representing almost half of the world’s population — holding elections. This historical moment raises the question for Catholics: Is it a sin not to vote?

To provide some insight into this question, ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, spoke with Fray Nelson Medina, a Dominican priest who holds a doctorate in fundamental theology from the Milltown Institute in Dublin, and Father Mario Arroyo, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

Elections and ‘the common good’

Medina stressed that “the general criterion for the Christian is always that his action (or decision not to act) leads to, or favors, or at least does not hinder, achieving the common good.”

“In countries where voting is mandatory, it seems that abstaining from voting is incurring, at least nominally, in a crime; it is difficult to see how this could be ordered for the common good,” he noted, adding that “for the same reason, we exclude from this analysis people who, out of laziness or not to bother, abstain from voting. There is clearly no correct moral motivation there.”

The Dominican theologian said that “where it is not obligatory to vote, and once laziness or simple convenience has been excluded, it is clear that the only purpose that could be valid for abstaining from voting is to protest that the election process itself is corrupt (due to evident fraud or inevitable fraud), or to reject all candidates due to their ineptitude or low moral quality.”

“The question that follows is obvious: What effect is foreseeable from such a decision?” he pointed out.

Where there is “certitude that the process is corrupted,” local legislation might consider invalidating the elections in the case of massive numbers of people abstaining from voting and if it is “foreseeable” that this can be achieved, then Medina considers that “it would be right not to vote.”

“If, on the other hand, this possibility is unrealistic, refraining from voting simply means giving up one’s own voice and possible contribution to public dialogue, which does not seem ethically correct,” he noted.

Poor-quality candidates 

Regarding the idea of ​​“not voting out of a desire to protest the poor quality of all the candidates,” the Dominican priest made “a distinction”: “If there is a possibility that one of the candidates, if he were to win, would change the rules of the game, for example, by establishing a new version of the constitution that perpetuates him in power, then it seems preferable to vote for the ‘lesser evil,’ given that a victory for such a candidate would eliminate the possibility of real change in the visible future.”

“On the other hand, if the candidates are all terrible but there is no obvious risk of a change in the rules of the game, it can still be said that there are alternatives that would make such a protest more visible, for example, turning in a blank ballot or even achieving a significant number of disqualified votes.”

For Medina, except in the case in which massive abstention seems possible and could invalidate the election, all other scenarios show a preferable course of action in which it is better to vote.

“Therefore, except in the aforementioned case, abstaining from voting seems like an act that is not the best option, so it surely involves some form of sin, although it is very possibly just a venial sin,” Medina said.

‘Is God asking me to vote or not?’

Regarding whether deciding not to vote could be a sin, Arroyo preferred to present a “positive perspective”: “Is God asking me to vote or not? Does it please God that I vote? Does voting serve me and my society? Can voting be seen as a way of practicing social charity?”

However, the priest recognized that “raising the question of sin serves as a reasonable frame of reference, functioning analogously to the boundaries of a football field that delimit the playing field.”

More in Americas

Reflecting on the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Arroyo pointed out that “it is the duty of the Catholic to participate in public life to the extent of his possibilities, such that limiting oneself to just voting is already restricting one’s participation.”

Although voting is not spoken of “in terms of sin or not,” the priest said, “it is understood, however, that irresponsibility and, if applicable, laziness and disinterest, causing one to not vote, can be in themselves a sin, usually not serious.”

In No. 2239 of the catechism, Arroyo notes, it states: “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.”

In this regard, he pointed out, “we could say that fulfilling our civic obligations is a duty of gratitude and charity toward the society that has helped us grow.”

“The most direct reference to the subject is found in No. 2240 of the catechism: ‘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,’” he added.

“Let’s say that [the catechism] places exercising the right to vote on the same level as the payment of taxes — a duty of justice. Once again it omits speaking in terms of sin or non-sin, but it speaks of a moral requirement. It doesn’t specify whether this obligation is serious or not. By not doing so, it is assumed to be not serious,” he noted.

The Fourth Commandment and abstaining from voting

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“Translating this formulation into the terms of ‘sin or not sin,’” Arroyo continued, “it can be stated that not voting is a minor sin. Since it is not expressly stated that it is a serious obligation, it cannot be deduced from the text that the offense is serious.”

“But because it is a moral requirement, a duty, it is understood that not fulfilling it is a minor offense against the virtue of justice and against the Fourth Commandment of the law of God,” which is addressed in No. 2240 of the catechism.

In conclusion, Arroyo said that not voting “is a venial sin, against justice, the Fourth Commandment, social charity, and, if applicable, a sin of laziness, apathy, and irresponsibility.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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