The following is an exact reproduction of chapter 2c of The Moral Obligation of Voting
, Rev. Titus Cranny, The Catholic University of America Press, 1952, pgs 77-90.CHAPTER II
PRINCIPLES OF THE OBLIGATION OF VOTING
2. GRAVITY OF THE OBLIGATION OF VOTING
c. Statements of Theologians
The obligation of the citizen to vote in civil elections derives from an obligation in legal justice,  that is, rendering what is due for the common good. This virtue regulates the citizen’s obligations and relations to the state, based on the needs of the common good.  It differs from commutative justice as regulating the exercise of rights between man and man (do ut des, facio ut facias
) and from distributive justice as what is due to parts from the whole, as a ruler has the obligation of giving justice to his subjects. 
Legal justice differs from obedience, patriotism, liberality, and other similar virtues because the motive underlying the duties of legal justice is the natural relation of the parts to the whole. Acts of legal justice are of obligation and the basis of the obligation is the necessary nexus between the act and the common good, which the person is bound to promote. The proximate motive of obedience, patriotism, liberality, etc., may be the common good, and though there be an obligation according to some virtue there is no strict obligation in justice.
After defining justice as “a habit by which man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will” St. Thomas Aquinas gives the following explanation of legal justice in his Summa theologiae
Justice...directs man in his relations with other men. Now this may happen in two ways: first, as regards his relations with individuals, secondly, as regards his relations with others in general, insofar as a man who serves a community serves all who are included in that community. Accordingly, justice in its proper acceptation can be directed to another in both senses. Now it is evident that all who are included in a community, stand in relation to that community as parts to a whole; while a part, as such, belongs to the whole, so that whatever is the good of the part can be directed to the good of the whole.
It follows therefore that the good of any virtue whether such virtue directs a man in relation to himself or in relation to certain other individual persons, is referable to the common good, to which justice directs: so that all actions of virtue can pertain to justice, insofar as it directs man to the common good. It is in this sense that justice is called general justice. And since it belongs to the law to direct to the common good as stated above (I-II, 90,2), it follows that the justice which is in this way styled general is called legal justice, because man thereby is in harmony with the law which directs the acts of all the virtues to the common good. 
Legal justice is both a general and a special virtue because the nature of its object, the common good, is such that any act of virtue can be ordained to it. It is a general virtue by reason of its power of commanding and of ordering the acts of the other virtues to their end; a special virtue by reason of its special object, the common good. 
Now legal justice is the special virtue of the good citizen since it aims directly to promote the common good of political society. It deals with the rights of society to employ proportionate means to its end. Such justice obtains between the citizen and society for “The good of the man as a citizen,” declares St. Thomas, “is that he be ordained to the state as to the whole” (of which he is a part).  And again: “The virtue of the good citizen is general justice through which one is ordained to the common good.” 
According to a schema prepared by Father William Ferree, S.M., legal justice in St. Thomas is an analogical concept with five meanings: (1) Actions done according to law for the common good; (2) Actions done according to positive law, human or divine; (3) Actions doe according to divine law; (4) Actions done according to the word or intention of human law; and (5) Actions done in conformity with the words of law, “courtroom justice.” 
Now it cannot be said that the citizen is obliged to vote by reason of any law, at least in the strict sense (except in those countries where civil law makes it obligatory) but he is obliged to vote by reason of his obligation to promote the common good. Every citizen has a double vocation, one which is proper to him as an individual man, another which he has in common with all others. A person’s proper vocation and avocation as business man, physician, lawyer, laborer, architect, priest, etc., may be the means to personal and family livelihood, but it is also a channel of public service. Through such public works the common welfare is forged together, for no matter how unimpressive and insignificant one’s activity may seem, it assumes importance and meaning when viewed in relation to the whole. To be a good citizen a person must realize the element of public good in what he is and the element of public service in what he does.
Now while legal justice, as a general virtue, ordains the good of every virtue to the common good, motivating the citizen in such a way that he has care and concern for the commonweal and ordains his actions and efforts with the common objective of society, it is also a special virtue in this sense: It looks to the state as a functional whole ordained and directed towards the end and possessed with rights to such an end by using the proper means. St. Thomas puts it thus: “Legal justice takes its name from its connection with law. Because it pertains to law to order things to the common good…this justice is called legal, for through it man conforms his actions to the law ordaining the acts of all the virtues to the common good.”  But “legal justice is essentially a special virtue since it looks to the common good as its proper object. And this is in the ruler principally, and as it were architechtonically; it is in the subjects secondarily, and as it were, administratively.”  This figure of speech is used advisedly, for just as the ruler is the architect, so to speak, of the edifice of society, so the rest of the citizens are the builders whose services and labors produce the finished building. Both are necessary that the state grow and prosper.
Legal justice is a disposition of the will; a virtue by which the citizen is inclined to, or is constantly willing to, fulfill his obligations to the state. It expresses itself in a willingness to comply with the laws and to support national institutions for the benefit of the common good, showing itself in a special way in a republican form of government by taking an active parting the electoral franchise. The moral obligation of voting finds its roots in legal justice. For since this virtue promotes the common good, the use of the franchise promotes the good of the state, while the careless, negligent, indifferent use, or non-use of the franchise contributes to the breakdown of the common good.
Older theologians did not consider the question of voting because it did not arise at their times, but at the present day it is a very live issue, the more so when voting or non-voting may spell the difference between freedom and anarchy. A person is not blissfully free of his obligation to vote; he is bound to exercise it no less than other responsibilities. For as Monsignor John A Ryan has well pointed out:
The chief elements of citizenship are rights and duties. These are moral entities or categories. The relation of the citizen to the state is ethical as well as political. His rights are not all conferred by the state; some of them are natural, existing independently of the state, because they are necessary for the individual welfare. His duties to the state are not merely civil and political; in the main they are likewise moral, creating a binding force in conscience….The duties of the citizen are truly ethical because the state is not a voluntary social institution. It is nto like a fraternal society or professional association. 
Most moralists hold that voting is of obligation. Some say that the citizen is bound sub gravi
, others, sub levi
. Some hold that per se
the obligation is grave, per accidens
it is light or of no obligation. In order to give a complete picture of the opinions we may consider the writings of the various authors.
The statement of Koch-Preuss is representative of many others: “In most countries today the people govern themselves by electing their own lawgivers, judges, and executive officers. Hence a second class of duties incumbent upon the citizen results from his functions as an elector. The right to vote has for its corollary a special duty and this duty is one of legal justice.” 
Slater give this opinion: “In English speaking countries the people have a large share in the election of their rulers and such an important duty should be faithfully and religiously fulfilled. There may easily be a moral obligation to vote at elections to prevent the election of one who would do grave harm if elected, or in order to secure the election of one whose election would be of great public benefit.” 
But Davis speaks without qualification: “It is the duty of all citizens who have the right to vote to exercise that right when the common good of the state or the good of religion or morals require their votes, and when their voting is useful.” 
Callan-McHugh holds that there is a grave duty to use the privilege of voting especially in primaries, since the welfare of the community and the moral and physical well-being of the individuals depend upon the type of men nominated or chosen to rule and on the ticket platforms voted for. “The duty is not one of commutative justice, as the ballot is either a privilege or a thing commanded by authority, but not a service to which the citizen has bound himself by contract or office. The obligation is therefore one of legal justice, arising from the fact that the commonweal is everybody’s business and responsibility especially in a republic.” 
Noldin-Schmitt declares that the citizen is bound by legal justice when his vote is needed to promote a good election or to prevent a bad one.  Merkelbach asserts that the citizen is bound by legal justice, though he refers to voting as a privilege.  Lehmkuhl,  Ubach,  Arregui,  and Muller  speak of the obligation as binding in legal justice.
Monsignor John A. Ryan has been perhaps the most outspoken of theologians in the United States on the matter of voting. In several works, The Catholic Church and the Citizen
, The State and the Church, Catholic Principles of Politics
, and The Norm of Morality
, he has written at length on the obligation of the franchise. Thus he says: “In a country which has representative form of government, furtherance of the common good is affected mainly by elected officials, executive, legislative, and judicial. The responsibility of selecting honest and competent officials rests upon the voters.” 
Elsewhere he uses with approval the following statement from a booklet by the cardinals and bishops of France some years ago, Les principes catholiques d’action civique
: “To the extent that the constitution of a state established the right of voting as a means of participating in the conduct of civil affairs the citizens, inasmuch as they are bound to use this right for the public good, should regard its existence as a matter of conscience. Therefore, they are obliged, first, to make use of this constitutional right, and secondly, to use it for the common good of all.” 
He may be quoted further:
The Catholic citizen has…important duties as a voter. In the first place he is morally bound to make use of the electoral franchise. From the performance of this duty he can be excused only by corresponding grave inconvenience. Since public officials possess great power either to harm or to benefit the community, those who elect them are charged with grave responsibility. 
The second class of duties incumbent upon the citizens results from his electoral functions. In a republic, legislation and administration depend finally upon the intelligence and morality of the voters. They have it in their power to make the government a good one or a bad one. Whether the common good will be promoted or injured, depends upon the kind of laws enacted and the manner in which they are administered; but the character of the laws and the administration is primarily determined by the way in which the citizens discharge their function of choosing legislators and administrators. Therefore, this function is of the gravest importance and the obligation it imposes is likewise grave. 
The same author adds a new note, asserting that the obligation to vote would seem to bind in commutative justice as well as legal justice. This is his line of argumentation:
It would seem, like the obligations of public officials, they (the electoral duties) also fall under the head of strict or commutative justice. A group of legislators inflict injury upon the community by a bad law, thereby violating strict justice. Are not the citizens who elected them guilty of the same kind of injustice, insofar as they foresaw the possibility? The difference between their offense and that of the legislator’s seem to be one of degree, not one of kind. 
It would seem, however, that the obligation of voting is not one of commutative justice, for the voters do not directly make the laws. They vote for the incumbents of public office who are bound to promote the common good. It seems that the function of the public official is specifically different from that of the ordinary voter, for while the official is bound on account of his salary by commutative justice to render service and to restitution if he does not perform his duty, the ordinary citizen is not held to such when casting his ballot. It seems to us that the obligation of voting is one of legal justice rather than commutative justice.
Some authors write of the obligation as one of charity as well as justice, placing it under the virtue of pietas
which includes both charity and justice. So hold Father Joseph Trunk,  Pighi-Grazioli,  and Loiano-Varceno.  The latter declares that “charity obliges citizens to exercise their right in voting at the present time especially, for through the proper use of our rights the good of the country is promoted and evil avoided. This is a duty of pietas
….”  Fanfani declares that voting is a duty in charity and does not refer to justice. 
Vermeersch states that the obligation does not arise formally from the right of suffrage, but from an obligation of legal justice.  Iorio says that the obligation is one of legal justice and not of commutative justice  while Marc-Gestermann says there is a grave obligation to choose good men, an obligation binding in legal justice. 
Rev. John Wright (now Bishop) in National Patriotism in Papal Teaching
implies that voting is one of the duties of patriotism. He say:
True, here too it is primarily in justice (specifically legal justice) that the individual is bound to discharge his share of his share of the responsibility for the commonweal of civil society; but according to the argument of Pope Leo XIII, patriotism itself should prompt one to take an active part in the political life by which is administered that common good which is the object of patriotism, for “to take no share in public matters would be equally wrong (We speak in general) as not to have concern for, or not to bestow labor upon, the common good.” 
Jone says that voting is a civic duty which would seem to bind at least under venial sin wherever a good candidate has an unworthy opponent. It would be a mortal sin if one’s refusal would result in the election of an unworthy opponent.  Father Francis Connell simply says that the “duty of the loyal citizen is the proper use of the ballot” and “When an office is to be filled by popular election, the responsibility of choosing a good man rests on the citizens.”  They do not refer to legal justice. Nor do Tanquerey,  Wouters,  Prümmer,  Hurth-Abellan,  and Piscetta-Gennaro,  although they state that voting is of obligation.
Heylen declares that voting does not bind in conscience because it is a privilege and on one is bound to use a privilege. He declares that there is no strict debt due society in voting and if a law makes voting obligatory, then the law is merely penal.  Genicot hold the same view.  Perhaps an explanation of such an opinion is to be found in the fact that both authors are from Belgium where civil law obliges the citizens to vote, under penalty of a fine.
Don Luigi Sturzo, one of the foremost Catholic sociologists and political thinkers of modern times, writes of the citizen as having “the duty to send to public elective posts people who are morally honest and politically prepared.”  He adds a new note to the obligation as a duty binding in social justice. “To work for the public good,” he says, “is an act of charity…and when it is an obligation, it is an exercise of social justice.”  He explains his view thus:
…may we say that the voter goes only to fill a duty of charity towards society of which he is a part? Is it not because he receives from society the guarantee of his liberty and of the maintenance of that social order that he has been able to live as a free man? Is there not an ethical responsibility between the voter and society as a whole? And if the voter, instead of giving the vote to an honest and capable person, gives it, consciously, to a dishonest and incapable one, who will thereby bring damage to public administration and who will even take advantage of the position for private purposes – has be not failed in his duties? This is therefore a duty of justice towards society. 
Apart from legal justice it seems that the obligation to vote arises from the duty of patriotism. The citizen demonstrates this virtue not only by bearing arms in time of war but by supporting the country in time of peace, by paying taxes, obeying just laws, contributing to the national institutions, and by taking an active and intelligent interest in political matters. Just as patriotism includes all the acts of love and service to one’s country, so it includes the use of the electoral franchise for the good of the homeland. For as St. Thomas declares one virtue may command another, so legal justice commands patriotism as a potential part.
Most authors who speak of the obligation of voting say that it is sub gravi
in itself or sub gravi
in matters of grave moment. After a brief consideration of the arguments and opinions it seems safe to conclude that the citizen is bound sub levi
to vote in every ordinary election. If he fails through laziness, indifference, etc., he commits a venial sin. If, however, a person fails to vote over a period of time, thus becoming a habitual non-voter, he would commit a mortal sin for the number of omissions could accumulate to constitute a mortal sin.
If the issue were serious, as the case between a Communist or the member of an equally evil group and a good and capable man and there was a chance of the evil man being elected, then the citizen would be bound sub gravi
to vote for the worthy candidate. If he voted for the Communist or did not vote at all, he would sin mortally. If there were not chance of the unworthy man being elected, then obviously the obligation would not be sub gravi
From the statements of theologians it seems that the obligation of voting is grave ex genere suo
, whose matter is important in itself but which admits of parvity of matter in individual cases. That is, in individual cases the matter may be light, and a person would commit a venial sin by not voting or by voting contrary to moral principles. We speak of parvity of matter, for just as the sin of theft is mortal ex genere suo
, but admits of lightness of matter in some cases, so that all sins of theft are not mortal sins; so in voting, while the obligation is grave ex genere suo
, still in individual cases there may not be a sufficiently grave reason for voting at this time or for this person, or contrary to the same, so that the obligation would be light and the sin committed would be venial because the matter would be light. However, a failure to take part in elections at all times or for a long time would be a serious sin, while failure to vote in an individual election (whose consequences are not grave) would be a venial sin. Those who vote for unworthy candidates in ordinary elections, all things being considered, sin venially. Such principles hold in national, state, county, and local elections.
The importance of a single vote is not to be minimized. By it candidates are elected to political office for the good or evil of both State and Church. Practically speaking what is needed is an active and intelligent electorate, for an indifferent and apathetic one is an invitation to tyranny. It will be remembered that when Hitler swept into power it was through the ballot or when Communism assumes control of a government it generally does so through the vote and not through any bloody coup. The obligation of voting is not only recognized by the Popes, the members of the hierarchy and theologians; it is stressed by political leaders as well and in the words of one of them:
The exercise of the suffrage would seem to be the irreducible minimum of the citizen’s political duties. With forty-seven million voting in the hotly contested Presidential election of 1944 out of a possible maximum of nearly eighty million, it is evident that performance falls considerably short of the ideal. Some reformers, disturbed about this failure, have urged the use of compulsion. Such proposals, however, seem to be ill-founded. By and large the rule of natural selection operates in the exercise of suffrage. Voting implies the formation of judgments on personalities and on economic, social, and political questions which are of extreme intricacy. The unqualified person is probably uninterested; and the intelligent and well informed who fail to cast their ballot demonstrate an insensibility to social responsibility which does not bode well for their value as voters. 
There is little difficulty in concluding that voting is of moral obligation. It is a duty to which one is bound in conscience, a duty of justice and of patriotism as well, to be discharged with constant fidelity, for “…in the eyes of all tolerable Christians and of many who are not Christians, the position of legislators is one that avails much for moral good or evil; that bad legislators are a great mischief, and that the question of their selection is a moral one.” 
It should be noted that while the Pope, bishops, and theologians have emphasized the importance of voting, they did so under different conditions. The Pope and the bishops generally stressed the obligation in times of crisis when there was danger of evil forces gaining control of the government, e.g., the elections in Italy in 1946 and in 1948, while the theologians considered the obligation as a function of the citizen in a republican state. Despite this difference the authority of the Pope and of the members of the hierarchy can be called upon to emphasize the need of voting in elections apart from unusual conditions, for good government is dependent upon the way the voters use their ballot. Moreover, some of the bishops, such as Cardinal Spellman and Archbishop McNicholas have pointed out the obligation of voting apart from any grave danger imminent at the time.
116. “Justitia legalis: quia ex lege manat iisque competit quos lex aestimat hac instruendos esse facultate, nedum sit ius de se singulis a natura conlatum.” A Vermeersch, Quaestiones de iustitia
(Burges, 1903), 87. “Justitia legalis seu generalis est virtus specialis justitiae que describitur : Habitus supernaturalis per quem unusquisque reddit quod debitum est rei publicae cujus ipse pars est, sive caput sive membrum, i.e., sive leges ferendo etc. ad commune bonum, sive obediendo legibus ob bonum commune. Haec virtus perfectior est justitia particulari, quoniam nobilius objectum, bonum commune respicit ; est tamen justitia nimis perfecta, quia, ut facile intelligitur, non ita perfecta habet triplicem supra expositam rationem quae ad justitiam requiritur. ” G. Waffelaert, De justitia
(Burges, 1885), 19.
117. “Justitia commutativa ea est, quae inclinat privatum hominem ad redendum debitum strictum alteri homine privato, idque ad aequalitatem rei ad rem, ut sc. res quae detur, prorsus adaequat rei dandae.” J. Artnys-C. A. Damen, Theologia moralis
, 2 vols. (Turin, 1944), 1, 292. “Justitia distributiva ea est, quae inclinat principem eiusque ministros ad distribuenda bona justa subditorum merita et necessitates; justitia distributiva etiam, sed indirecte tantum, versatur circa onera distribuenda, quatenus sc. distributio onerum recidet ad quamdam bonorum partitionem; liberum enim esse ab onere habet rationem boni. ” Ibid
119. “Justitia…ordinat hominem in comparatione ad alium. Quod quidem potest esse dupliciter. Uno modo, ad alium singulariter consideratum. Alio modo, ad alium in communi, secundum scilicet quod ille qui servit alicui communitavi servit omnibus hominibus qui sub communitate illa continentur. Ad utrumque dicitur se potest habere iustitia secundum propriam rationem. Manifestum est autem quod omnes qui sub communitate aliqua continentur comparantur ad communitatem sicut partes ad totum. Pars autem id quod est totius est; unde et quodlibet bonum partis est ordinabile in bonum totius. Secondum hoc ergo bonum cuiuslibet virtutis, sive ordinantis aliquem hominem ad se ipsum sive ordinantis ipsum ad aliquas alias personas singulares, est referibile ad bonum commune, ad quod ordinatur iustitia. Et secundum hoc actus omnium virtutum possunt ad justitiam pertinere, secundum quod ordinat hominem ad bonum commune. Et quantum ad hoc iustitia dicitur virtus generalis. Et quia ad legem pertinet ordinare in bonum commune, ut supra habitum est, inde est quod talis justitia praedicto modo generalis, dicitur justitia legalis, quid scilicet per eam homo concordat legi ordinanti actus ominium virtutum in bonum commune.” Summa Theologiae
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120. See Hyacinth-M. Hering, De justitia legali
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14 (1937), 464-487. “Duplex ext justitia quae est virtus cardinalis, quae dicitur justitia specialis; alis est justitia legalis quae includit omnem virtutem.” St. Thomas, In Matth
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122. “Virtus boni civis est justitia generalis, per quam aliquis ordinatur ad bonum commune. ” Summa theologiae
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123. Act of Social Justice
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124. Summa theologiae
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126. Catholic Principles of Politics
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127. Moral Theology
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128. Moral Theology
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129. Moral and Pastoral Theology
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130. Manual of Moral Theology
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132. “…alii autem ex privilegio eligentes solum ex justitia legali.” Summa theologiae moralis
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133. Casus concientiae
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134. Compendium theologiae moralis
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135. Summarium theologiae moralis
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136. Summa theologiae moralis
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137. The Catholic Church and the Citizen
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138. The State and the Church
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139. The Citizen, the Church, and the State
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141. The State and the Church
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142. A Thomistic Interpretation of Civic Right in the United States
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143. Cursus theologiae moralis
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144. Institutiones theologiae moralis
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146. Manuale theoretico-practicum theologiae moralis
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147. Quaetiones de justitia
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148. Theologia moralis
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149. Institutiones morales alphonsianae
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150. (Westminster, Md., 1943), 175.
151. Moral Theology
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152. Morality and Government
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153. Synopsis theologiae moralis
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155. Manuale theologiae moralis
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156. Notae ad praelectiones theologiae moralis
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157. Elementa theologiae moralis
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158. De justitia et jure, 2 vols. (4. ed., Maltines, 1943), 2, 514.
159. Institutiones theologiae moralis
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160. “The Political Duties of a Citizen,” Epistle
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163. W. Leon Godshall, The National Government of the American People
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164. Ed. O’Reilly, Relations of the Church to Society
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