When the Catholic Faithful Were Not Allowed to Vote

If you listen to Catholic commentators–especially conservative ones–you’ll hear about the obligation of the faithful not only to vote but to vote for the proper person, i.e., one that is pro-life, etc., and that it’s a sin to fail to do so.

But there was a time when the Church had a less roseate view of voting, and in one case wouldn’t allow its people to vote at all.  But a little history is in order.

I005_Papal_States_Map_1870Italy, unlike the UK or France, was relatively recent to unify.  Before that time it was a collection of small countries, one of which were the Papal States, under the direct rule of the Vatican.  (See map to the right.)  They literally cut the Italian peninsula in half.  When unification first took place in 1860, most of the Papal States (the pink part on the map) were made a part of Italy, so the bisection problem was solved.  But then there was Rome…that was annexed against the will of the newly infallible Pope Pius IX in 1870.  He became a “prisoner” in the Vatican.

Needless to say, the Pope (and his successors) were not happy with this situation.  One of their responses, as Daniel-Rops points out in A Fight for God, was the following:

What attitude could Catholics adopt to counter this offensive? They might, like the German Zentrum, have joined battle in the parliamentary field; but Pius IX would allow no such course.  When asked by some of the faithful what they should do at elections, he stood firm by his principle of completely ignoring the monarchy, and directed the sacred penitentiary to tell them, “it is not fitting” that they should take part therein.  This formula, non expedit, imposed upon Italian Catholics a rule of conduct; they most not vote at political elections; and in fact when balloting took place in 1871 more than half of the population of Italy abstained.  They were advised, however, to take a hand in municipal and other local elections, in order to sway public opinion.  For more than half a century, at least in theory, non expedit remained the rule, imprisoning Catholics in a sullen opposition to all that the government of their country might do. (p. 90)

The problem was eventually solved with the Lateran Treaties in 1929, when the Vatican State became a really small nation.

So when you hear Catholic commentators go on about how the Church expects the faithful to vote, just remember that there was a time and place when it was not fitting for them to do so.

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