Browsing From the Pastor's Desk

Political Obligations

Mar 1, 2018

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Anyone who says they are not interested in politics is like a drowning man who insists he is not interested in water.” If there is anything that has been raised over the last two years, it is our political consciousness. Politics is unavoidable, even if we deliberately ignore it in social conversations. Today we are drowning in politics, which doesn’t seem to be working very well and barely keeps us afloat. But that may be only what it seems; in a free society of educated people, politics is bound to be a social ocean with many strong currents and choppy wave patterns.

If we look at the history of Greek city states like Athens, those that came up with this idea of democracy, we can see there are periodic upheavals and missteps. That’s why our founding fathers created a mixed system, a democratic republic, which system has its own peculiar problems.

The Church, as a participant in the affairs of this world, has a political voice. In this country, it is often misunderstood. Even as late as 1960, people thought if JFK was elected president, he would be taking orders from the Pope. We have enshrined this principle of separation of Church and state that today is taken by many people to mean that the Church should not to speak about political matters of the nation. We saw where that led in Germany with the Nazis; the Church spoke out too late.

In 1077 the Holy Roman emperor Henry II trudged through the snow up to the castle in Canossa to beg forgiveness of Pope Gregory VII, who had pointed out to Henry and his citizens in no uncertain terms some of the “mistakes” Henry was making in ruling his empire. So the Church and Church-people like me are often criticized for speaking out because sometimes what the Church says is contrary to our strongly held opinions or positions, just like it was with Henry II, whose grudging penitence was a political posture, not a spiritual one. Hopefully we react more positively.

In 2002, with the approval of Pope Saint John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an official Doctrinal Note on The Participation of Catholics in Political Life.

It says:
Civil society today is undergoing a complex cultural process as the end of an era brings with it a time of uncertainty in the face of something new. The great strides made in our time give evidence of humanity’s progress in attaining conditions of life which are more in keeping with human dignity. The growth in the sense of responsibility towards countries still on the path of development is without doubt an important sign, illustrative of a greater sensitivity to the common good. At the same time, however, one cannot close one’s eyes to the real dangers which certain tendencies in society are promoting through legislation, nor can one ignore the effects this will have on future generations…

It is not the Church’s task to set forth specific political solutions – and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one – to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person. It is, however, the Church’s right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters when this is required by faith or the moral law…

By its interventions in this area, the Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends – as is its proper function – to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture…

So there we are. The Church has a clear obligation to speak about political and social matters. Aristotle wrote in his Politics, “Man is a political animal. A man who lives alone is either a Beast or a God.” The Church wants to keep us all from becoming beasts and society from becoming beastly; more importantly, it wants to prevent us from considering ourselves or any leader a god. Human beings in society are tempted both ways.

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