|The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
published a "Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the
participation of Catholics in political life" on 21 November 2002
(ORE, 22 January 2003, pp. 5-7). The Note was directed to the
Bishops of the Catholic Church as well as to Catholic politicians and
all laity called to participate in the political life of democratic
societies. The following article is a commentary on this Doctrinal Note.
Commitment in political life is a vocation. It demands passion,
dedication, patience and foresight, as well as intelligence and
impartiality. Without the vocational dimension, politics would easily
become a profession, preventing its inherent value from shining through.
It would be clouded by the frenzy for power and restricted by the thirst
for gain. Indeed, whoever enters politics should view it as a special
kind of activity by means of which the future of entire generations is
responsibly foreseen and concretely prepared.
In the final analysis, it is attention to the person and the desire for
the common good that impels people to set out on this route, which is
often gruelling and thankless, but necessary for the development and
growth of all. In short, it is a good that goes beyond personal
perspectives because it obliges people to broaden their horizons to
embrace everyone. This is the first impression to be gleaned from
reflecting on the doctrinal Note of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith. In fact, there is nothing doctrinally new in the
teaching it presents, but it enables one to focus better on this moment
in history, with all its expectations and contradictions.
'Common good' is concrete and normative for Catholic politicians
The common good has always been part of the Church's social teaching,
indeed, its central content. The Council forcefully reaffirmed this when
it wrote: "The political community, then, exists for the common
good: this is its full justification and meaning and the source of its
specific and basic right to exist" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 74).
However, the Note recommends that those involved in politics
grasp its concrete dimension in order to come up with a coherent and
lasting response to the expectations of citizens. If the concept of the
common good were only vaguely defined, there would be a real risk of
political shifting, and the criticism often levelled at politicians that
they are acting solely for certain private interests would not be
However, the Note has the merit of providing a clear explanation
of the common good and therefore gives those who read it a concrete
notion of the political commitment that is required of believers. The
situation is far from simple. Since, in fact, the criteria for Christian
conduct in politics are spelled out (cf. n. 4), those who are directly
concerned know that their credibility will also depend on whether or not
they abide by these principles.
The Magisterium proposes truth to enlighten one's conscience
The return to these topics should not cause surprise. Indeed, one of
the special tasks of the Magisterium is to propose the truth of the
faith, so that it may enlighten, educate and sustain the conscience of
individual believers as a guarantee of their membership in the ecclesial
community. The conscience of each individual member of parliament
remains always and in all cases the ultimate and inalienable measure for
judgment that nothing and no one will ever be able to supplant. It is
before God alone that the conscience finds itself in the dramatic
situation of having to choose.
As with any decision, the political decision also entails the duty to
give people something that is considered worthwhile and positive. It is
not an easy situation; hence, it is dramatic, since from the decision an
orientation is born that will not only determine the individual's own
life but that of entire generations to come.
For this reason the Magisterium desires to support the commitment of
those who dedicate their life to the service of politics. By showing the
truth of the consistency between the content of faith and the specific
historical circumstances of the present time, parliamentarians are
placed in a position of having greater confidence in their own conduct,
backed by the conviction of the decisions they are required to make.
Avoiding the trap of a 'pluralism of public policies'
The Note reminds Catholic politicians of a specific
commitment: to do everything possible to avoid the cultural diaspora of
those who share this faith (n. 7). The historical situations in
different countries, according to their various systems of democratic
representation, allow Catholic parliamentarians to be forceful in
various political parties.
A plurality of party membership, however, cannot mean the pluralism of
political policies. Plurality and strategies are a contingent factor;
pluralism is a matter that affects principles. On the essential values
of faith, no Catholic legislator can think of acting in accordance with
a rigid pattern of party membership as though this were superior to his
membership in the Church. In matters essential to the faith and to the
achievement of the common good, the politician-believer must be
committed to inspiring the greatest possible consensus, for he or she
knows that such matters are based on principles which, even before they
are explained by faith, are inscribed in nature that has no specific
denominational character in itself. A law drafted on the basis of
ethical relativism would have such weak foundations that it could not
even claim to be passed on the grounds of the universal consent of
In this regard, Catholic politicians are required to do their best to
recover that form of political rationality in order to give their
action the credibility of the choices they make and in which they ask
people to share, independently of their own faith and over and above
other ideological models (n. 3). Moreover, no policy can embrace every
aspect of personal life. The ability to recognize the historical moment
and the power to impress upon it an approach that will herald a more
judicious future constitute the personal commitment that must motivate
politicians. In this case, they might picture Thomas More's Utopia as
the highest form of expression for their political action founded on
justice, in which the encounter between the actual situation and
historical contingence is possible.
'There is neither public nor private in faith'
Another aspect that is examined by the Note seems to be the
emphasis placed on the fact that a politician is always a public figure
(cf. n. 2). He acquires this connotation above all from the fact that he
is a believer, and as such, a subject of the Church. Of course, faith is
always a personal act, but for this very reason it is an admission to an
ecclesial faith which makes a community life possible. Christians,
whoever they may be, are always ecclesial subjects; this rules out the
possibility of a schizophrenia that would relegate them to being
politicians during the week and Christians on Sundays. They must get out
of the trap of those who want to restrict the faith exclusively to the
If you like, this Note stresses the concern to make public
leadership recognize the responsibility political commitment demands.
There is neither public nor private in faith. Believing has always been
a public act and only a hypocritical Puritan vision — which does not belong to us — can enclose it in a vicious circle of
this kind. Membership of politicians in the Church is a free choice of
life, but demands consistency.
The autonomy of the two spheres is not damaged when, as believers, they
strive to have passed laws that depend on the ethical code to which they
adhere. It is this double presence, in fact, that is the only guarantee
of authentic freedom for every citizen. It is not necessary, from this
viewpoint, to recall that the principle of lay autonomy is a precious
heritage which the Christian faith has integrated into the progress of
history, and which we are all keen to preserve and defend.
In this regard, it is right that the Note should make a
distinction which does not always get the attention it deserves (n. 6).
When a politician is consistently dedicated, in conformity with the
principles of faith, he or she cannot be accused of confessionalism. The
secular nature of the State is a fundamental presupposition for
politicians who believe they can express themselves in conformity with
Moreover, the secular commitment of Catholic politicians is based
precisely on the possibility of their being present in a legislative
context as representatives of people who, as believers, have a
conscience of their own. To raise the lay factor to an ideology in order
to marginalize the action of Catholics would be the worst form of
service a politician could render. He would disqualify himself, because
he would be showing that secular intolerance which, by the same standard
of religious intolerance, presages violence.
If there were no moral authority that could go beyond the sphere of the
State, then yes, freedom really would be destroyed since, in fact, a
political power would become the foundation of an ethical code. In that
case, the lapse into exploitation of power for one's own advantage would
no longer be merely a risk, and the door to totalitarianism would be
thrown open. Autonomy and the lay aspect the Catholic politician
undertakes to guarantee is sustained by a concept of freedom to which
every law must be oriented. It is rooted in every human heart, and no
one can tear it out without offending the dignity of the person and of
the law itself.
'The sacredness of life can never be asserted enough'
The Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
contributes a further clarification to the discussion taking place in
various countries on the role and presence of Catholics in political
life. Ethical problems, especially in this historical situation, are
reflectors that challenge the conscience of citizens as never before
(cf. n. 4). The provocations that surface are often new and unheard of,
and for this reason give rise to bewilderment and confusion in many. The
sacredness of life can never be asserted often enough with the strength
of conviction in the various civil, social and religious walks of life.
Catholics engaged in politics, however, are responsible for being the
first guarantors of the dignity of life. This commitment requires them
to be convinced interpreters, promulgating laws that sustain the
mysterious and intangible character of human life in all its
John Paul II, in his historical visit to the Italian Parliament, was
able to give a global and profound meaning to this entire discussion
when he said; "The challenges facing a democratic State demand from
all men and women of good will, irrespective of their particular
political persuasion, supportive and generous cooperation in building up
the common good of the nation" (Address to the Italian
Parliament, 14 November 2002, n. 5; ORE, 20 November 2002, p.
This Note, therefore, reminds those whose task is political
representation and who bear the holy name of Christian, that they should
perform their service every day with impeccable competence and morality
that is second to none.