Connection Between the Political and Religious Spheres
Prof. Angel Rodríguez Luño
Holy Cross Pontifical University, Rome

Catholics have a duty to build the social order

The laicity of the State is often appealed to in an ambiguous and improper way, and at times even masks attitudes which disregard the religious sensibility of citizens. But in itself it constitutes a positive value which should not cause distrust or suspicion.

The same must be said about political pluralism, an immediate result of freedom, which the State recognizes for all citizens and the Catholic Church for its faithful (cf., for example, CIC, can. 227).

The Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opportunely clarifies that "for Catholic moral doctrine, the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church but not from that of morality is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and belongs to the inheritance of contemporary civilization" (Note, n. 6).

The monist conception, proper to the Greco-Roman world and to other non-Christian civilizations, of a political community which organically unifies religious needs with the ethical and specifically political, becomes unacceptable after the advent of Christ. With Christianity an elevated concept of the person appears, whose dignity and freedom are ultimately founded in a sphere of values which transcends politics.

A Scriptural perspective

From the evangelical teaching, according to which it is necessary to render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's (cf. Mt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26), follows the existence of a duality of spheres and authorities, called to carry out their specific tasks in an autonomous and harmonious way: he who gives to God what is God's can, without contradiction, give to Caesar what is Caesar's.

St Paul seems to give a further indication when he affirms, "for the sake of conscience", that one cannot give to God what is God's without giving to Caesar what is Caesar's (cf. Rom 13:17). The State that works honestly within its own sphere of competence has nothing to fear from the other apostolic teaching, according to which "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

In Christian thought the political and religious spheres are nevertheless connected due to the "reasons of conscience" referred to by St Paul (cf. Rom 13:5), which is to say, because of the moral terrain in which both meet. Politics refers to the "many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good" (Note, n. 1).

Given its essential reference to the good of persons who live together, political praxis has not only important moral dimensions, but is itself moral practice, even if not every moral practice is political practice. On these presuppositions, the Christian concept of laicity consists in the simultaneous affirmation of three principles:

1) Politics is not separable from morality, because politics essentially refers to the common good, which comprises the promotion and care of goods relevant for the communal life of human persons, such as public order, peace, freedom, justice and equality, respect for human life and the environment, solidarity, etc. (cf. Note, n. 1).

2) The moral character of political practice cannot create any confusion between the political society and the religious community, between their ends and the spheres of competence of their respective authority. If it is in the very nature of things that the political and religious spheres have points in common, it is also in their nature that the privileged place in which this connection is felt is the personal conscience of those who are at the same time and inseparably citizens (or also leaders) of the State and faithful of the Church.

In this way the points of contact which exist between the political and religious spheres do not detract from their distinct and reciprocal autonomy.

On the contrary, to avoid any ambiguity, the Catholic Church forbids clerics "to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power" (CIC, can. 285 § 3), as well as active participation in political parties (cf. Note, n. 1, footnote 1), even if clerics continue to be citizens who exercise all the political rights compatible with their condition as sacred ministers (the right to vote, etc.).

3) With regard to religion, the secularity of the State does not mean the irreligiosity, agnosticism or atheism of the State. The lay State recognizes the importance and role both of the religious phenomenon as such, and of the religious convictions of the citizens and religious traditions of the peoples.

At the same time it is aware that it is neither the source nor the judge of the religious conscience of the citizens, for whom it recognizes the widest right to religious freedom, provided that the just needs of public order are respected. And if, "because of the circumstances of a particular people special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional organization of a State, the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom must be recognized and respected as well" (Dignitatis Humanae, n. 6).

Non-negotiable ethical needs

The teaching of the Church on social and political matters seeks to be fully respectful both of the distinction between the religious and the political spheres and the legitimate political pluralism of the faithful. This teaching is directed to the conscience of Catholic citizens, and non-Catholic citizens who freely want to heed it, to illustrate the ethical needs belonging to the Christian conscience which concern the right order of a political society of human persons, and not of a particular religious community.

The Catholic Church is well aware that "specifically religious activities (such as the profession of faith, worship, administration of the sacraments, theological doctrines, interchange between religious authorities and the members of religions) are outside the State's responsibility. The State must not interfere nor in any way require or prohibit these activities, except when it is a question of public order" (Note, n. 6).

The Church's social teaching does not propose values or principles which presuppose the profession of the Christian faith (cf. Note, n. 5), but ethical needs "rooted in human nature itself" (ibid.), which "by their nature and for their fundamental role in social life are not 'negotiable'" (cf. Note, n. 3). These are values relevant for the political common good which of themselves morally involve the conscience of every citizen.

For Christian morality, which in its internal structure responds to the logic of the Incarnation, naturally comprises all that has true human, individual or social value, even if faith always remains its definitive life criterion. From this stems St Paul's exhortation: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil 4:8).

Reason and faith are not self-excluding principles. Especially in the moral realm, faith also confirms truths which are attainable by everyone.

For this reason, "the fact that some of these truths may also be taught by the Church does not lessen the political legitimacy or the rightful 'autonomy' of the contribution of those citizens who are committed to them, irrespective of the role that reasoned inquiry or confirmation by the Christian faith may have played in recognizing such truths. Such 'autonomy' refers first of all to the attitude of the person who respects the truths that derive from natural knowledge regarding man's life in society, even if such truths may also be taught by a specific religion, because truth is one" (Note, n. 6).

It is rightly added that those who "would view the moral duty of Christians to act according to their conscience as something that disqualifies them from political life, denying the legitimacy of their political involvement following from their convictions about the common good, would be guilty of a form of intolerant secularism" (ibid.).

Acting according to their conscience, Christians have introduced values and motions into political culture that were once contested by everyone, but which today no one would consider confessional or in any way contrary to the autonomy of politics, such as, for example, the gradual banning of slavery.

The Doctrinal Note also recalls that political activity is not merely declaring abstract ethical-political values. It aims rather at "very concrete realizations of the true human and social good in given historical, geographic, economic, technological and cultural contexts" (n. 3).

Avoiding an ambiguous pluralism

On this practical level a legitimate political pluralism of Catholic citizens exists. Christian conscience is bound to certain fundamental values, but often different policies for their realization are conceivable and different opinions can exist on the interpretation of the foundational principles of the political theory which is best adjusted to the specific needs and character of a people, or the technical complexity of certain political problems can leave room for different morally acceptable solutions.

It is the Church's right and duty to pronounce moral judgments on temporal situations which are required by faith or morality, but it is beyond its mission to specify and suggest concrete proposals, or even less, uniquely binding proposals for problems which admit different solutions according to Christian conscience (cf. Note, n. 3).

To propose and choose options considered most suitable for the common good is the task and responsibility of all who can legitimately engage in politics: believing and non-believing citizens, parties, institutions, governing bodies.

It is a very different thing for a Catholic and, by another right, also for any citizen to confuse the plurality of politically legitimate options "with an ambiguous pluralism in the choice of moral principles or essential values. The legitimate plurality of temporal options is at the origin of the commitment of Catholics to politics and relates directly to Christian moral and social teaching. It is in light of this teaching that lay Catholics must assess their participation in political life to be sure it is marked by a coherent responsibility for temporal reality" (Note, n. 3).

Political pluralism is by no means similar to ethical relativism or pluralism, according to which every conception of man's good is as valid as any other (cf. Note, nn. 2-3). Nor can that which is openly opposed to the essential needs of the common good be legitimately appealed to with regard to political strategies or policies (abortion, destruction of human embryos, etc.) (cf. Note, n. 4).

The clarifications on laicity and pluralism are an important aspect of the Note which we comment upon here. They nevertheless do not comprise the primary aim. In the face of the conformity and relativism which are spreading in many political environments, and which at times assume connotations of intolerance or injustice, the Note intends above all to remind Catholic citizens of a social and political commitment which is consistent with the Christian conscience.

The environmental pressure, which is frequently aided by slogans which do not stand up to rational analysis, and the major stress laid on disagreements regarding contingent questions rather than on the sharing of fundamental substantial values, can lead to a double conscience, a type of mental schizophrenia in which one part is considered, in the intimacy of conscience, right for the common good, and another perhaps even the opposite upholds social and political proposals.

Vatican Council II cautions that "one of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 43).

The correct understanding of laicity and pluralism is nevertheless necessary in order to better frame, in the context of current democratic societies, the urgent need for commitment, so that public life be ordered according to the values of freedom, justice, peace, solidarity, etc., which are inseparable from Christian conscience.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 June 2004, page 8

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