|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
a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and
belongs to the inheritance of contemporary civilization" (Note, n.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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,
It is a very different thing for a Catholic
and, by another right, also for any citizen
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,
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.