Commentary: Catholics in Political Life
Prof. Vincenzo Buonomo
Professor of Law and International Organization, Pontifical Lateran University

Lay faithful must participate in political life

A careful perusal of the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life clearly shows that in outlining some of the issues concerning the commitment and conduct of Catholics involved in politics, the Document does not fail to recall the doctrinal implications inherent in it, even if it takes care to explain its objectives and methodology.

This approach, moreover, makes it possible to steer clear of an incomplete evaluation of the Note or one limited to situations that remain contingent, even though they may well deserve attention.

Thus, interest is sparked by the decision — the obligation, as it were — to put the human person at the centre not only of political commitment and resulting action, but also of the juridical-legislative, institutional, cultural and, last but not least, internal and international religious debate that is going on in our society. This highlights one of the Doctrinal Note's aims: to show that the political commitment of Catholics is a helpful factor in composing the dialectics between authority and the person, as well as between the international order and national interests.

In principle, there is a desire not to exclude those in politics who hold different views from defining common goals, but always to refer to the matrix of Catholic involvement in politics: "Christian moral and social teaching" (Note, n. 3).

At the same time, the most obvious innovation is the constant reference to "democratic society", not only as a value but as an area in which Catholics fulfil their political commitment (cf. Note, n. 1). The reference to democracy highlights the difference of approach in forms of government and in the way State bureaucracy functions; it also reminds us that a lack of democracy is likely to jeopardize the orderly coexistence of persons and peoples and the effective governance of international relations.

The various categories of human rights, whose protection is considered essential, act as catalysts or factors that regulate this indisputably complex reality which involves the person and methods of government (cf. Note, n. 3).

Thus, the Doctrinal Note gives us a glimpse of continuity with the Church's teaching and discontinuity with those views that tend to express cultural and normative approaches to fundamental rights inspired by an ethical relativism that is often introduced by a lobby of minority fringes operating in social and political contexts to legislatively promote "certain tendencies in society that will affect the future generations" (Note, n. 2).

The chapter on human rights primarily concerns the area of the fundamental values of social life, hence, the constitutive order of every individual political community and the international community. Thus, it not only acquires essential significance in the assessment of the behaviour of institutions but also in the political action of every person, starting with those involved in politics with different roles and responsibilities.

For Catholics, therefore, it is obvious that human rights are not only an area of confrontation or an instrument of dialogue, but also constitute one of those non-negotiable limits to their personal identity beyond which it is not permissible to go.

To reflect on the rights that belong to the person thus appears to be obligatory, since they specifically concern active participation in politics. In fact, this participation is expressed as a responsible act by every citizen with a view to effective public government; for Christians, it also becomes a privileged way to make a "consistent contribution" to promoting the common good.

However, participation primarily continues to be the result of the exercise of a fundamental right that can in no way be violated, ignored or impeded, especially if such limitations target stances backed by "religious convictions" or aspire to "marginalize" the religious factor (Note, n. 6).

Indeed, participation in political life, an objective that "the lay faithful are never to relinquish" (Note, n. 1), requires that the premise and final aim of every action be the recognition and protection of fundamental rights in accordance with the basic criteria of the structure and function of the modern State with a democratic Government (cf. Note, n. 3).

Human rights and democracy

It is easy to perceive in the connection between person, democracy and human rights that the Note constantly uses as a key for the interpretation of the activity of Christian policy-makers "at all levels" a further reference to the cogent principles, henceforth, an essential part of the heritage of values, norms and structures that guarantee the protection of the person's rights throughout maturity, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to the most recent expressions of them. Church teaching has interpreted this process as an indelible "sign of the times", as John Paul II recalled in his 2004 Message for World Day of Peace.

The Note re-echoes a principle the U.N. Declaration strongly expresses: the enjoyment of human rights presupposes the existence of a "democratic society" (art. 29).

This subsequently became part of the interpretation of human rights suggested by certain regional geo-political contexts — from the European, to the inter-American, to the African — which in their respective charters of rights appeal to the ideal of democratic society, the pre-eminence of rules and the central place of the person, whose dignity is the basis and objective of every right.

The scenario the social and cultural debate offers us today is subsequently reflected in political and legislative activity, and shows increasingly that differing prospects and opposing trends are involved in the human-rights issue. Although all claim to be motivated by a common goal — protection of the person — some manifest a clear intention to impose their own specific interpretations, the result of the most disparate ideologies and approaches that make human rights a "new ethic", forgetting that the raison d'être and formal justification of human rights are found in ethics.

Likewise, it is contrary to the guidelines in the Universal Declaration, which presents human rights and their defence as the "common standard of achievement".

Man and his rights could sum up the current debate on human rights which, instead of conducting an investigation on the well-known postulate: "what is man?", reflects on what rights he has and how many of them he could have. It almost seems that rights are linked to a value based on their use (how far can I exercise my rights?) and to a quantitative approach (how many rights am I entitled to?).

It thus seems to have become unimportant to question ourselves about the foundation of rights, and so we rely on the given formulas, normative acts or declarations, save the "right" to claim that these have become outdated when they hinder the quantitative approach or question the value of their use.

This perspective is highlighted by the constant affirmation of "the complex array of today's problems... including some never faced by past generations" (Note, n. 4), those new horizons that are unfolding for the life of men and women in society — life expectation, economic standards, human mobility, technological and scientific breakthroughs, to give a few examples — which result in a request for rights and freedoms that correspond to the new situations.

But how can we fail to see that this request, with rapid pragmatism, is tending to be transformed into new lifestyles, models of society, claims, confrontations and conflicts?
More than anything else, this is a trend which ignores any reference to the "common significance" of the values that are the heritage of the different traditions and cultures, to the "ethical precepts" that are "rooted in human nature itself and belong to the natural moral law" (Note, n. 5).

With the absence of these "fundamental and inalienable ethical demands" (Note, n. 4), which are instead the backbone of all human rights, political action itself would lose every margin of serene confrontation and would reach the point of justifying "new rights" that are neither necessary nor consistent, but merely instrumental; or it would provide "new interpretations" of existing rights, forgetting the true nature of the human being, the basis of human coexistence, solidarity and sharing.

Blocks to enjoying human rights

A deeper analysis shows that the problem is not so much inherent in the conception of rights or in the procedure of asserting "new" rights; rather, it is in the meaning of human life that also seems to be imposed on the current cultural, political and juridical debate both on the national and international levels.

This "relativistic" view appears to be gaining ground in our time (cf. Note, nn. 2-3), and its focus on politics also results in separation on the human-rights issue: the person is reduced to multiple and increasingly specific categories, for which equally fragmentary or at least incomplete rights are spelled out; in other words, unfounded rights that are not what they claim to be, rights that do not correspond with the general interest of the human community but simply to "interests".

They serve as the pretext for considering as fundamental rights the decision to put an end to one's own or another's life or to manipulate the process of the transmission of life.

Then, in the social dynamic, the illusion of evading the natural order is manifest in the view that every form of cohabitation is a family, or in the subordination of the right to medical care of large segments of the world population to the sole criteria of economic productivity, forgetting that the results of ingenuity and research are part of the order of creation and should thus be made accessible to all.

The same approach, with regard to international relations, subordinates to national interests rather than to broader human needs the right to peace, which also "requires a constant and vigilant commitment on the part of all political leaders" (Note, n. 4).

The right to development and to more humane conditions for individuals and peoples continues to be subjected to the "guarantee of a return" only for already developed areas, overlooking the substantial principle of human solidarity that places international cooperation at the service of "the promotion of the human person and the common good" (Note n. 6).

These are obviously just a few images of daily life in our societies and likewise in the perspective of international events; but because of their complexity and effects, they suffice for reflection, for dialogue and for spreading an awareness of the need to propose different ideas and projects: this is the meaning of the presence of Catholics in government and their contribution to outlining institutional possibilities and legislation.

Their contribution will be valid as long as they are aware that in political action that lacks an ethical basis, the reference to human rights risks being merely a way of winning or maintaining support, if it does not actually become a vehicle of division and opposition, even going as far as rejecting the other person if it concerns someone at a different stage of development.

Role of Catholic politicians

The Doctrinal Note asks if the Christian politician is the messenger of a specific vision of human rights.

One might answer that Christianity has its own concept of the person and thus of the rights inherent in the person. These are justified in the single reality of soul and body, spirit and matter, founded in the substantial quality that is human dignity; in other words, in what
distinguishes the human person from any other living being.

Political activity, therefore, cannot escape the fact that persons, although called to refer to their own rights and those of their peers, do not constitute their rights and cannot be reduced to them.

In this perspective human dignity is a dynamic factor that is fulfilled in the individual and social dimensions of the person in his necessary relationship of reciprocity with others, in his own needs and in those of others, which are born and manifested in daily life and become as many contexts in which rights must be safeguarded and duties fulfilled: family and social relations, religious dimension, work and financial activities, political life and cultural activities.

Furthermore, for the believer special attention should be paid to the "rights of the human conscience" (Centesimus Annus, n. 29). Among these stand out freedom of conscience and of worship that can never be considered a vehicle of conflict or a denial of the true value of secularism, nor can they lead to "confusion between the religious and political spheres" (Note, n. 6).

At the same time, the right to religious freedom cannot be reduced to or replaced by tolerance, since tolerance is an essential component of the religious experience.
This means that the recognition and consequent preservation of human rights may in no way "be made dependent upon citizens' religious convictions or activities" (Note, n. 6).

For Christians who engage in politics, the domain proper to religion must not be confused with that of morality.

The latter seeks to embrace the ethical and juridical orders, as seen precisely in the case of laws which, founded on moral principles, express the many ethical and juridical norms established in order to direct people's conduct, safeguard the common good and contribute to achieving justice.

Christians involved in politics, therefore, are required to present a vision of human rights that can transform society into a community of persons and international relations in the image of the human family.

This effort should only be made, however, if it is inspired by those authentically human values expressed by moral law, values which by their very nature are universal.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
9 March 2005, page 10

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