Doctrinal Note: An Overview

Author: Fr. Real Tremblay, C.SS.R.


Fr. Réal Tremblay, C.SS.R.

The Person: Foundation of Catholic Involvement

A key concept of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life is certainly that of the person. First, I want to illustrate this statement, by drawing attention to the places where it appears in the Note. On the way, we will see the contexts in which it is used and that will show its importance and bearing on the argument (part 1). At a second level of reflection, I propose to qualify the concept further, so as to make ever clearer the notion that the document offers and thus stress the urgent need for Catholics to make use of it in their participation in public affairs (part 2). Finally, I will evoke briefly the bad results that a false or restrictive concept of the person creates in politics.

The idea of the person in this document

1. In this document, the term "person" appears in many contexts and different frameworks. It appears for the first time in the context of the claim of "ethical pluralism" which, according to the text of the Note, fosters "the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law" (n. 2). How can this be? This theory, presented as the "basis of democracy", is defined by a double emphasis. It is addressed to citizens and legislators, and urges citizens to claim "complete autonomy" with regard to their moral choices. It urges legislators to approve these choices even if they disregard the "principles of the natural law". It favours "ephemeral cultural and moral trends" which seem to give every possible conception of life equal value. Under the pretext of tolerance, it then urges a large number of citizens, Catholics among them, to give up contributing to society and political life according to the particular understanding of the human person and the common good" that they consider "right and just" to be brought about with the legitimate means that the democratic juridical order puts at the disposition of all the members of the political community.

Reality of the human person, rights

Later, the document returns to the reality of the human person who is presented as the condition of possibility, the "basis" of "the life of democracy" understood as the ideal means for the citizens to participate in political choices. The document again qualifies the person as the "cornerstone" of the democratic structure on which the modern state understands it is to be built. This implies that respect for the person and for his/her rights is an inalienable precondition for genuine democratic participation. These affirmations are inspired by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council which is summed up and synthesized in a passage of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes (n. 73): "For the protection of personal rights is a necessary condition for the active participation of citizens, whetheras individuals or collectively, in the life and government of the state" (cf. n. 3 of CDF Note).

Abortion, protection of marriage and family, right of parents to educate their children

Problems may arise, our document continues, when these elements are not given due importance. A particularly evident example of this is found in the attempts to make laws which, heedless "of the consequences [that will result from them) for the life and future of human beings with regard to the formation of culture and social behaviour, attack the very inviolability of human life". There is no doubt that Catholics who are involved in public life have a key role in preventing all that corrodes "the essence of the moral law, that concerns the integral good of the human person", such as the right to life from conception to natural death, the rights of the human embryo, the protection and promotion of the family based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, the guarantee and right of parents to choose the education of their children, society's protection of minors, the right to religious freedom and the development of an economy at the service of the human person and of the common good, the question of peace and the corresponding rejection of violence and terrorism (cf. n. 4 of the CDF Note).

Dignity, rights of the person are universal, not only teaching of the Church

Our document also alludes to "the service of the dignity of the human person" which is linked to principles that protect the absolute values inscribed in the nature of the human person to which politics must refer, rather than, in the name of "the principle of pluralism" or "the autonomy of lay involvement in political life", fostering solutions which compromise the fundamental ethical demands based on the common good of society (n. 5).

Later on, while making sure that there is no confusion between the rightful autonomy of a Catholic politician and his possible attempt to contradict one or more principles that oppose the Church's teaching, we find a similar statement. Our document says that this can occur because the Magisterium of the Church seeks to "instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful", especially, of those involved in political life, "so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good". Therefore, the involvement of Christians in politics has nothing to do with adherence to a particular religious confession, because it is ordered to establishing a "society that is more just and more consistent with the dignity of the human person" (n. 6).

The Note refers to the "good of the human person and of the entire society"in the context of the necessary relationship between truth and freedom. Wherever truth is neither pointed out nor sought, freedom is weakened, and is threatened with becoming free thinking and egotism (cf. n. 7). In the context of this assertion, there is an additional observation concerning freedom of conscience and religious freedom. Recalling the conciliar Declaration Dignitatis humanae andan Address of Paul VI to the Sacred College and the Roman Prelacy, our text explains that these two realities have their foundation in "the ontological dignity of the human person" (n. 8).

Evidently, after this reading of the document, the person is presented as the "basis", the "foundation" of the democratic structure of society. Connected with the person are rights which reflect the absolute values imprinted on the nature of the human person. These rights require the unconditional respect of the politicians. Consequently, one can affirm that political life must be conceived of as a service to the person (without, of course, jeopardizing the common good), who possesses an "ontological dignity" so that from the person, according to the Magisterium of the Church, freedom of conscience and religious freedom derive.

Additional clarifications on the centrality of the person

2. Clearly, our document does not offer any exact definition of the person. However, because of the roles of foundation and goal of political life that are attributed to the person and his dignity, the document enables us to suppose that we are in the presence of a reality of sacredsubstance orrelated to the divine. This is the subject I would now like to discuss briefly (for a more thorough examination of what I can only outline here, see: J. Ratzinger, Dogmaund Verkündigung, München-Freiburg im Br., Erich Wewel Verlag, 1973, 205-223; W. Kasper, Jesusder Christus, Mainz-Grünewald-Verlag, 1974, 284-300; G. Greshke, Derdreieine Gott. Eine trinitarische Theologie,Freiburg-Basel-Wien, Herder, 1997, 71-171).

Trinitarian origin of the person

The Second Vatican Council, that inspired our document, when it speaks of the person's relations with political life, said that man is "the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake" (Gaudium et spes, n. 24). This affirmation, which can only rightly be applied to the person (given the context of the quotation), is so rich with meaning. Among other things, it implies that the whole of earthly reality is relative to the person, or in other words, that the person cannot be subordinate to anything else in this world. What is the reason for the person's absolute dignity? The person's interior or spiritual relationship with the whole of creation and with what exceeds it, manifestthat it takes its origin from the three-personal mystery of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

This deduction allows us to continue the reflection. The two questions, so to speak, which tug at the human heart, are those that refer to his beginning and to his end, or to the exit of his being-in-the world, and are the human translation of what the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of the revelation of divine sonship (on this point see R. Schnachenburg, DasJohannesevangelium [HthKNT., 21, Freiburg-Basel-Wien, Herder, 150-168) defines in terms of "coming forth" from the Father and "return" to the Father, applied to Jesus of Nazareth and to what defines or identifies his most intimate nucleus. The human person is sacred or borders on the divine because he is the reflection in this world of a divine reality, whose validity is that of being in a relationship of origin from the Eternal One, and of abandonment to him, the Eternal One, who is called Father with respect to his Son in their reciprocal Love.

Faith confirms reason on the dignity of the person

Without diminishing or altering the properties of the human person, the viewpoint of faith thus comes to confirm the human intuition (after all, to be found in the Note) of the person's almost infinite dignity, a dignity which the Note justly sets at the centre of political life and of the involvement of the Catholics who participate in it.

* * *

Twentieth century wars, slaughters are the fruit of lack of respect for dignity of person

After these thoughts, it becomes clear that politicians who do not take as a criterion for their actions the dignity sui generis of the human person and are not at all or hardly concerned with respect for human rights, risk taking ethical deviations of incalculable dimensions. It would be easy to justify this affirmation on the basis of what occurred in the 20th century. Is not the mass killing of human life, of which this century was the witness, perhaps an immediate consequence of a concept of the human person stripped of his almost divine dignity as asserted by several atheistic ideologies?

Today major violations of dignity of person continue

Despite this lesson of the past, political life today is not exempt from serious negligence of the person and his fundamental rights. It will be enough to think of the fate reserved for a person, especially when he does not yet appear to be one or is still without a face as in the case of the human embryo (in this regard, may I refer to my book, L'élévation duFils, axe de la vie morale, Montreal, Fides, 2001, 79-97). An attack of this kind on the little one in a state of extreme weakness and in absolute need of protection by adults involves a domination of man by man which can only fuel an atmosphere of subtle violence, capable in the long run of preparing moral disasters of an apocalyptic scale (John Paul II's reflections in this regard are striking: Evangelium vitae,nn. 7-28). This is a further reason for Catholic politicians to raise their voices forcefully against any attack on the dignity of the person and his fundamental rights, this especially since they possess a second vision, the vision of faith. Although it surpasses the human assuch, this vision confirms it in its own reality and consolidates it, but also enables people to catch a glimpse of the fact, as Pascal says, that "man infinitely surpasses man" (Pensées, 438 [ed. L. Brunschvicg]).

Fr Réal Tremblay, C.SS.R.
Titular Professor of Fundamental Moral Theology at the Alphonsian Academy,

(CDF Doctrinal Note, n. 3)

The Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person. Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle, for otherwise the witness of the Christian faith in the world, as well as the unity and interior coherence of the faithful, would be non-existent. The democratic structures on which the modern state is based would be quite fragile were Its foundation not the centrality of the human person.

(cf. CDF Doctrinal Note, n. 4)

It must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity.... A political commitment to a single aspect of the Church's social doctrine does not exhaust one's responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be ... put into action. When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident.... In the face of fundamental ... ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo.... The family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such. The same is true for the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children; it is an inalienable right.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 February 2003, page 9

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069