The Duty of Catholic Politicians

Author: Bishop Rino Fisichella


Bishop Rino Fisichella
Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University

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 unfounded.

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 citizens.

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 private sphere.

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 their conscience.

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 manifestations.

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. 2).

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.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 June 2003, page 10

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