Importance and Current Validity of the Document, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions

Author: Cardinal Joachim Meisner


Cardinal Joachim Meisner
Archbishop of Cologne

On the last Sunday of the liturgical year the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King. When Pope Pius XI introduced it in 1925, with a strong sense of symbolic power, he chose the last Sunday of October for this feast. This had great importance in terms of the prevailing political situation: the Russian Communists came to power with their Revolution of 17 October 1917, and the Italian Fascists, in October 1922, with their March on Rome. To counter these revolutions, the Pope established a feast which clearly focuses on the fact that there is no true King and Lord of the universe except Christ.

Participation of laity in the kingly office of Christ

Not by chance was the recently issued "Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life"dated 24 November 2002—the feast of Christ, "Lord of lords and King of kings" (Apoc 17,14; 19,16). In fact, ultimately it concerns the kingship of Christ, or more exactly, the participation in it by lay Christians whose "secular character is proper and specific" to them. "By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God's will" (Vatican II, Lumen gentium,n. 31). The laity realize this participation in the kingship of the Lord in their personal life of faith, and beyond this, the life of faith calls for the Christian commitment in politics. Pope John Paul II exhorts all Catholics: "A new state of affairs today both in the Church and in social, economic, political and cultural life, calls with a particular urgency for the action of the lay faithful. If lack of commitment is always unacceptable, the present time renders it even more so. It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle" (Christifideles laici,n. 3).

Postmodern problems

At a first superficial glance, the guidelines offered in the Note for this service of the laity in the world seem superfluous, or at least, late in arriving. The Church has opened herself to the world with zeal—perhaps, sometimes, even with excessive zeal. For this reason, that Christians should carry on a political mission can easily seem to be an obvious truth. But in fact, the document appears timely and up to date, since it explicitly goes into problems, questions and relationships which we usually describe today as "postmodern".

The text affirms that it does not at all consider the many forms of exercise of power that are in opposition to God, that the Apocalypse characterised as "the beast rising from the sea" (Apoc 13,1ff). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not speak of dictatorships or of anti-Christian anarchies—although some still exist today. It speaks of today's democratic societies. In them it sees such a positive value because "in a climate of true freedom, everyone is made a participant in directing the body politic" (I.1). In such forms of society one finds the ideal terrain for a legitimate construction of the world as inspired by Christianity; in the first place, there can be no doubt that the multicultural and multireligious atmosphere of democratic forms of society offer the ideal environment for Christian political commitment. Anyone who has ever lived in an anti-Christian state and experienced its perfidious methods can doubly appreciate democratic tolerance!

Danger for democracy, lack of definitive, ultimate values

This is also a vigilant and realistic view which also sees dangers inherent in democracy (cf. II. 2). Indeed, while cultural and ideological plurality is legitimate in itself and for its own sake, it often includes an ethical pluralism that favours "laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value" (II. 2). Although the Enlightenment may have brought us salutary progress—here it shows its Achilles' heel. Instead of "absolute" moral values, it has substituted a generic morality that is humanly presented, but in the absence of any firm boundaries, has rapidly melted away. The "Parable of the Ring" by Lessing—an exponent of the Enlightenment—expresses the loss of the religious dimension in these words: "Your rings are not authentic, not one of the three. The true ring has presumably been lost" (Nathan the Wise, II, 7). Lessing's fundamental attitude which is agnostic regarding concrete religious convictions, generally characterizes our public life: to each his own truth, to each his own values!

Properly understood autonomy of earthly realities

The Vatican Note does not at all relate to the pre-enlightenment situation, an accusation that is frequently levelled at the Church. Indeed, the basis of her explanations and instructions is rather the conviction that there is a "legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select, according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good" (II. 3). In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council already recalled: "very often their Christian vision will suggest a certain solution in some given situation. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that some of the faithful, with no less sincerity will see the problem quite differently. Now if one or other of the proposed solutions is too easily associated with the message of the Gospel, they ought to remember that in those cases no one is permitted to identify the authority of the Church exclusively with his own opinion" (Gaudium et spes, n. 43).

Consequently, if the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says that it is favourable to the plurality of concrete political strategies, nonetheless, it strongly emphasizes the need for ethical principles: "Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society" (II.3). Here the Church requires from the democratic state not the acceptance of a special "Catholic" or even only "Christian heritage", but simply the acceptance of human beings as creatures. Thus the individual person, like human society as a whole, is based on goods, values and norms. These are anchored in their nature and ultimately in the absolute character of God their Creator, so that they cannot be eliminated or relativized by man. In this regard too, the Second Vatican Council was in advance, since it declared itself unequivocally for the autonomy of earthly realities, and yet added unambiguously: "If, by the term 'the autonomy of earthly affairs' is meant that material being does not depend on God and that man can use it as if it had no relation to its creator, then the falsity of such a claim will be obvious to anyone who believes in God. Without the creator the creature disappears" (Gaudiumet spes, n. 36). The example par excellence of this human condition is "the inviolability of human life" (II.4).

Dilemma: ideologically neutral, not neutral in terms of basic values

The Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, calls to mind this difficult, often volatile, relationship between earthly autonomy and the reference to God. Thus it does not call democratic structures into question, but recalls their foundation which consists in the fact that, by its nature, on the one hand democracy must always be ideologically neutral, and on the other, from the viewpoint of values, it can never be neutral. In fact, democratic freedom is a good in itself; it is based on conditions and values and implies them. So an indifferentism about values taken to the limit is not the ideal condition of democracy, but its death.

The text recalls permanent values and thus anthropological constants, that as such are not linked to any particular time, even if in the circumstances of the moment they take a certain concrete form. This is evident in the case of the examples of "fundamental and inalienable ethical demands", that the document identifies: abortion, euthanasia, such modern forms of slavery as drug abuse and prostitution are to be radically rejected, while such values as family, religious freedom, social justice and peace must be protected by the democratic state (II.4).

Constant need for transcendent values

With the Note onthe political commitment of Catholics, the Church continues that line of the perennial philosophy that began with the classical Greek philosophers. Those first "theorists of society" developed a reflection on the best possible way to express the divine on earth. "The ideal state", Plato's Socrates claimed, "is not found on earth, but perhaps in heaven there is a model for those who want to see it and base their own personality on this vision" (Plato, The Republic, IX, 592). The transcendence of the values and fundamental meanings removes the state—even the democratic state—from the arbitrariness of its citizens who in time could kill it as their victim. The line taken in this document, after getting beyond centuries and millenniums, not only arrives at the heart of the present time but even goes beyond it. Therefore, desiring to pose the question about the importance and current validity of the document, it would simply be described as of vital, indeed necessary, importance, for the survival of democracies to whom it offers guidelines for their future.

Church, ecclesial associations, have to give witness to the perennial, absolute values

"What is the truth?", Pilate once asked. Our society has made this question its own—and one has the clear impression that it does not want an answer. But the Church was convoked and sent into the world to bear witness to the truth, which ultimately is not a thing but a person: Jesus Christ. The prophetic mission involves all the faithful as it once involved Ezechiel, in being sentinels for their contemporaries. If the Church were no longer to alert people to danger, she and society would be ruined. The denunciation of the failings of many Catholic associations and organizations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is more than understandable. Indeed, Catholic associations are located at the junctures between the Church and the State. They are very important for the missionary task of the Church in modern society. However, this requires their Christian witness to be all the more genuine and dependable. For this reason, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not limited here to exhortations, but encourages and urges Catholics not to harbour any inferiority complex. Christians have something to say because God has entrusted his world to them.

Coherence between faith and life

This Note wants to encourage "the unity of Christian life: coherence between faith and life, Gospel and culture" (v. 9). A Sunday Christianity, that retreats into a narrow ecclesial context, fails in its mission and therefore loses its reason for being. Inspeaking to democratic societies, the Church has no intention of calling their "secular" character into question. On the contrary, she asks for a democratic right for herself, in an equal dialogue. The aim and ideal of the Church is not theocracy in the current, "fundamentalist" sense. By her nature and her mission she is the seed of the Kingdom of God in which humanity, until now so fragmented, is united; not with external or coercive means but out of inner conviction. It has already been said and must be expressly repeated as a conclusion: the guidelines in the Note for the political activity of Catholics have a strongly prophetic resonance. Their observance is crucial for the growth or decadence of democratic societies, in the long run just for their mere survival. Indeed, democracies are bound to follow the scale of values of their citizens. But if everything has the same value, everything becomes more indifferent. For this reason the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has the importance and current validity that belong only to "out of date reflections".  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 January 2003, page 7

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