The proper role for a believing Christian to play in public and political life has always been a complicated question, even more so now with political structures that are both democratic and pluralistic. We need to apply our personal judgment in determining how to act in specific situations, but those judgments must be informed and guided by the moral law and the teaching of the Church. One teaching document that has been enormously helpful to me in choosing my course is the Doctrinal Note On Some Questions Regarding The Participation Of Catholics In Political Life [text here], published November 2002 with the authorization of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II, an under the name of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger , then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).
The Doctrinal Note, despite its narrow focus (it’s only about eight pages long) is a wonderfully rich yet concise discussion, as one would expect from Joseph Ratzinger. It’s worth a much fuller treatment than I can give it today (I may address that in the future), but right now I want to look at just a couple of points as a sort of follow-up to my post last week about the Maine State Republican Convention [link].
First of all, participating in public and political life is a good thing:
It is commendable that in today’s democratic societies, in a climate of true freedom, everyone is made a participant in directing the body politic. Such societies call for new and fuller forms of participation in public life by Christian and non-Christian citizens alike . . . The life of a democracy could not be productive without the active, responsible and generous involvement of everyone, “albeit in a diversity and complementarity of forms, levels, tasks, and responsibilities”. (sec. 1, citations omitted)
As Catholic Christians, however, we have a particular mission to fulfill, a “proper task”:
By fulfilling their civic duties, “guided by a Christian conscience”, in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values, all the while respecting the nature and rightful autonomy of that order, and cooperating with other citizens according to their particular competence and responsibility. (sec. 1, citations omitted)
In other words, we need to recognize our mission to be Salt and Light to a world in desperate need of the Truth (see Matthew 5:13), while at the same time respecting the freedom of those who might disagree.
The Doctrinal Note goes on to say that such involvement on our part in not only good, but is in fact essential if democratic governance is to survive:
At the same time, the Church teaches that authentic freedom does not exist without the truth. “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.” In a society in which truth is neither mentioned nor sought, every form of authentic exercise of freedom will be weakened, opening the way to libertine and individualistic distortions and undermining the protection of the good of the human person and of the entire society. (sec. 7, citations omitted)
This last point also indicates the limits of politics and political systems, and actually reminds me of something John Adams once said. As it happens, my son and I were listening to a recorded version of David McCullough’s excellent biography of Adams while travelling to and from the convention last week. Adams lived a fascinating life: he was a leader in the movement for American independence, a well-travelled diplomat in 18th century Europe, the first Vice President of the United States under George Washington, and Washington’s successor as President. He was also a deeply religious man (although not, of course, Catholic) with solid moral convictions who thought seriously and incisively about the nature of government and the proper relationship between the government and the governed (all of which he put into practice as the chief architect of the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the world’s oldest written constitution that is still in use).
|The eminently quotable John Adams|
He was, in addition to all that, an outspoken man of considerable wit. One of my favorite Adams quotes comes from his legal defense of the British soldiers on trial for shooting Bostonians in the Boston Massacre. Said Adams: “Facts are stubborn things.” More to the point of this essay, in reference to the Constitution of the United States he said: “Our constitution was made only for the government of a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” While Adams believed that a republic is the form of government most suited to the dignity of men, and that the republic established by the U.S. Constitution was the best the world had yet seen, such a system could not succeed if those who were participating in it were more interested in feeding their appetites than in pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. True freedom, both the Church and Adams agree, is only possible for people who know, and who have been formed in, the Truth.
And that leads us to the limits of politics and government. Our actions as citizens in a republic are guided by, and in that sense subordinate to, our properly formed consciences; likewise, the policies of the government are subject to a higher moral law. If our consciences are not properly formed, no law can make us good (I approach this idea from a slightly different angle in my post “Hidden Law: Society And The Church” [link]). At best, we can hope to encourage good behavior by providing incentives for it, and discourage bad behavior by providing disincentives. And when you have a large number of people with improperly formed consciences combined with government incentives to bad behavior, you face societal and political break-down.
What that means for us is that our first and most important task is to be the best Catholic Christians we can be, before we cast a vote or sign a petition. To the degree that we create a more Christian society, we make possible a more just government. We should approach direct political action with the understanding that whatever we do politically (and not, certainly, to subordinate our consciences to majority opinion or the party platform), it is guided by, and in service to, the Higher Truth. Government can do many good and essential things: provide for a common defense, nurture a secure environment for civil society to flourish, build and maintain infrastructure, help alleviate the temporary effects of poverty and abuse. As Christians we have to know, however, that only Jesus Christ can bring about the kingdom of God.