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The Church and politics

04 October, 2011

This article is a chapter from the book by Austin Ivereigh and Kathleen Griffin, Catholic Voices: Putting the case for the Church in an era of 24-hour news. It gives a good summary of the central themes of Catholic Social Teaching.


Challenging questions

  • Why does the Church interfere [...]

    This article is a chapter from the book by Austin Ivereigh and Kathleen Griffin, Catholic Voices: Putting the case for the Church in an era of 24-hour news. It gives a good summary of the central themes of Catholic Social Teaching.


    Challenging questions

    • Why does the Church interfere in politics — shouldn’t it just keep to religion?
    • Why does it try to control Catholics in the way that they vote — and to pressurise Catholic politicians on questions such as abortion?
    • What right does the Church have to interfere in the laws of secular states?
    • Is it a church or a state? Why does it act like a state?

    The idea that the Catholic Church ‘interferes’ with national sovereign politics is nothing new. Rulers (and voters) have always resented being held to account by a higher law. In the age of democracy, the accusation is sometimes levied against the Church that it acts as a kind of lobby, using its spiritual influence to engineer certain political outcomes — acting, in other words, out of corporate self-interest. Critics accuse the Church of ‘imposing its view’ on the rest of society, in an attempt to thwart human rights — usually understood narrowly and one-sidedly as those of a woman to seek an abortion, or a gay couple to adopt a child.

    A specific neuralgic issue is the Vatican’s status as a state, or rather, the international influence of the Holy See, the seat of governance of the Church worldwide. In  the weeks before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U K in September 2010, the ‘Protest the Pope’ coalition objected that, if the Pope was a faith leader, why was he being received as a state visitor? Surely, the protesters argued, the state of which he is head (Vatican City) is a tiny and insignificant territory — the result of a sordid pact with the fascist dictator Mussolini in 1929?

    At the same time as critics sought to downplay the Vatican’s status as a state, they also exaggerated it, accusing, the Vatican of throwing its diplomatic weight around internationally, lobbying at the United Nations, and frustrating ‘progressive’policies around the world by teaming up with Muslims, for example, against ‘women’s rights’.

    Domestically, the Church is accused of interfering in the democratic process in a number of ways: by ‘telling Catholics how to vote’ at elections; by lobbying governments, bringing to bear its corporate influence on Parliament; and by coercing Catholic politicians into voting according to the Church’s diktats under threat of excommunication.

    Positive intention
    The positive value behind criticism of the Church as a ‘self-interested’ lobby is that it should be promoting and be driven by the common good, rather than narrow self-interest. The criticism correctly assumes that the Church is founded on another kind of power — covenant relationships, the fruit of communion and that those who proclaim Cod should not need to make use of ‘the means of this world’ to promote God, because Truth persuades on its own merits. Behind the criticism, therefore, is an implicitly Christian view of the Church itself — even if it is a little unreal. True, the Church is not like a corporation. But nor is it disembodied, floating above the world; it is an institution thoroughly in the world, seeking to shape it while looking to a transcendent horizon. Another positive value in the criticism is that the Church should stand for progress in human history not seek to block it.

    Temporal v spiritual
    The neuralgic issue here is the perennial one of ‘mixing religion and politics’. Keep in mind the positive intention behind the criticism. Not for nothing did the Second Vatican Council renounce the Church seeking special privileges from the state; the document Dignitatis Humanae was a bitter pill for some in countries where the Church had long confused ‘Catholic society’ with ‘Catholic state’. But these were atypical; Christianity is essentially anti-theocratic. The examples of the Church being too close to the state, when faith has been subordinated to party politics, when witness has been diminished and corrupted, are lessons from which the modern Church has learned.

    What the secularist critique often forgets is that the radical exclusion of faith from politics has not led to utopia but disaster: the greatest horrors of the twentieth century were inflicted by totalitarian states among whose first moves was the abolition of faith from the public sphere and subordination of religion to the state. Conversely, some of the proudest moments of western political history — the abolition of the slave trade, or the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — are uplifting examples of what happens when churches hold up a transcendent moral horizon to society, and guide the movement that shapes society towards that ideal, seeking to influence the state for the common good. The greatest achievements of western society, in other words, stem from  a civilisation in which Church and state coexist and cooperate; the greatest disasters have arisen from efforts by the state to eradicate the Church, often justified by an ideology which interprets the ‘will of the people’ as a licence for unchecked, unlimited state power.

    Christianity believes in keeping the two spheres of faith and politics apart, yet interconnected. Unlike secularism, which proclaims the moral autonomy of the state, a healthy or positive secularity advocates a distinction between faith and politics (but not their divorce). The precise relationship of faith and politics, spiritual and temporal — ‘the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God’ as Pope Benedict XVI put it when addressing parliamentarians on his UK visit — is a complex one, and there are many different models: the French, the Americans, the British and the Italians, for example, all have contrasting ways of keeping Church and state distinct. But the underlying principle should be clear. Reason and religion need each other. They are intertwined. But they are distinct realms, and should not be confused, both for the sake of the Church and of the state.

    Those who resent the Church ‘interfering’ in politics often object to the perceived politics behind the ‘interference’, rather than the interference itself. Thus the Church is criticised by the liberal Left in Europe as reactionary or right-wing for opposing ‘women’s rights’ (in arguing against liberal abortion laws) or for being against ‘gay rights (when it opposes, say, same-sex adoption). But the Church is also regularly criticised by the Right for being left-wing in economic and social matters. In Italy, for example, xenophobic immigration policies have been deplored by Catholic leaders — including Vatican officials, leading the Government to describe its church critics as ‘Catholic communists’ (cattocommunisti). Even as gypsies are being rounded up and expelled from Italy and France, they are being very publicly welcomed in the Vatican.

    The accusation against the Church for being either right- or left-wing tells you more, therefore, about contemporary politics than about the political inclination of the Church. It will seem both ‘right-wing’ (in promoting the traditional family, opposing abortion, euthanasia, embryonic research, etc.) and ‘left-wing’ (in advocating the rights of minorities, social justice, active state support for the poorest, etc.), depending on the political bias of the one accusing. The same bias afflicts Catholics. There are pro-life Catholics who think Catholic social teaching is ‘socialist’, and pro-social justice Catholics who think pro-life causes are right-wing.

    The Church will always be accused of ‘interfering’ or trying to ‘impose’ its view when the critic disagrees with its stance; but the same critic will say nothing when the Church has intervened politically on a matter he or she agrees with. And if the Church has stayed silent, the critic will accuse it of ‘failing to speak out’. Put another way, people are against the Church ‘interfering’ in what they would much rather be left alone; and in favour of it ‘interfering’ in what they believe should be changed.

    The Church’s right to speak out
    Why and when does the Church speak out on political questions? The answer is rarely and cautiously, and almost always because it is a matter which touches on the Gospel, on core freedoms and rights (such as the right to life, or to religious freedom), or on core principles of Catholic social teaching. In these cases, the Church not only needs to speak out; it has a duty to do so.

    The Church promotes active citizenship and political engagement. Christians have always understood themselves to be dual citizens — simultaneously members of the Church and of political society — who must obey the law and work for the good of the Kingdom wherever they are, whatever regime they are under. This ‘dual citizenship’ is not a divided loyalty; Catholics are both British patriots and loyal to Rome. But living in the world, while looking to a transcendent horizon, produces a tension which is extremely healthy for a democracy, and is one reason why Catholics are unusually active in politics.

    Within certain limits (racist parties, for example, are off limits), Catholics are free to vote for whomever they wish; as a body, the Church avoids partisanship — favouring one political party over another — while reserving the right to speak out when a core value is at stake, and encouraging Catholics to enter the political process.

    In a modern democracy the Church claims its right to speak out for the same reason that any other civil-society association or organisation does — a natural right to proclaim and promote its values, and to persuade others, to get a debate going about the health of society and its priorities, applying the wisdom and insights of the Christian tradition to the great questions besetting contemporary society. The Church does this because it cares, above all, for the ‘common good’, meaning that which belongs to all by virtue of their shared humanity. The common good, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1906), is ‘the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily’. The common good is a key tenet of the Church’s vision for society and the principles which it believes lie behind its healthy functioning.

    The argument that the Church ‘no longer speaks for the majority’ because ‘Britain is no longer a Christian society’ is true, as far as it goes (which is not very far: considerably more than half of the UK population continues to self-identify as Christian). But the Church’s right to speak out has never been dependent on the numbers of its followers. Nor, when it advocates or criticises, is the Church trying to ‘impose’ its view although, like others with strong views in a democratic society, it seeks to persuade others. On the other hand, the Church can claim to represent substantial numbers of British citizens, as well as being the world’s, and the UK’s, largest practising Christian body and the most significant civil society actor on the world stage. It speaks, what is more, out of a tradition which shaped the moral and cultural values of the western world. And because it is politically and nationally independent, it can ask questions of society that others are not prepared to ask, and speak for those deprived of a voice.

    The Church as an international actor
    With more than 1.2 billion adherents — about one-fifth of the world’s population — the Church is the world’s oldest and largest organisation, present through more than 400,000 priests, 800,000 religious sisters and 219,655 parishes. It is the world’s second largest international development body (after the UN), and the second largest humanitarian agency (after the Red Cross). Caritas Internationalis, the 60-year-old Rome-based confederation of 165 national bodies of Catholic charities in more than 200 countries, estimates their combined budget at over $5 billion. In Africa the Church runs a quarter of all the hospitals and provides around 12 million school places each year. Globally, it runs more than 5,000 hospitals, 17,500 dispensaries, and 15,000 homes for the elderly, along with tens of thousands of schools. As well as laying claim to be the world’s leading moral teacher and guide — an ‘expert in humanity’, as the Vatican’s Justice and Peace Council puts it — the Catholic Church is the largest and most influential actor in global civil society.

    Like other global players, it has ‘international policy objectives’. The Catholic Church is the only religious body to have an unofficial presence — that of Observer Status — at the United Nations (UN). It is the only religion with a diplomatic corps. But then, the Church is a uniquely significant institution.

    Worldwide, the Church is a crucial backer of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and tireless promoter of debt cancellation and other forms of financial aid to the developing world. The Vatican is the world’s first carbon-neutral state. The Holy See plays a crucial role in disarmament negotiations and arms trade treaties; in campaigning against the death penalty worldwide; in negotiating the release of hostages; and in conflict resolution. These are the kinds of initiatives which Vatican diplomats are engaged in every day — but which are seldom reported.

    These might all be considered ‘progressive’ initiatives. But the Church would also regard as progressive its opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, liberal abortion laws, and gay adoption; it would see as progressive its opposition to euthanasia and assisted dying, its opposition to the death penalty and its advocacy — in both the UK and the US — of a pathway to citizenship for ‘illegal’ immigrants who have put down roots in another country. All these are in defence of the dignity of the human person — even if that dignity is not recognised by wider society, because the persons concerned (the unborn, children, the elderly, prisoners, foreign-born) are not seen as ‘human beings like us’; or when the rights of particular groups (the victims of crime, a woman with an unplanned pregnancy, a same-sex couple) are seen as in some way absolute or nullifying of the rights of others.

    Vatican or Holy See?
    Vatican City is a small (if magnificent) area in Rome recognised as a state as a result of the 1929 Lateran Pacts. The agreement signed with the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini brought to an end a long-running question over the Vatican’s territorial sovereignty following the loss of the Papal States and Italy’s birth as a nation-state. It is sometimes claimed that the Vatican is only recognised internationally as a state because of that ‘sordid pact with a dictator’. But this is to confuse two different things: the Vatican’s status as a state, and the international sovereign jurisdiction of the Holy See, which has been recognised for centuries, long before the creation of the Vatican City State.

    The diplomatic ties which the UK and other states maintain with the Catholic Church worldwide were not and are not contingent in any way upon that Lateran Pact. Britain’s oldest diplomatic relationship, in fact, is with the Holy See — first established formally in 1479, and re-established in 1914, many years before the Pact.

    The Holy See is the seat of governance of the worldwide Catholic Church. It has international sovereign jurisdiction, meaning that it is recognised as a legal entity, with which governments have relations. This sovereignty is what enables, for example, the bishop of a local diocese to be appointed by the Vatican, rather than by the local government. This gives the Church an important degree of independence from political power; autocratic governments such as China refuse to accept Rome’s right to appoint bishops, regarding it as interference in its sovereign affairs. Religious freedom — the freedom to worship, manifest belief and so on — is safeguarded by the Catholic Church’s independence, manifest in its international sovereignty.

    Much of what the Holy See achieves worldwide — the result of bringing its moral authority and global presence to bear on countries to help effect change — is possible because of this sovereign international jurisdiction. It means that countries can have formal diplomatic ties with it — just under 200 states do — which in turn means that the Catholic Church can exert its moral influence to make the world a better place. The Holy See has had a continuous history as an organisation since the fourth century, which makes it older than most nation-states. Nor is that relationship one restricted to Catholic countries. Among the many things Britain’s diplomats find useful about their links to the Vatican are the Holy See’s relationships of trust with nations (Iran, for example) with which the UK has broken political ties. The Vatican’s international diplomatic network — the fruit of patient, behind-the-scenes trust-building across the globe — is a vital resource for world peace and cooperation.

    The Church’s presence in the UK
    When the Church raises its voice in UK domestic affairs, it does so by virtue of its moral authority, its independent sovereign jurisdiction, and its strong presence in British civil society. The 6.5 million Catholics in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (England and Wales: 5.18 million; Scotland: 695,000; Northern Ireland: 680,000) represent between 10 and 15 per cent of the population. Nor is this affiliation nominal or passive; according to a 2009 MORI poll conducted for the Catholic development agency CAFOD, about 38 per cent of the Catholic population — 2.5 million — goes to Mass at least once a month, demonstrating, by the standards of contemporary society, a highly unusual level of engagement and commitment.

    They demonstrate commitment in countless other ways. Practising Catholics play a disproportionately large role in voluntary organisations, welfare agencies and education, and are more likely than the general population to volunteer in every age group. The Church runs 2,300 schools, and 3,000 parishes; there are 4,400 active diocesan priests and more than 5,000 female religious; but the ‘Church’ is also those hundreds of thousands of Catholics who give their time, energy and money to a huge number of associations of every kind working for the common good.

    The Catholic charitable sector in the UK is a massive contributor to the common good of the nation, conspicuous at the sharp edge of society, caring for those whom society has either left behind or scorns: the elderly, the disabled, children, young offenders, the homeless; migrants without papers, travellers and gypsies, seafarers; AIDS sufferers, prisoners, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes … The list is almost endless.

    Catholics reach out to the poorest and most vulnerable irrespective of their beliefs: as many say, ‘We care for the poor not because they are Catholics but because we are.’ Catholic charitable action is strictly not proselytising: as Pope Benedict XVI says in Deus Caritas Est (31c), ‘Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others.’ At the same time, there is no greater witness to Christ’s love than to serve the poor both through practical, direct assistance and through advocacy on their behalf, often at the cost of upsetting and challenging existing assumptions and values. In theological terms, Catholic charitable service involves both diakonia (showing Christ’s love) and martyrium (witness).

    The national umbrella for Catholic charities in England and Wales, Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), has begun to map the scale and diversity of Catholic charities. An initial survey in its February 2011 report, Common Endeavour, showed that in England and Wales Catholic charities channel the energies of 9,000 employees and 19,000 volunteers in the service of approximately 800,000 people, spending £170  million a year. But it’s  not just the scale of Catholic charitable contribution that matters, but the unique way it serves the common good of society.

    Catholic charities often do what no one else does, blazing a trail where others later follow—’out on the edge with those on the edge’-, there are countless examples of charitable outreach pioneered by Catholics which over time become ‘mainstream’ charitable activities; hospices caring for the terminally ill are a prime example. Others remain preserves of the Church. No organisation compares with the Apostleship of the Sea, which provides support and assistance to 200,000 seafarers visiting British ports each year.

    Although ultimately inspired by the Gospel — not least the parable of the Good Samaritan and Matthew 25 —most of these charities are directly motivated by the example of a charismatic founder, often a saint. They grow directly out of civil society (rather than as a creation of the state), and frequently depend on and work through parishes and schools, galvanising the energies and passions of networks of volunteers. (Members of the St Vincent de Paul Society of England and Wales, for example, spend 1 million hours each year attending to the socially excluded.) Even though some charities, especially the larger ones, also take public money, they do so far less, on the whole, than other charities: nine out of ten of them receive less than 40 per cent of their support from the state. Finally, they are guided by a coherent set of principles, embodied in Catholic Social Teaching, which in turn enrich British social and political thinking and strengthen civil society. Through CSAN and other nationwide organisations, Catholic charities advocate on behalf of those they serve, influencing policy decisions and helping to shape laws which serve the interests of the poor.

    British Catholics also make a massive contribution to overseas development and humanitarian relief through the bishops’ agency CAFOD. Founded in 1962, it now has an annual budget of close to £60 million, working with 600 active partners worldwide – usually the local Church – to tackle international poverty. Through its global membership of Caritas Internationalis among other bodies, it has access to decision-makers in Brussels, the United Nations, and other international organisations. CAFOD is one of the five major NGOs (the others are Oxfam, Christian Aid, Save the Children, and ActionAid) which make up the British Overseas Aid Group, or BOAG, which meets government ministers four times a year. Together, CAFOD and CSAN are formidable advocates on behalf of the disadvantaged of British society.

    There are 86 Catholic MPs (out of a total of 650), sitting in Parliament, plus five Sinn Féin MPs who have not taken their seats. Of the sitting MPs, close to two-thirds (51) are Labour, 26 are Conservative, five LibDem, three SNP and one SDLP. The predominance of Labour reflects the historical identification of working-class Irish immigrants with the party (most British Catholics are originally from Labour districts) although Catholics no longer vote Labour en bloc.

    The Catholic Bishops’ Conference employs a full-time public policy officer to develop links between Parliament and the Church. The conference secretariat is frequently invited to comment on forthcoming legislation. Lines of communication are kept open between 10 Downing Street and the Archbishop of Westminster.

    There is nothing odd or sinister about this. Many large organisations which lay claim to a significant influence over sectors of public opinion – trade unions, faiths, business associations, and so on – are regularly consulted by Government, make representations to Government, and can expect to be listened to when laws are being formulated that could affect the lives of the people these organisations represent. It would be a very poor and authoritarian government which regarded its electoral majority as a mandate to govern without consultation.

    Bishops and elections
    Every five years, when a general election is called, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales issue a document well in advance of the polling date which sets out some of the considerations they believe voters should keep in mind when they cast their vote. They are not advocating one particular party or another; their aim is instead to influence all parties and their platforms — and to mobilise the electorate to take a clear interest in their local candidates. In politics, it is normal to seek to persuade others of your vision; everyone in politics is, in that sense, trying to ‘impose’ their values by the force of persuasion.

    In 2010, the bishops took the unusual step of also issuing a general document in response to the global political and economic crisis. ‘Choosing the Common Good’, a reflection on the British crisis in the light of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, called for a restoration of trust in British institutions. Later, the bishops’ standard ‘considerations for voters’ document drew out some of the themes in that previous one: valuing life; family; migration; development of the world’s poor; environment; and the importance of religious belief in the public square.

    The questions which the bishops posed were ones which they intended voters to put to their constituency candidates, questions such as: ‘What does respect for life mean for you?’ ‘Do all lives have the same value?’, ‘What will you do for marriage and the family?’, ‘What beliefs and values underpin your approach to migration?’ and ‘What do you think is the place of religion in society?’ The list, the bishops stressed, ‘was not exhaustive’ but was intended to help voters form an idea of how far a candidate will address the common good.

    Underneath the questions were five ‘statements of value’:

    1. Valuing life … means opposing abortion and euthanasia, and life-cramping poverty, and neglect of the neglect of the elderly.
    2. Families are the basic building-block of any stable society. Marriage provides the best context for bringing up children and must have the clear support and encouragement of Government.
    3. Migration is not about numbers, it is about human beings. Wherever the Government sets the boundary on who can or cannot live here, it must apply its rules with fairness, decency and respect for the individual.
    4. Our care for each other is also shown in how we support the development of the world’s poorest people, and how we use — or abuse — the environment we share. We must be good stewards of God’s creation, not selfish exploiters of it.
    5. Our faith is at the heart of our lives. Religious belief is not something private: it helps create a society that wants to see everyone flourish. It has a contribution to make and must be allowed to do so in accordance with its teachings.

    With this list, bishops were not telling Catholics which party to vote for; they were asking them to inject into the electoral process values which were at risk of being forgotten, to raise the standards of election debates beyond the competitiveness and pragmatism of electoral politics.

    Because the Catholic Church is a large, organised body, which every day demonstrates its commitment to building up British society, it has some political weight; it is listened to and can make its voice heard on the issues of the day. But that doesn’t mean its influence is disproportionate or excessive. As we will see with the adoption agencies row [see Chapter 3], the Church frequently loses — even where its basic rights and freedoms are concerned.

    Still, say critics, even if the bishops claim not to be urging Catholics to vote for one party or another, they are in practice doing so, because comparing the bishops’ list to the party platforms can usually lead to only one conclusion. Yet if that were true, Catholics would vote the same way at elections; in fact, the Catholic vote is scattered across the three parties. More Catholics voted for Labour in 1997 than voted Conservative; but in 2010 the reverse was true. Voting in a general election should be about deciding which government would best be likely to promote the common good, and there are a range of interests and concerns which go into making up that decision.

    Church, conscience and politicians
    Another objection to the Church’s involvement in the political sphere is that it threatens Catholic politicians with excommunication if they fail to ‘toe the line’ on questions such as abortion. In this way, say critics, the Church interferes in the democratic process, seeking to ‘impose its view’ through the use of a kind of moral coercion.

    But there is another consideration. The Church also has to maintain its internal good order, and one of the obligations of bishops is to act to make clear when church teaching on vital questions is being misrepresented by people in public positions in such a way as risks misleading the faithful.

    The issue has arisen specifically in the case of abortion and euthanasia, because these are concerned with the sanctity of life, which the Church believes should be reflected in society’s rule of law, defending ‘the basic right to life from conception to natural death’. This right holds a ‘unique place’ in Catholic Social Teaching, notes the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of’ the Faith, Cardinal Levada, so that ‘there may be legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not with regard to abortion and euthanasia’. In order for a Catholic to be in full communion with the faith of the Church, therefore, he or she must accept this teaching; referring erring to laws which promote or authorise abortion and euthanasia, Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae says, there is ‘a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection’ (no. 73).

    What should the Church do about politicians who advertise themselves as Catholics but who vote time and again to liberalise abortion laws, or to undermine attempts at restricting those laws, In January 2004, when the Democrat candidate John Kerry was campaigning in the diocese of St Louis, its then Archbishop, now Cardinal, Raymond Burke announced he would refuse the candidate Communion. Kerry was a Mass-goer, and wanted to take advantage of the kudos which in the US attaches to churchgoing politicians by advertising himself as a Catholic; but he also had a notoriously pro-abortion voting record, and Archbishop Burke wanted to make clear that these two things s were incompatible. Burke’s stance was supported by some other US bishops. But it was resisted by others, including Kerry’s own bishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who were anxious not to politicise the Eucharist.

    In the end the bishops met in June 2004 and agreed to disagree. ‘Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgement’ on the question, their statement read, ‘bishops can legitimately make different judgements on the most prudent course of pastoral action. Such decisions, the statement concluded, ‘rest with the individual bishop in accord with established canonical and pastoral principles.’

    Their statement, ‘Catholics in political life’, was issued after reading a memorandum by the then Cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger. In it he advised US bishops to speak privately with prominent Catholics who defy church teachings on key issues involving the sanctity of life, alert them to the gravity of their offences, and warn them that they will be refused Communion if they do not change their ways. Only if these warnings are not heeded, Cardinal Ratzinger added, ‘and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.’

    The issue for the bishops, in other words, was not how to influence the outcome of an election or a politician’s voting record, but how to deal with a particular scandal arising from a public Catholic who was publicly violating Church teaching in an essential matter of ethics. It was precisely because Archbishop Burke’s stance risked influencing how Catholics might vote that some other bishops were reluctant to follow his example. Cardinal Ratzinger’s solution reflected this concern; he advocated the public disbarring from Communion only as a matter of last resort. The Church upholds as an important first principle that political battles should be fought, in the words of the Archbishop of Washington at the time, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, ‘not at the Communion rail but in the public square, in hearts and minds, in our pulpits and public advocacy, in our consciences and communities’.

    What the Church stands for
    It is up to Catholics involved in politics to make up their own minds about which parties to support, and why. Their priorities and concerns will differ; so will their loyalties and their affiliations. But there are key principles on which all Catholics should agree, because they have been consistently taught by the Church since 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued the first ‘social encyclical’ of modern times, Rerum Novarum. Since then, there have been many more encyclicals, and many other church documents, expanding on and applying these principles to contemporary challenges. Catholic social teaching (CST) offers a set of principles for reflection, criteria for judgement and directives for action. Its purpose is to contribute to the formation of conscience as a basis for specific action. It amounts, in effect, to a Catholic vision of politics, society and the economy.

    CST, which came into being in response to the development of modern western capitalism, has two major  concerns. The first is the alienation between capital and labour — the division of society into those who control wealth and property, and the majority who have to sell their labour. (It was the growth of the poverty-stricken en masses in the cities of Europe which sparked Pope Leo’s encyclical.) The second is the growth in the power of the market and the state, and the reduction in the size and the strength of civil society — sometimes known as the third sector’.

    Put positively, the popes in 17 key social encyclicals since 1891 have urged two essential reforms to the modern liberal market polity and economy. The first is the ‘humanisation’ of the market, putting people before profits, and remembering the human purpose of the economy. The second is a call for a strengthened civil society, made up of vigorous ‘intermediate associations’, as opposed to a society seen as made up only of the state, capital and isolated individuals.

    CST has a number of key principles set out in a series of papal encyclicals and other church documents over time: dignity of the human person, the common good, just wage, the universal destination of goods, solidarity, subsidiarity, participation, option for the poor, peace and disarmament, the preservation of life and creation, and the call to action. Each of these themes is a rich mine of insight and wisdom into the right ordering of a modern, democratic, pluralist society.

    The Catholic political agenda is also marked by its strong advocacy of religious freedom, considered by the Church to be the first and most fundamental of all basic rights, from which all others flow. The enemies of religious freedom are both fundamentalism and secularism. ‘The same determination that condemns every form of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism must also oppose every form of hostility to religion that would restrict the public role of believers in civil and political life,’ said Pope Benedict in his 1 January 2011 message. ‘Religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity.’

    Religious freedom is not just immunity from coercion in matters of conscience — the freedom to reject faith and God, or to convert from one faith to another. It is also, says Pope Benedict, ‘the ability to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth’. The recognition of this freedom is the bedrock of pluralism and democracy, because it implies that God and conscience precede the state; the state, with its coercive power, is not the arbiter of consciences, conceding rights, but at the service of a society made up of many different ideas about truth. What undermines religious freedom, therefore, is what distorts the delicate balance between temporal and spiritual, leading to the eclipse of one by the other, which in turn produces (eventually) fundamentalism enthroned in theocracy, or relativism enthroned in totalitarianism. As Pope Benedict said in his address at Westminster Hall in September 2010: ‘the world of reason and the world of faith — the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief — need one another and should not be afraid to enter into profound and on-going dialogue, for the good of our civilization.’

    What makes the Church’s thinking on politics distinctive? Here are nine suggestions:

    1. The inherent God-endowed dignity of every human being, however feeble or sinful, must be respected; that is the starting-point for a moral vision of society.

    2. Men and women are social beings whose rights and responsibilities are realised in community and relationship; politics is not just about competing individual rights, but primarily about seeking the common good, understood as those social conditions which enable people to flourish.

    3. Solidarity: the moral test of a society lies in how it treats its vulnerable members; special attention must be given to those less able to participate in society, whether through material poverty, disability, immigration status, old age, illness, addiction, imprisonment etc.

    4. Subsidiarity: a society is best governed in such a way that the decisions are taken at the closest possible level to those affected by them; this principle means that it is wrong for the state to take over that which is better managed locally or lower down. But it also means that the state cannot abrogate its responsibility to act when it is appropriate to do so.

    5. Societies should aim at increasing levels of participation in decision-making, especially by those excluded from the body politic.

    6. The Church is pro-life, and calls for the laws of the land to protect life; it opposes, therefore, laws allowing abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, embryonic stem-cell research and other practices which deliberately terminate God-given human life.

    7. The Church favours a ‘humanised’ or ‘civil’ market as the most efficient means of achieving sustainable prosperity, but rejects Darwinian conceptions of the market. Employers may succeed, for example, in persuading workers to accept levels of pay that are insufficient for the core needs of a person and their family; but that does not make it a just contract. The Church argues in favour of a ‘just’ wage — otherwise known as family’ or ‘living wage’ – as the necessary minimum, whatever the market may determine, in the same way that it opposes ‘usury’ — the charging of excessive interest, whether or not the lending is legal.

    8. The Church calls for a society and an economy in which trust and virtue, rather than purely utilitarian concerns, are paramount; and in which the depersonalising impact of technology and bureaucracy can be countered by a vigorous civil society in which bonds of gift and reciprocity matter more than contracts.

    9. The Church calls for the well-off to ‘live simply’ in order to lessen the burden on the planet and help poorer nations to develop.

    From these broad principles many possible policies flow: progressive taxation, labour protection, free schools, living-wage mandates, carbon tax, paternity leave, regularisation of long-term undocumented migrants, foreign debt remissions, and so on. But while bishops have often advocated such policies, it is usually a matter for politicians to devise the specific policies which help advance the general principles.

    Existing frame
    ‘The Catholic Church uses its power and influence to advance a reactionary agenda designed to frustrate progress in human rights and liberties. Bishops tell people how to vote, and threaten politicians with excommunication when they don’t do the Pope’s bidding. The Church is essentially right-wing, seeking to impose outdated views on a secular state and on people who have no Christian allegiance.’

    The Church raises its voice in the public sphere whenever an issue touches on the common good, especially, on questions of basic freedoms and rights, and especially when it can be a voice for the voiceless. Its authority to speak out derives from its moral authority, and independence as one of the world’s leading and oldest civil society organisations. It is neither right- nor left-wing, and has no allegiance to particular political parties, but exists to defend the common good and the Gospel in its integrity. It defends, and speaks up for, a distinction between the political and the religious; it upholds what it calls a ‘positive secularity’, and deplores both religious fundamentalism and an aggressive kind of secularism which seek to banish faith from the public square. When it deplores politicians who claim to be Catholic while advocating, for example, abortion and euthanasia, it is not trying to coerce politicians but to prevent scandal. The Catholic Church’s political agenda can be summed up as Catholic social teaching plus religious freedom, the freedom which underlies all other rights and freedoms.

    Key messages

    • The Church has a natural right to speak out, derived from its moral authority and its presence in society.
    • The Church advocates religious freedom and the proper distinction between faith and politics. It calls for the political and the religious to be in dialogue, not separated.
    • Bishops do not speak out before elections to persuade Catholics to vote one way or another; they identify the issues which Catholics should be concerned about, and addressing their politicians on.
    • The Catholic Church’s political agenda can be summed up in Catholic social teaching and religious freedom. It is neither left nor right wing, but an agenda which is the bedrock of freedom and civilisation.



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