The Church and Politics
When discussing the problems of faith-based Alinskyian organizing, people frequently will say, “the Church has no business in politics!”
That makes a memorable slogan but it’s not true, of course. The truth is complicated.
Blessedly, we have a contemporary pope who was extremely articulate and capable of expressing complicated truths in clear language and short sentences. In section 47 of Centesimus Annus, an encyclical written in 2001 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum,(1) John Paul II wrote that the Church “is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution. Her contribution to the political order is precisely her vision of the dignity of the person.”
He’s not the first to make that distinction but it’s so well said that it bears thinking about.
His point is that the Church has gifts to offer the world, namely the clear expression of foundational truths on which a better earthly world can be built. This earthly world isn’t the same thing as “the Kingdom of God,” he explains in section 25: “No political society — which possesses its own autonomy and laws — can ever be confused with the Kingdom of God.”
Utopians have a tough time accepting that.
So do people who see in the Church a valuable political resource. The Church has “moral capital” that they would like to borrow and invest in whatever scheme is being advanced for the betterment of the world.John Paul II writes, earlier in the same section, “When people think they possess the secret of a perfect social organization which makes evil impossible, they also think that they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being. Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’.”
Which is why it is important to understand when the Church is speaking with authority and when someone – perhaps a high ranking bureaucrat, a religious Sister, or a parish priest – is using the Church to push his or her own preference for this or that institutional or constitutional solution.
Yet, the fellow in the pew (and, through well-managed media, many of the un-pewed) is told that to be a good, compassionate member of the faithful, he must accept and promote whatever the latest action items are presented to him.
Take, for example, the welfare system.
Over the years, compassionate Catholics have been given all sorts of directives:
A recent action request from the Office of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was for Catholics to:
“Urge Congress to undertake a full reauthorization of TANF and strengthen the program so that it better serves families and individuals in need to help them make a successful transition to work and provide adequately for themselves and their family. Urge Congress to combat the root causes of economic inequality by funding initiatives that reduce poverty and strengthen families, such as marriage education, abstinence programs, responsible fatherhood initiatives especially in low-income communities. Also, it is essential Congress extend low-income tax credits that encourage work. Work with community organizations, local advocates and state officials to assure that states are complying with TANF federal rules and helping families escape poverty.” (2)
Whether or not these are good programs isn’t the point. The point is whether or not it is appropriate for an official Catholic institution to be pushing them as if they are the Church’s position. They aren’t.
A citizen with strong moral sensibilities and a compassionate heart might have information about TANF that would make it impossible for him to support precisely because he is convinced it does not strengthen the family, reduce poverty, or combat root causes of income inequity. His reasoning may be every bit as thoughtful – and quite possibly as well-informed – as that proffered by USCCB bureaucrats.
For example, John Paul II recognized and decried a State that turns legitimate and necessary “supplementary intervention” into something excessive. Calling this excess a “Welfare State” or a “Social Assistance State,” he writes:
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need. One thinks of the condition of refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and all those in circumstances which call for assistance, such as drug abusers: all these people can be helped effectively only by those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to the necessary care.”
[Emphasis added. Centesimus Annus, sec 48]
How much “supplementary intervention” is excessive? Is the TANF program an example of excessive intervention? These are issues about which men of good will can disagree and will debate in the public arena. Bring in the “church” to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution becomes a coercive political move, a way of weighing the debate in favor of a particular outcome by bypassing the debate.
Church teaching is consistent so it’s no surprise that the current Pope Francis echoed John Paul’s words in a recent interview: “I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres. All my predecessors have said the same thing, for many years at least, albeit with different accents. I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them, but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them. The Church will never go beyond its task of expressing and disseminating its values, at least as long as I’m here.” (3) [Emphasis added]
1. Rerum Novarum, published in 1901, was written by Pope Leo XIII to address then-current issues of labor and capital. Rerum Novarum denounced socialism and inappropriate State incursion into family life, affirmed workers’ rights to form unions and the right of private property, and insisted that a just society must be grounded on Christian principles of charity and subsidiarity.
3. Interview with Pope Frances by the Founder of Italian Daily “La Repubblica,” by L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly ed. in English, n. 41, 9 October 2013.
This article, The Church and Politics is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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