October 01, 2013
The limited political competence of the institutional church and the religious obligations of Christians in the political spehere
As Michael observes, this new interview with Pope Francis is remarkable. Pope Francis's interview contains a "separate spheres" description of the relationship between church teaching and the obligations of political officials that, as he acknowledges, differs in "accent" from the way this relationship has previously been described.
For those concerned with the development of Catholic legal theory, it is becoming increasingly clear that renewed attention must be given to the relationship between Catholic social teaching and positive law. As I read Pope Francis's interview, it is important to distinguish between the limited political competence of the institutional church, on the one hand, and the religious obligations of Christians in the political sphere, on the other. The lay Christian's obligations as a citizen of the earthly city are underdetermined in specificity by the Church's social teaching. But as Gaudium et Spes instructs, the laity must not forget that "it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city."
From the perspective of Catholic legal theory more particularly, perhaps there is an analogy here with the way in which the positive law is underdetermined in specificity by the natural law. The positive law must always be shaped by reference to the natural law, but it underdetermines the content of positive law. As John Finnis has explained, "[n]atural law theory's central strategy for explaining the law's authority points to the under-determinacy (far short of sheer indeterminacy) of most if not all of practical reasons's requirements in the field of open-ended (not merely technological) self-determination by individuals and societies." Collected Essays of John Finnis, Vol. IV, Essay V, p. 114.Here are Pope Francis's words from the La Repubblica 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.
This statement in some ways echoes Gaudium et Spes No. 42:
Christ, to be sure, gave His Church no proper mission in the political, economic or social order. The purpose which He set before her is a religious one. But out of this religious mission itself come a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law.
As my civil procedure professor constantly reminded us, we must always "read on!" So let us now consider No. 42 in light of No. 43:
This council exhorts Christians, as citizens of two cities, to strive to discharge their earthly duties conscientiously and in response to the Gospel spirit. They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. Long since, the Prophets of the Old Testament fought vehemently against this scandal and even more so did Jesus Christ Himself in the New Testament threaten it with grave punishments. Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ Who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God's glory.
Secular duties and activities belong properly although not exclusively to laymen. Therefore acting as citizens in the world, whether individually or socially, they will keep the laws proper to each discipline, and labor to equip themselves with a genuine expertise in their various fields. They will gladly work with men seeking the same goals. Acknowledging the demands of faith and endowed with its force, they will unhesitatingly devise new enterprises, where they are appropriate, and put them into action. Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role.
Often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message. Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church's authority for his opinion. They should always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good.
Since they have an active role to play in the whole life of the Church, laymen are not only bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit, but are also called to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society.
Bishops, to whom is assigned the task of ruling the Church of God, should, together with their priests, so preach the news of Christ that all the earthly activities of the faithful will be bathed in the light of the Gospel. All pastors should remember too that by their daily conduct and concern they are revealing the face of the Church to the world, and men will judge the power and truth of the Christian message thereby. By their lives and speech, in union with Religious and their faithful, may they demonstrate that even now the Church by her presence alone and by all the gifts which she contains, is an unspent fountain of those virtues which the modern world needs the most.
By unremitting study they should fit themselves to do their part in establishing dialogue with the world and with men of all shades of opinion. Above all let them take to heart the words which this council has spoken: "Since humanity today increasingly moves toward civil, economic and social unity, it is more than ever necessary that priests, with joint concern and energy, and under the guidance of the bishops and the supreme pontiff, erase every cause of division, so that the whole human race may be led to the unity of God's family."
Although by the power of the Holy Spirit the Church will remain the faithful spouse of her Lord and will never cease to be the sign of salvation on earth, still she is very well aware that among her members, both clerical and lay, some have been unfaithful to the Spirit of God during the course of many centuries; in the present age, too, it does not escape the Church how great a distance lies between the message she offers and the human failings of those to whom the Gospel is entrusted. Whatever be the judgement of history on these defects, we ought to be conscious of them, and struggle against them energetically, lest they inflict harm on spread of the Gospel. The Church also realizes that in working out her relationship with the world she always has great need of the ripening which comes with the experience of the centuries. Led by the Holy Spirit, Mother Church unceasingly exhorts her sons "to purify and renew themselves so that the sign of Christ can shine more brightly on the face of the Church."
And, in more recent times, we have the guidance of Caritas in Veritate No. 56:
The Christian religion and other religions can offer their contribution to development only if God has a place in the public realm, specifically in regard to its cultural, social, economic, and particularly its political dimensions. The Church's social doctrine came into being in order to claim “citizenship status” for the Christian religion. Denying the right to profess one's religion in public and the right to bring the truths of faith to bear upon public life has negative consequences for true development. The exclusion of religion from the public square — and, at the other extreme, religious fundamentalism — hinders an encounter between persons and their collaboration for the progress of humanity. Public life is sapped of its motivation and politics takes on a domineering and aggressive character. Human rights risk being ignored either because they are robbed of their transcendent foundation or because personal freedom is not acknowledged. Secularism and fundamentalism exclude the possibility of fruitful dialogue and effective cooperation between reason and religious faith. Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith: this also holds true for political reason, which must not consider itself omnipotent. For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at an enormous price to human development.
I am wondering on what basis the government can mandate that every Insurance Company must be a contraception provider, when it is not necessary nor is it proper to include that which is not life-affirming and life-sustaining in a health care package.
Posted by: Nancy | Oct 2, 2013 2:53:18 PM
Both the beauty and the curse of Pope Francis' remarks is that they can be read as consistent with and contrary to the passages you cite in GS. I like the warmth, and generosity of spirit that Francis exudes, but in treading the often turbulent waters of church and state is it too much to also ask for some precision?
Posted by: John M. Breen | Oct 5, 2013 5:25:18 PM
Ditto-- sounds nice, but does it actually say anything?
Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Oct 14, 2013 12:27:41 PM
Not sure what the "it" is in this question: "does it actually say anything?" But Pope Francis's interview says many things, including some that are easy to misinterpret or misunderstand. One of those was the comment translated as "Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres." I think it is helpful to try understand Pope Francis's comments as consistent with, rather than a break from, prior formulations of Catholic social teaching, including statements like "Denying the right to profess one's religion in public and the right to bring the truths of faith to bear upon public life has negative consequences for true development."
Posted by: Kevin C. Walsh | Oct 14, 2013 3:05:10 PM
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