Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, and the Role of the Church in Public Life: A Continuity With, Not a Departure From, the Witness of John Paul II

At the beginning of any papacy, people carefully look for signs of continuity with, or variation from, the vision or style of the previous Pope. Thus, observers understandably have been combing through the first encyclical issued by Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, in an attempt to decipher the themes of the new papacy and identify possible points of departure from the actions and messages of John Paul II. When the new pope so often has been caricatured as authoritarian and rigidly doctrinal, statements by him that reflect nuance regarding the role of the Catholic Church in public life and an emphasis of the removal of the Church from ordinary politics take on heightened importance.

In terms of the Church’s relationship with the temporal civil order, which of course is also a matter of primary concern for the Mirror of Justice and its participants, Benedict XVI had this to say:

“The Church's social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church's responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church's immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.” (Deus Caritas Est, para. 28a)

In emphasizing the proper role of the Church in the awakening and formation of conscience, while insisting that the Church must not enter into the “political battle” that remains instead the separate vocation of the laity, Pope Benedict XVI’s words have been portrayed by some as a departure from the public witness of his predecessor. After all, John Paul II addressed civil authorities regularly with boldness and spoke with prophetic directness on issues of human rights, pointedly including the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.

I submit that these observers both have misread Benedict XVI as foreshadowing something of a withdrawal by the Church on direct engagement with civil regimes on basic matters of human rights (including sanctity of life issues) and have misunderstood the non-political nature of John Paul II in his forthrightly religious witness in the public square. In other words, I see Benedict XVI's first encyclical as steadily in continuity with John Paul II in the understanding of the appropriate role of the Catholic Church when it encounters the temporal civil order. John Paul II confronted tyranny in many areas of the world and the self-centered idolatries in our corner of the globe by speaking the truth plainly and by encouraging an evangelical spirit that would transform societies by first bringing spiritual renewal to the people. But John Paul II eschewed direct political involvement by the Church or its clery, particularly that of a partisan nature.

The priority of evangelical renewal in John Paul II’s messages was often overlooked, given the uncompromising power of his words regarding the sanctity of human life and the greater specificity of his teachings on the fundamental duty of civil society to protect human life and dignity (e.g., Evangelium Vitae). However, one should not extrapolate a general political agenda, much less a call for direct Church involvement in political campaigns or ideological platforms, from the Church’s teachings condemning such inherent evils as genocide, slavery, and abortion. As did John Paul II, Benedict XVI as the occasion arises undoubtedly will regularly reaffirm the dedication of the Church to the fundamental principles of human dignity in any civil society, beginning with the right to life and including the freedom of religion, to educate children, and to receive the basic necessities of life. As Benedict XVI now counsels, the Church’s primary salvific role and its necessary separation from political life was underscored as well by John Paul II.

In reading Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, as it touched briefly on the role of the Church in public life, I was reminded of John Paul II’s strikingly parallel words at a similarly early point in his papacy. In his very first pastoral journey in January, 1979, the new pontiff visited the Conference of Latin American Bishops (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano) in Puebla, Mexico. Far fom praising the increasingly partisan and radical political activism of some bishops and clergy in Latin America, who were loosely gathered under the banner of “Liberation Theology,” the Holy Father wholly rejected the reconception of Jesus as a political, even violent, revolutionary, rather than the divine Son of God with a “redemptive mission.” In his Puebla address, John Paul II emphasized that the Church’s prophetic voice on behalf of the poor and oppressed must be grounded in the Good News of Christ Jesus. By restoring the Church’s spiritual mission, he said, “we are capable of serving human beings and our peoples, of penetrating their culture with the Gospel, of transforming hearts, and of humanizing systems and structures.” The truly revolutionary role of the Church is evangelism, changing the culture by changing the hearts of men and women through a transformative encounter with the Living God through His Son, Jesus. “[E]vangelizing is the essential mission, the specific vocation, the innermost identity of the Church.”

As John Paul II later explained in his Encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, to achieve an authentic advancement of human dignity, bishops and priests must focus upon their pastoral vocation of teaching and service, that is, sharing the saving message of Christ, reminding the faithful of the social doctrine of the Church, and exercising Christian charity to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and minister to the sick. “For the Church does not propose economic and political systems or programs, nor does she show preference for one or the other, provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise her ministry in the world.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, paras. 41-42)

For those of us who live, work, and have our being in systems of law and politics, we need to be reminded that while we should always be guided by the Church’s teachings, especially those concerning the dignity of all persons, we may never insist that the Church endorse any particular political agenda. And we must never delude ourselves into believing that what we may accomplish by way of legal reform or political success can ever substitute for the way of salvation offered through Jesus Christ. During his one-month papacy, Pope John Paul I insisted that “it is a mistake to state that political, economic, and social liberation coincide with salvation in Jesus Christ; that the regnum Dei is identified with the regnum hominis.” (John Paul I, Catechetical Lesson on the Theological Virtue of Hope, (Sept. 20, 1978) From John Paul I, through John Paul II, and on to Benedict XVI, the Gospel message for the temporal world and more importantly for the transcendent future remains the same.

Greg Sisk


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