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.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Church and Politics and the Catholic Perspective on Public Life

Earlier today, Michael Perry posted an interesting article from the New York Times about an evangelical pastor here in the Twin Cities who has resisted tying evangelical Christianity to conservative political candidates and causes. The article suggests there is a nascent movement within the evangelical church to steer clear of politics, avoid moralizing on sexual issues, and generally eschew affiliation with the Republican Party.

While the specific calling of the Mirror of Justice is to bring the diverse Catholic perspective to bear on issues of public importance, readers should understand that we all remain on common ground that our Catholic Church has a higher mission (salvation of souls), that the City of God must never be confused with the City of Man, and that the Church always must remain independent of any political party or political agenda.

While not hesitating to speak clearly to public issues and uphold human dignity, our three most recent popes have been consistent in recognizing the central mission of the Church and in carefully maintaining a vibrant religious witness independent of secular political movements.

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).

Likewise, in his very first pastoral journey in 1979, Pope John Paul II spoke to the Latin American bishops in Mexico and emphatically rejected the reconception of Jesus as a political revolutionary, rather than being the divine Son of God with a “redemptive mission.” John Paul II, Address at the Opening of the Third General Conference of the Latin-American Bishops (January 28, 1979). Instead, he offered the higher spiritual vision “that to achieve a life worthy of a human being, one cannot limit oneself to having more; one must strive to be more.” By restoring the Church’s spiritual mission, “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.” John Paul II explained that 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.”

Pope Benedict XVI, in his first Encyclical also affirms that the role of the Church is to form the conscience and “reawaken the spiritual energy,” while appreciating that “[a] just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church.” Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est ¶ 28a (2006)

At the same time, Catholic Christians are encouraged to participate in the political order and thereby to transform it. The Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes states: “All Christians must be aware of their own specific vocation within the political community. It is for them to give an example by their sense of responsibility and their service of the common good.” While we in the laity must never expect the Church to dilute its spiritual mission to support any worldly goal, we are called to bring Gospel values to bear on the political and legal matters with which we are involved.

In this respect, the anti-political movement that the New York Times article describes can swing too far in the other direction. In another part of the article not included in the excerpt Michael posted earlier, the evangelical pastor offered this disturbing response to a questioner:

One woman asked: “So why NOT us? If we contain the wisdom and grace and love and creativity of Jesus, why shouldn’t we be the ones involved in politics and setting laws?”

Mr. Boyd responded: “I don’t think there’s a particular angle we have on society that others lack. All good, decent people want good and order and justice. Just don’t slap the label ‘Christian’ on it.”

While understanding that salvation through Christ is of greater eternal value and while preserving the independence of the Church from secular trends and political campaigns, we also must stand against a radical separation of Gospel values from social justice. The very premise of the Mirror of Justice is that we indeed do have “a particular angle” on matters, drawn from the venerable sources of Catholic Social Thought and founded upon the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. We must be wary of triumphalism, maintain appropriate humility, appreciate the diversity of perspectives that fall under Catholic thinking, and be ready to learn from others. But we must and should participate, for we do have something to contribute. The Catholic perspective, in all its richness and diversity, but unified in an understanding of the human person as created in the image of God, is desperately needed in this culture.

Greg Sisk


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Pope Benedict goes on in Deus Caritas Est to remind us that Catholic social teaching is not only an "angle" directed to Catholics but to all men, as it is drawn from our common human nature [Read More]

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