Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Church’s Political Tradition: Endorsements and Condemnations

Reposted and revised for new Sky View readers:

"Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants (would) be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.’

-John 18:36

Prophetic Duty:

As the U.S. presidential campaigns heat up in the summer of 2012, Catholics in America are bound to weigh in and give their two cents worth. A robust engagement in the political arena by Catholics has always been encouraged by the Church. With that encouragement, however, the Catholic Church makes the distinction between endorsing politicians and political parties and denouncing them. The former is forbidden for good reason; this will be addressed below. But it should be noted that the Church reserves the right to denounce or condemn evil in the political world.

Historically the Church has condemned many civil rulers, political regimes and ideologies which proved themselves to be contrary to God’s law and the common good. During the twentieth century, for instance, the Catholic Church condemned the Communist governments of Mexico, Spain and the Russian Bolsheviks. In 1937 Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical entitled, On the Church and the German Reich (or Mit Brennender Sorge). His condemnation of the Third Reich speaks to that ancient pagan error which held the State as supreme:

“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community - however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things - whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.”

The prophetic duty of the Church is to fulfill what the Blessed Virgin proclaimed in her canticle: “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.” What kind of rulers? Rulers who have oppressed their people by taking the place of God. Indeed, throughout the centuries the Church has echoed the words from the inspired book of Wisdom; especially to those who exaggerated their political power: “Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the LORD and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!” (6:2-3) Therefore, to condemn and criticize rulers, political parties and evil ideologies such as socialism and communism does not- I repeat, does not –lie outside the competence of the Church. In fact, when circumstances require it, it is her plain duty.

Nevertheless, the mission of saving souls has been hindered in the past whenever there was too close of an alliance between the Church and the State. This is why Catholic Church refuses to officially or formally endorse particular forms of governments, political parties or rulers.

Too Close for Comfort:

Unfortunately, some members of the clergy and of laity have departed from this wise counsel from time to time. It should be emphasized, however, that there is always a price to be paid when this happens. One example was the French Revolution (1789-1792). Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), author of Democracy in America and a native of France, witnessed the consequences of what happens when there is too close of an alliance between the Church and State (or during the French Revolution, between Church in France and the King of France). When King Louis XVI was dethroned and executed by his political enemies, scores of Catholics suffered martyrdom and persecution as well. Although this was only a part of the reason why the Church suffered greatly, it was, nevertheless, a contributing factor.

Tocqueville, a Catholic, happened to visit America in 1831 and wrote his book, Democracy in America, from 1835-1840. He saw great potential for the Catholic Church because many of America’s founding principles were consistent with her doctrine. But he issued a warning based on the painful lessons French Catholics experienced just a few decades earlier:

“[T]he Church cannot share the temporal power of the State without being the object of a portion of that hatred which the State excites. Again, when religion clings to the interests of the world, it becomes almost as fragile a thing as the powers of earth.”

In twentieth and twenty-first century America, Catholics (and here I refer to those Catholics whose mission it is to save souls such as the clergy and lay evangelists, to name a few) have made the mistake of forging alliances with one of two political parties; namely, the Democrat Party or the Republican Party. As a result of that alliance, fair or unfair, onlookers and prospective converts often associate Catholicism with the sins and weaknesses of that party. And more often than not, such political associations put many souls out of reach. As Tocqueville alluded to, being the object of that hatred with which the State or any political party excites, the mission of the Church becomes as fragile as the party itself.

Alliance with the Left:

Archbishop Chaput said in his book, Render Unto Caesar, that many members of the Catholic clergy had a close affinity with the Democrat Party in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This was largely due to their solidarity with the civil rights movement. However, when values diametrically opposed to the Catholic Faith found its way into Democrat Party (i.e. abortion rights, the welfare state, big government programs, discriminatory measures against Christianity etc.), Catholic-Democrats were slow to denounce such values. As such, the Church in America was not as quick and effective in opposing the Culture of Death in the decades to follow. Indeed, even to this day there is ample confusion among Catholics about the intrinsic moral evil of abortion as compared to the grounds on which capital punishment and waging war can be morally justifiable.

Alliance with the Right:

On the other hand, Catholics who are politically conservative and who align themselves with the Republican Party suffer from the same handicap. When the Republican Party opened its doors to politicians who supported abortion rights and the Nanny-State, it invited into its tent the adversary it claimed to oppose; namely, secular-liberalism. Instead of fighting for the cause of righteousness in the culture war, the Republican establishment ushered the culture war into their party. Hence, the division between Tea Party Republicans and the Republican establishment was born. What is even more disturbing, the Republican Party has become increasingly silent on socially traditional values such as sanctity of marriage...just to name one.

As for my own observations, I have witnessed plenty of occasions when orthodox Catholics in the Catholic media who routinely fail to challenge Republican congressmen or strategists on critical issues mentioned above. Why are those in the Catholic media or in the Catholic clergy reluctant to hold the feet of Republicans to the fire? For the same reason why Catholic-Democrats fail to publicly challenge many of the Democratic National Committee’s immoral policies. They get too cozy with them!

Needed Checks and Balances:

Yet, to repeat, the prophetic office of the Church provides a service to the world when she is that “sign of contradiction” to its sinful ways. Of course, Catholics must affirm all that is good in culture and build upon that in our evangelization. But the Good News will never take hold if Americans do not know the “bad news.” In fact, the mission of the Holy Spirit is to not only make known Jesus Christ to the world but to bring to light the sins of the world. Our Lord said as much in the Gospel of John: “And when he comes he will convict the world in regard to sin and righteousness and condemnation…” (16:8)

Using Tocqueville’s words, “when religion clings to the interests of the world” or when it forges too close of an alliance with the political world, it will hardly be that needed “check and balance” when things go wrong.

Confusion of Roles:

In recent years progressive politicians have become more confused, to put it nicely, about that which belongs to Caesar and that which belongs to God. But it’s not just the politicians that show signs of confusion.

With the great respect and love for my spiritual fathers, I say that there are some members of the Catholic clergy who have gone beyond their competence in being an advocate for specific political policies. Many of these policies lie within the realm of prudential judgment; that is, Catholics in good conscience can either agree or disagree with them. For instance, many Catholics took issue with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops who, with good intentions, called for universal healthcare coverage. The problem here was that the USCCB gave tacit approval to a State-run system; a system which would eventually, if not immediately, provide funding for abortion and ration healthcare services.

If the Church in America was united in preaching about those moral principles which would ensure the integrity of the policies that was being considered in 2010, then perhaps Obamacare would not have passed; principles such as subsidarity and charity being the perogative of the Church and private institutions. The lesson is this: Men of the cloth should be cautious about too closely aligning themselves with political contingencies and specific policies. Such a duty does not lie within their competence. They are commissioned by the Lord Jesus to preach the Gospel. And the beauty of the Gospel message is that it brings to the fore those principles of faith and morals- timeless in nature -that every prosperous and civilized nation is founded on.

Pope Benedict XVI, when he was cardinal, cautioned pastors and evangelists of the Church about meddling with public policy. In his 1991 book, Turning Point for Europe? he gave the following counsel to Catholics:

“What the Church has to remember is that, though the sources of law of have been entrusted to her safekeeping, she does not have any specific answers to concrete political questions. She must not make herself out to be sole possessor of political reason. She points out paths for reason to follow, and yet reason’s own responsibilities remain.”

Polices are specific answers. Principles, both moral and spiritual, are not. They are both absolute and unchanging. Yet, they can be applied in different ways by different agencies. The clergy, therefore, is less effective in the communication of principles if they are tied down with policies. A few costly battles were lost in recent years because of this. Again, I would say the passing of Obamacare was one them.

Jesus said give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God. As for U.S. politicians, they are- with ever more intensity -coveting what which belongs to God. Whereas some among the Catholic clergy appropriate responsibilities which properly belong to the political order, there have been more and more politicians who have attempted to dictate on religious issues. This, by not only limiting the rights of conscience but by even attempting to manage the structure of dioceses. During the November USCCB assembly, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, brought attention to these encroachments when he delivered a speech on religious liberty. Here are two (out of several) examples he cited:

• “The 2009 attempt of members of the Judiciary Committee in Connecticut to re-organize parishes in a manner utterly opposed to Catholic teaching and law.”

• “The Department of Justice has also argued before the Supreme Court for the virtual elimination of the First Amendment's ‘ministerial exception’ which protects the freedom of religious denominations to choose their own ministers without state interference to say nothing of court decisions which have severely curbed the religious freedom of students to organize and maintain religiously based groups on college campuses.”

When the State or any political cause becomes God-like and therefore ceases to acknowledge the limitations of its own power, it must be strongly censored or condemned…no matter what political party it is. Historically, the Catholic Church has been able to raise her prophetic voice against such an abuse of power when she was detached from the approvals and disapprovals of civil magistrates. This holy indifference was enormously beneficial to society; it gave the Church strength to fight on behalf of God’s rights and the rights of the needy.

Ancient Wise Counsel:

As an historian, Alexis de Tocqueville reminded his fellow Catholics in Europe and America that when the Church is disentangled from political ties, her mission flourishes all the more. From his book, Democracy in America, he identifies the reason behind the spiritual success of a politically detached Church:

“When a religion founds its empire upon the desire of immortality which lives in every human heart, it may aspire to universal dominion; but when it connects itself to a government…it forfeits the hope of reigning over all. As long as a religion rests upon those sentiments which are the consolation of all afflictions, it may attract the affections of mankind…”

God, death, and immortality are topics which appeal to the human spirit because the life of the body is short and uncertain. As Psalm 103 reminds us: “As for man, his days are like the grass; he blossoms like a flower in the field. A wind sweeps over it and it is gone; its place knows it no more.” These truths may become irrelevant to a society that has grown prosperous and comfortable (such as our own), but they nevertheless have enduring relevance to individuals. After all, death awaits us all. When loved ones precede us in death, when marriages are troubled, or when life loses its luster through suffering, quite often we look for answers. It is during these times of crisis that we become acutely aware of our exile. We are but migrants in search of a better home. Hence, when the Gospel is made to apply to our mortality and the search for God, then it enjoys a universal appeal that transcends all barriers. With this, the Catholic Church is in a much better position to represent He who said, “My kingdom does not belong to this world…my kingdom is not here."