By Don Clemmer
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
When uttered aloud, the gut-level revulsion is clearly audible in that question.
It’s a fair question, one that comes up frequently. It’s grounded in history. People ask, “Didn’t the Church get burned time and again through the centuries when it got too cozy with various medieval kings and secular powers? Isn’t that how, at one time, it became so corrupt that it sparked the Protestant Reformation?”
The question comes up today, almost regardless of the issue being addressed by the pope, the bishops or even a parish priest. Sandra Day O’Connor once quipped that the definition of an “activist judge” is “a judge who disagrees with me.”
Similarly, the complaint about the Church meddling in politics can fall conveniently along political fault lines. But there’s still something to be said for people being wary of a Church that seems too wrapped up in secular matters and power.
The bishops recognize this and draw several key distinctions. To name a couple, the Church’s focus is on moral principles and how they should influence policy positions. The Church stakes out strong positions on issues, but does not endorse parties or candidates. It recognizes that lay people play a complementary role of more direct involvement in politics that the hierarchy cannot and should not play.
Pope Benedict XVI made this clear in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, stating, “The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society … is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity.”
The pope uses the word “called,” meaning not just a role, but a duty.
Still one could ask, “Doesn’t political involvement seem kind of peripheral compared to my other obligations to the faith like participating in the Sacraments and helping the poor?”
In Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the bishops respond with a vision of the Church providing society a great service.
“Because we are people of both faith and reason, it is appropriate and necessary for us to bring this essential truth about human life and dignity to the public square,” the bishops write. “We are called to practice Christ’s commandment to ‘love one another’ (Jn 13:34).”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it another way, that it’s necessary for everyone to participate in promoting the common good (#1913-15). Either way, political participation, at its best, is an expression of faith lived out in the world.
The bishops, as pastors and teachers, apply the Church’s moral voice to issues affecting human life and dignity in the public square, and Catholics as a whole engage in the political process through such means as voting and, according to the bishops, “running for office; working within political parties; communicating their concerns and positions to elected officials; and joining diocesan social mission or advocacy networks, state Catholic conference initiatives, community organizations, and other efforts to apply authentic moral teaching in the public square.”
This is a year-round deal, but not in the sense of the perpetual campaign that poisons so much political discourse. Catholics aren’t called to be hyper-partisans waging a scorched Earth campaign for permanent political dominance. In fact the bishops offer the admonition that Catholic shouldn’t let their parties lead them to “neglect or deny fundamental moral truths.”
Instead, Catholics are called to be leaven. The duty of the politically-engaged Catholic isn’t just to take sides in the political debate, but to transform it.
Don Clemmer is the assistant director of Media Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.