With the death of Fr. Robert Drinan, SJ, the Jesuit who served as a representative for the state of Massachusetts in the House from 1971-1981, the issue of Catholics, Catholic teaching, bishops and politics is surfacing. An article on the Church's influence on the state in Latin America (linked above) talks about the various relationships between secular leaders, bishops and lay Catholics throughout that region (including the fact that a minority of Catholics throughout the region identify themselves as "practicing!")
Recently there was a heated discussion on Amy Wellborn's blog about the U.S. bishops' statements on the war in Iraq and immigration, and with the 2008 race for the White House beginning already, it's only a matter of time before the Vatican's "Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding The Participation of Catholics in Political Life" becomes an issue. Here's a few choice quotes from that document, along with a couple of brief observations.
'The commitment of Christians in the world has found a variety of expressions in the course of the past 2000 years. One such expression has been Christian involvement in political life: Christians, as one Early Church writer stated, "play their full role as citizens"....
By fulfilling their civic duties, "guided by a Christian conscience", in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values, all the while respecting the nature and rightful autonomy of that order, and cooperating with other citizens according to their particular competence and responsibility.... The right and duty of Catholics and all citizens to seek the truth with sincerity and to promote and defend, by legitimate means, moral truths concerning society, justice, freedom, respect for human life and the other rights of the person, is something quite different....
By its interventions in this area, the Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends – as is its proper function – to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. "There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture."'
When I arrived in Eugene, OR, as pastor of the Newman Center there, the state was in the middle of a contentious ballot measure that eventually opened the door to state-sanctioned euthanasia, or "death with dignity," depending upon your point of view. The local dioceses spent, I believe, about $1-2 million to defeat the measure, publishing various pamphlets that carefully outlined an opposition to the measure which did not mention suicide, but, instead, focused on the dignity of life and the effects of state-sponsored euthanasia in Europe, as well as possible unintended side effects that might pressure terminally ill patients to choose "death with dignity." Among these were fears that the elderly, especially, wouldn't want to be a "burden," or "eat up my children's inheritance," as well as the fear of experiencing physical pain.
The ballot measure passed, perhaps because in a largely unchurched state, the proponents of the measure claimed the Catholic Church was trying to force its doctrine upon everyone. In fact, what the bishops were attempting was to "instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good." All of us who are able to vote are "involved in political life," and have an obligation to study and understand as best as we are able, the Church's teaching. The presumption behind this isn't to re-establish Christendom, where there is no distinction between Church and State, but rather the idea that supporting the common good and promoting the legitimate rights of the individual (sometimes a difficult balancing act) will lead to peace, justice and equity that benefits us all.
I vaguely recall when Fr. Drinan was asked to not run for re-election after five terms in office. I remember Catholics being upset because they thought, "who wouldn't be a better, more honest, more Christian politician than a priest?" Others saw it as a slap against the political process as being "beneath" a cleric, or a meddling in our political system, or a reaction to some of his politics. I recall not understanding the decision myself.
I see it differently now, however. As a priest, my job is to serve the Church by helping the laity under my jurisdiction understand their gifts and calls, and to help them understand the Scriptures and Magisterial teachings so that they can apply these to the difficult situations we have to address in the secular realm. A priest running for office (including a retired bishop in Paraguay who is running for president there) is proposing to lead in the arena the bishops at the Second Vatican Council said is the proper jurisdiction of the laity. My apostolate as a priest (sanctifying, teaching and governing) is focused primarily within the Church – particularly with regard to helping the laity be better equipped to succeed at their apostolate (sanctifying, teaching, governing), which is directed towards the world. This can include helping the laity organize and coordinate their gifts, talents and skills in order to better address needs in the secular realm. In that sense I am involved indirectly in shaping secular society. Unfortunately, when we forget that the Church's primary mission is to the world, we get caught up in who is able to do what in the sanctuary and in the sacristy. If what happens there is seen as having primary importance, I have to take some responsibility for that as a priest. It means I have forgotten the primary call of the Church to "infuse the temporal order with Christian values," i.e., to evangelize individuals and transform the institutions and structures of society so that they reflect what is truly human.
Labels: Catholics and politics