What does the Church have to do with politics?

October 4, 2012

Faith and Reasons

Photo/KitAy. Licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s been an interesting year and I’m not surprised that I’ve heard some interesting questions like,  “Why are the bishops interfering with politics?” and, “Why is the Church trying to tell me how to vote?”

These questions reveal concerns that the Church is trying to manipulate voting and that it’s placing itself in the political sphere when it shouldn’t.

In a culture unreasonably fearful of Church encroachment on the State–even though the founding fathers proposed separating the two mostly for the opposite reason—some are skeptical when the Church speaks on controversial social issues, especially near an election.

What is the Church trying to do and where in Church teaching does say she has the authority?

History of speaking on policy issues

The bishops have long spoken out on issues affecting public policy. During World War I, they created a council to enable U.S. Catholics to contribute funds for the spiritual care of Catholic servicemen. For the better part of a century in this country, they also have promoted Church teaching on issues including education, care for the poor and immigration.

The Church should always have the freedom to preach the faith, to proclaim her teaching about society, “and also to pass moral judgment in those matters which regard public order when the fundamental rights of a person or the salvation of souls require it,” the Vatican II Council Fathers wrote in the document Gaudium et Spes.

Informing Catholics—and even non-Catholics—about Church teaching on important social issues is especially the U.S. bishops’ responsibility, they write,

The Church’s obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society is a requirement of our faith. It is a basic part of the mission we have received from Jesus Christ, who offers a vision of life revealed to us in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

While the Church’s position on certain important social questions is motivated by our faith-based moral conscience, it is on the level of the social and societal impact of these issues that the Church addresses them with us and our fellow citizens with a view to promoting the common good of all, according to Father Timothy Cloutier, judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

Faith helps us see more clearly the truths we discover through reason regarding the sacredness of human life and the dignity of each person, which is the heart of Catholic moral and social teaching, according to the bishops, who add,

“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.”

Why so outspoken about the HHS Mandate?

Why has the HHS Mandate, the federal government’s requirement that many employers who fall outside the government’s definition of a religious institution must cover contraception and sterilization through health insurance, so essential that the U.S. bishops have been so outspoken about it?  Especially since polls say a majority of Catholics think employers should supply this coverage in their health plans?

Of course, it’s a complicated issue.  There is the Church’s opposition to contraception.  Most notably, the bishops have emphasized that they are speaking out for protection of the Church’s own institutions, “the care of the souls of the individual faithful, and with the common good.”

Of especially great importance in this case is the freedom to practice religion. According to another Vatican II document it’s a matter of human dignity—one of those core teachings the bishops mention.

As for the Church trying to tell us how to vote, I’m pretty sure there will never be a sample ballot stuffed into my parish’s bulletin telling me how to choose  “Catholic-approved candidates.” Also, IRS law prohibits clergy from preaching at Mass about political candidates.

Helping to form consciences

But by illuminating and clarifying Church teaching on important issues, the Church helps me form my conscience so I can make sound moral voting judgments based on the truths of the faith.

Whatever you think of the Church’s involvement in the public arena, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est that it’s not her place to directly enter politics to make a more just society. At the same time, she plays a role in promoting justice. The Church:

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.


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About Susan Klemond

I'm a freelance writer who enjoys writing about the Catholic Faith, local issues and people. I love the challenge of learning about the Church and discovering the reasons behind her teachings.

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Susan,

    I’ve missed seeing you and talking with you about important things. You touch here on another important idea – one that I’ve had some discussions with others recently – relations between the Church and the State. So I have a question for you that comes out of what you have written.

    It is good and proper for the Church to speak to the world (including governments) about God, Christ, salvation, how to live a holy life, how to live with others in a just way, and etc. At what point (if ever) does the Church identify problems that it expects the State to positively solve?

    My own opinion is that such would be like Israel depending on Egypt – or as the Prophets of old said, “leaning on a reed”. I don’t know very much of where the Catholic Church sets its boundaries on such matters and I’d appreciate your insights.


    • faithandreasons

      Hi Tim,
      Nice to hear from you. Thank you for your comments and question.

      I’ve shown that the Church teaches that she has a role in bringing the issues before Catholics and society in general. (See especially the Gaudium et Spes quote above). Since the Church is directly involved in many of the issues she teaches about through her extensive work in education, healthcare, and work with the poor around the world, I believe she is as qualified as other charitable organizations to speak on these issues.

      Like many other organizations, the Church does work for change. The Church’s public policy organization, The Minnesota Catholic Conference (http://www.mncc.org/) lobbies for legislation, along with doing other public policy work. Other church denominations also lobby the Legislature and Congress, along with many organizations of all types. With so many voices working to be heard, I don’t think there is a risk of the Church directing lawmaking. On the contrary, the way things have gone lately, the Church has had little influence, especially with the Executive branch.

      I wonder if your concerns are related to some of the excesses of the past, in which the Church (Catholic and Protestant) controlled government and ruled less than equitably. I think there is a balance. On the one hand, you’re right, we don’t want the Church controlling the government in enacting laws. But without seeking to control government, the Church sees her responsibility as being a “voice crying out in the wilderness” for justice, charity and truth.
      God bless,