Saturday, 28 August 2010

Politics and the laity

There are two important speeches from overseas bishops recently (and wouldn't it be nice to see some similar engagement on this issue by our own bishops other, that is, than Cardinal Pell), that are well worth a read, on the obligation of the laity to play an active part in politics. 

And that's timely in the Australian context, since Catholics need to get ready for the new power of the Greens (particularly once they take control of the Senate next year) whatever the outcome of the current negotiations, and the prospect of another election sooner rather than later (regardless of whatever deals can be made with independents).

Laypeople needed to engage on the secular, not religious content

The first speech of note comes from the president of the Chilean Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Alejandro Goic, who suggested that:

“It is urgent that we have specialized organizations in the diocese run by well-formed laypeople in order to generate dialogue between the faith and the culture and to defend the human dignity of men and women.” 

CNA reports that the bishop went on to say that believers exercise the greatest influence in the media not through programs of religious content but as Christian journalists. Bishop Goic noted that Catholics have a enormous presence in volunteer work for the poor and needy, but that their presence in unions is minimal. "Believers who are gifted organizers should be on the forefront of issues related to jobs and the dignity of workers", he said.

Politics is an important duty for the laity

The second important speech was by Bishop Chaput, whose starting point is that:

"Politics is the arena where the struggle between truth and lies, justice and injustice, takes place. No country's political life can be honest -- and no government can serve the needs of its people -- unless it welcomes the deepest convictions of its citizens into public debate.

In any nation, but especially in a nation of Catholics, Catholic people have a duty to bring their Catholic beliefs to bear on every social, economic and political problem facing their country. That's not just a privilege. It's not just a right. It's a demand of the Gospel."

Role of bishops

Bishop Chaput has some useful comments to make on the proper role of bishops vs the laity:

"My job as a bishop is to be a good pastor - in other words, a good shepherd and guide for the people of my local Church. The word "pastor" means "shepherd" in Latin, and it comes from the Latin verb pascere, which means "to feed." My proper work is to teach the faith, preach the Gospel, encourage and console my people, correct them when needed, and govern the internal life of the Church with love and justice.

There may be many times when a bishop or group of bishops needs to speak out publicly about the moral consequences of a public issue. But the main form of Catholic leadership in wider society - in the nation's political, economic and social life - needs to be done by the Catholic lay faithful. The key word of course is faithful. We need to form Catholic lay leaders who know and love the teachings of the Church, and then embody those teachings in their private lives and their public service. But once those lay leaders exist, the clergy cannot and should not interfere with the leadership that rightly belongs, by baptism, to their vocation as lay apostles."

He also notes that:

"In May this year, speaking to a pastoral convention of the Diocese of Rome, Benedict XVI made a comment that many people overlooked. But I think his words have exactly the spirit that needs to guide this conference.

He said that the Church needs "a change in mindset, particularly concerning laypeople. They must no longer be viewed as 'collaborators' of the clergy, but truly recognized as 'co-responsible' for the Church's being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity."

Christians are in the world, but not of the world. We belong to God, and our home is heaven. But we're here for a reason: to change the world, for the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus Christ. That work belongs to each of us. Nobody will do it for us. And the idea that we can somehow accomplish that work without engaging -- in a hands-on way -- the laws, the structures, the public policies, the habits of mind and the root causes that sustain injustice in our countries, is a delusion.

...Priests and bishops cannot do the work of laypeople. That's not what Christ called us to do. It's not what the Church formed us to do...Every Christian life, and every choice in every Christian life, matter eternally. Laypeople, not clergy, have the task of evangelizing the secular world, and only you can do it as God intended."

Church vs state

Also of interest given the conflicting views on this subject are Bishop Chaput's comments on the role of Church vs State:

"...Beginning in the New Testament and continuing right through documents of the Second Vatican Council, Christians have always believed that civil authority has a rightful degree of autonomy separate from sacred authority. Even in countries where historically the Church and state had close ties, secular rulers were never fully subordinated to religious leadership. This is one of the deepest and most important differences between Christian and Muslim political thought, even today.

As philosopher Rémi Brague writes in The Law of God: The Philosophical History of An Idea, the two world religions with a "political" dimension did not acquire it in the same way. Christianity gained ground in the ancient world against the political power of the Roman Empire, which had persecuted Christians for almost three centuries before itself adopting the Christian religion. Islam, after a brief period of trials, triumphed during the lifetime of its founder. It then conquered, by warfare, the right to operate in peace, and even the right to dictate conditions of survival to the adepts of other religions "of the Book." In modern terms we might say that Christianity conquered the state through civil society; Islam, to the contrary, conquered civil society through the state (emphasis in original).  In fact, Brague notes that, "from the start, Christianity set itself outside the political domain, and its founding texts bear witness to a distrust of things political."

In Christian thought, believers owe civil rulers their respect and obedience in all things that do not gravely violate the moral law. When Jesus told the Pharisees and Herodians to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (see Mt 22:15-21), he was acknowledging that Caesar does have rights. Of course, he was also saying that Caesar is not a god, and Caesar has no rights over those things which belong to God.

To put it in modern terms: The state is not god. It's not immortal. It's not infallible. It's not even synonymous with civil society, which is vastly larger, richer and more diverse in its human relationships than any political party or government bureaucracy can ever be. Ultimately, everything important about human life belongs not to Caesar, but to God: our intellect, our talents, our free will; the people we love; the beauty and goodness in the world; our soul, our moral integrity, our hope for eternal life. These are the things that matter. These are the things worth fighting for. And none of them comes from the state.

As a result, the key virtue modern political leaders need to learn, and Catholic citizens need to help them learn by demanding it, is modesty - modesty of appetite, and modesty in the exercise of power. The sovereignty of states is a good principle. But every state is subject to higher and binding truths. These truths are embodied not just in Christianity and Judaism, but also in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights - which enshrines the right of every human being to freedom of belief; freedom of religious practice; freedom of religious teaching and public expression; freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom to receive and impart information and ideas through any media; and the right to take an active part in the government of one's own country (see Articles 18-21). Any state that interferes with these basic rights undermines its own legitimacy."

Politics should be the expression of Christian love
Bishop Chaput points out that "We were made by God to receive love ourselves, and to show love to others. That's why we're here. That's our purpose. And it has very practical consequences -- including the political kind. For a Christian, love is not simply an emotion. Real love is an act of the will; a sustained choice that proves itself not just by what we say or feel, but by what we do for the good of others.

Since God created all human persons and guarantees their dignity by his Fatherhood, we have family duties to one another. That applies especially within the Church, but it extends to the whole world. This means our faith has social as well as personal implications. And those social implications include the civil dimension of our shared life; in other words, the content of our politics."

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