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  A Christian Faith Magazine September 2004, Volume 10, Issue 2  
Church and State, Part 1
Most Reverend William E. Lori, Bishop of Bridgeport
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As most of you know, I host a weekly radio show on WICC, 600 on the AM dial, Sundays at 6 p.m. I usually interview a guest and then I take calls from listeners throughout Fairfield County and beyond. You won't be surprised to learn that recent shows have included many calls on the upcoming presidential election. You also won't be surprised to learn that I receive more than a few letters on the same subject. Some of my listeners and correspondents want to know why the Church won't enter the fray and support one candidate over another. Others wonder why the Church is involved in any aspect of politics. They feel that any such involvement is beyond the purview of the Church and is a breach of the separation of Church and State.

Of course, intense debates about religion and politics won't be settled in the space of this brief column. However, as we prepare to cast our votes in November, I'd like to offer some observations, rooted in the social teaching of the Church, which might provide helpful guidance.

First, while the faith we profess certainly pertains to our personal salvation, it also pertains to the innate dignity of every person, to relations among human beings, and to the good of society as a whole. To be sure, our faith looks forward to the "consummation of the world" - when the world as we know it will be transformed by God into "a new heavens and a new earth." Because the world has a transcendent destiny, the Church cooperates with people of good will in building up cultures and societies which, in their diversity, are just, peaceful, and respectful of basic human rights and responsibilities. After all, God poured out His life in Christ to save the world and to renew all things in Christ.

For that reason, the Church engages in works of charity and education and advocates publicly and privately for the vulnerable. She also supports research and all forms of genuine human advancement. And while the Church does not confuse earthly progress with the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Church condemns injustice even as she welcomes genuine personal and social progress as a sign of the coming of God's Kingdom (see Gaudium et Spes [Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World], 39).

This is the basis for the social teaching of the Church. That teaching is not idle social commentary but vital moral teaching on the sort of society that is just, clement, tranquil, and well-ordered. Like all the moral teachings of the Church, it is rooted in reason illuminated by faith. It includes teachings which are absolute (the inviolable dignity of innocent human life) and teachings which, in their application, admit of prudential judgments about which reasonable people can differ (e.g., economic policy).

The Church's social teaching was drawn together by Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th century. It has been developed and affirmed by each succeeding pontiff, especially Pope John Paul II.

Pope Leo XIII
Pope Leo XIII

That teaching is one of our best-kept secrets. Contrary to what many believe, the Church's social teaching is both consistent and broad. It includes questions on the protection of the vulnerable, including the unborn and the frail elderly, as well as questions on war and peace, labor, economics, race relations, education, the environment, and the overall just ordering of society.

Those teachings are also weighted. The most vulnerable and innocent deserve the most protection. Hence the Church's uncompromising stand on the need to legally protect unborn human life, even at its earliest stages, and to never use it merely as a means to an end - as in embryonic stem-cell research - no matter how compelling that goal might seem. After all, if a human person does not enjoy the right to life, he or she enjoys none of the other rights that are consonant with human dignity.

A second point follows. If we really want to vote conscientiously, we need to familiarize ourselves with the breadth and depth of the Church's social teaching. We also need to reverse how our culture usually looks at religion and politics. Often, it seems that the Church's teaching is measured against competing political positions. For example, it is compared favorably or unfavorably to various party platforms. But a conscientious Catholic voter will instead view political platforms from the vantage of the Church's social teaching. Such a voter will find that neither major party fully embraces the broad and consistent view of human life and dignity and the tranquil ordering of society that is found in the Church's social teaching. Such a voter will also recognize that the Church's social teaching gives preference to the most vulnerable and will not be content with any political platform or position that fails to do the same.

That is why, as informed Catholics and as citizens, we need to participate in the political process by voting with a well-informed conscience and by persistently bringing our values and concerns to the attention of our elected officials. We also need to challenge officials and candidates who claim to be good Catholics but who also reject or compromise fundamental human rights and dignity as expressed in the Church's social teaching.

Third, none of this violates the separation of Church and State. The Church is prohibited from engaging in partisan politics; that is, in promoting one candidate over another. But the First Amendment in no way prohibits the Church from speaking out on issues and from helping her members understand how the positions of political parties and candidates stack up against the Church's social teaching. If the First Amendment prohibited such activity, then there would be no real religious freedom in the United States. After all, religious freedom is not merely the freedom to believe what one wishes to believe in the privacy of one's mind and home; you can do that in even the most oppressive gulag!

Religious freedom means the liberty to bring one's beliefs and values into the public debate, to challenge the views of candidates for office, and to try to shape a society more worthy of the human person.

To do all that is not to impose a sectarian view on others but rather to advance the truth about the human person known to reason (natural law) but clarified by faith. An open society such as ours will always debate what the "truth about the human person" means. But we are already in real trouble because our culture no longer has a coherent and commonly-held view of what it means to be a human being. It prefers instead to tell us that we are what we want and tends to promote an ethos in which the ends justify the means and the strong dominate the weak.

Our culture will not retrieve that just and coherent account of what it means to be a person without the active participation of people who bring both faith and reason to the marketplace of ideas.

The political season upon which we've entered is a serious season. We need to look behind the slogans and the rhetoric, using the Church's social teaching as a reliable guide. For ultimately it is Christ who, in showing us the Father's love, "reveals us to ourselves and brings to light our most high calling" (Gaudium et Spes, 22).

To be continued next month.

To learn more about Catholic social teaching, I advise all Catholics to consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially # 2419-2463); the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World); and two landmark encyclicals of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II: Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), and Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum). All can be found on our website.

This column is credited to Fairfield County Catholic monthly magazine.

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