Purity of Heart: The Moral Life/Catholics and Politics

How Are Catholics To Participate in Political Life?
Monsignor Charles M. Mangan


The always-relevant matter of how Catholics are to participate in the political life of their communities has been addressed by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” which is dated November 24, 2002 (the Solemnity of Christ the King). This document is available from the Website of the Holy See (www.vatican.va). (The numbers in parentheses refer to the article numbers in the “Doctrinal Note.”)

The “Doctrinal Note” does not intend to present the whole of Catholic teaching in this area, which is summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but rather “to recall some principles proper to the Christian conscience, which inspire the social and political involvement of Catholics in democratic societies.” (1) A clarification of some elements of the Church’s teaching is urgently needed today, given the “emergence of ambiguities or questionable positions in recent times, often because of the pressure of world events . . . .” (ibid.)

For centuries, the disciples of Jesus have involved themselves with political life in their communities. Where authentic freedom really exists, citizens are encouraged to take their rightful place in public life by voting for lawmakers and government officials. Christians who enjoy a well-formed conscience do immense good when they allow their Christ-inspired virtues to shine forth and cooperate with their fellow citizens for the commonweal of society.

Undoubtedly, the human race has made tremendous progress in promoting human dignity. But much work remains because flagrant exceptions loom large. We must never fail to note “the real dangers which certain tendencies in society are promoting through legislation, nor can one ignore the effects this will have on future generations.” (2)

It is fashionable in various quarters to promote a cultural relativism that boasts of assisting the furtherance of democracy by eschewing the Natural Law and embracing an ethical pluralism that considers tolerance to be the highest good. “As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.” (ibid.) “The history of the twentieth century demonstrates that those citizens were right who recognized the falsehood of relativism, and with it, the notion that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person, which must govern our understanding of man, the common good and the state.” (ibid.)

While the Church does not propose “specific political solutions” (3) to various questions, she will, without hesitation, “provide a moral judgment on temporal matters when she is required by faith or the moral law." (ibid.) Christians are to reject that “pluralism” which springs from moral relativism. Democracy succeeds when “it is based on a correct understanding of the human person.” (ibid.)

In harmony with the Church’s constant teaching, Pope John Paul II teaches “that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a ‘grave and clear obligation to oppose’ any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.” (4) The integral good of the human person, which is impacted by, among other things, the issues of abortion, euthanasia, the rights of the human embryo, the family, the protection of minors, the contemporary forms of slavery, religious freedom, the economy and peace, is linked to the moral law, which Catholics are to commit themselves to uphold.

Although there exist diverse political systems influenced in part by various cultures, no Catholic may claim that pluralism or “the autonomy of lay involvement in political life” (5) allows him to support policies that counter the ethical precepts that are rooted in human nature and which exist apart from religion and race. While the political arena does enjoy autonomy from the Church—an autonomy that the Church willingly recognizes, it does not enjoy autonomy from morality. The state must not require or prohibit “specifically religious activities (such as the profession of faith, worship, administration of sacraments, theological doctrines, interchange between religious authorities and the members of religions)” (6) unless public order is at stake.

Catholics and indeed all citizens enjoy the right and the duty “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” (ibid.). ...

Although these truths may be taught by a specific religion, they belong to the patrimony of the Natural Law that is available to every person.

When the Church’s Magisterium speaks out on these important issues, it does so not to impede or eradicate freedom of opinion but rather “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.” (ibid.) No one may rightly assert that there are two parallel lives—one spiritual, the other secular—with their own demands. Each area of one’s life is to be connected and submitted to God’s wise plan.

Democratic societies foster the exchange of ideas and proposals. Those who believe that Christians are disqualified from political life because of their insistence on acting according to their consciences adhere to a brand of secularism. When Christianity is pushed aside, societies inevitably experience repression and oppression.

Sadly, within some organizations established on Catholic principles, political forces at odds with the teaching of the Church have been supported. Even some Catholic periodicals “have expressed perspectives on political choices that have been ambiguous or incorrect.” (7) What is urgently needed is for Catholics to help build a world that is founded upon the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ. True freedom “does not exist without the truth.” (ibid.)

That there is the right to freedom of conscience and religious freedom is based on the dignity of the human person, “not on a non-existent equality among religious or cultural systems of human creation.” (8)

In summary, Catholics are to be “the light” and “the salt” in society, including the political square. For that to occur, Catholics must: a.) know and embrace what the Church teaches; b.) pray daily and receive the Sacraments (primarily Penance and the Most Holy Eucharist) often and worthily; c.) exercise, particularly in the face of hostility and ridicule, the courage and the perseverance that come from the Holy Spirit; d.) avail themselves of the powerful intercession of the Mother of God, especially by praying the Holy Rosary; e.) never discount the legitimacy of their role in political life and the contribution that the Church can—and must—make if society is to recover its moorings before it is too late.

With Catholics resolutely working together in the political life, there is great hope that the Gospel of Life will prevail over the Culture of Death.

Msgr. Charles M. Mangan is a priest of the Diocese of Sioux Falls, SD. A prolific writer, Monsignor is a member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. He has an S.T.L. in Canon Law and is currently completing a doctorate in Mariology.


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