Beyond Left and Right

The Key for Freedom in Europe and America

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By Carl Anderson

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, SEPT. 28, 2009 ( Benedict XVI has long made clear that Christianity does not believe in political messiahs. But again this weekend he reminded us that only faith in the true Messiah — Jesus Christ — can allow us to influence politics in a profoundly ethical way.

His words this past weekend in the Czech Republic — a country celebrating 20 years since the collapse of communism — have important implications for all of Europe and for the American continent — two places whose history is inseparable from Christianity.

Speaking in the Czech Republic at an ecumenical meeting Sunday, the Pope noted, “As Europe listens to the story of Christianity, she hears her own. Her notions of justice, freedom and social responsibility, together with the cultural and legal institutions established to preserve these ideas and hand them on to future generations, are shaped by her Christian inheritance.”

And, Pope Benedict explained, Christianity must not be limited to the margins of society. Religious liberty must be protected, and Christianity must have a voice in the public arena, in shaping the conscience of the continent, and in bringing moral consensus.

Speaking to Czech government officials on Saturday, he said, “I wish to underline the irreplaceable role of Christianity for the formation of the conscience of each generation and the promotion of a basic ethical consensus that serves every person who calls this continent, ‘home!’”

And he noted that believers should always come to their politics from the perspective of their Christianity — and should not subject Christianity to a political interpretation. He said, “Sensibility to universal truth should never be eclipsed by particular interests, important though they may be, for such would lead only to new examples of the social fragmentation or discrimination which those very interest or lobby groups purport to overcome.”

The other side

And what Pope Benedict said about Europe, holds equally true for America. Christians must bring the truth of Christianity to bear on the formation of their nations’ consciences.

The same day he spoke about the need for a public voice for religion and ethics in the public square in Prague, a symposium on religious liberty in the American hemisphere was held in Mexico City. It discussed the history — and future — of religious freedom in the American hemisphere.

In America, as in Europe, the entire history of the continent is one of “baptized Christians.” In America, each country was founded by Christians, most by Catholics, and equally important, each country — including the United States and Canada — has a strong Catholic tradition.

And the faith in America has remained quite vibrant — indeed, from the days of Bishop Zumárraga, first bishop of Mexico, to the important work for religious freedom in the United States carried out by John Carroll and countless others.

In our own day, the Catholic Church has been a part of the American experience — and the American conscience — every step of the way, whether the issue was civil rights, religious liberty or the right to life.

Indeed the Church’s contribution to the social order of the American hemisphere has occurred in its every corner.

And historically, grounded in an unchanging truth, the Church’s contribution to a state’s conscience has not been limited by location, country, type of government, or the political ideology of those in power.

Sometimes, this message has been welcomed, but other times it has been preached at a great price.

Looking forward

So what should the future of politics in Europe and the Americas look like?

I would suggest that we start by considering how Catholic social teaching can inform the entirety of our political platforms. In other words, Christianity must add to the “political ethics” of the state, and must be allowed to do so. And we should all guard against the temptation to selectively apply Catholic social teaching as support for these positions where convenient.

We should begin by remembering that long before there was a “left wing” or a “right wing,” there was the Gospel, and long after these political labels have faded into oblivion, the Gospel will remain. As people of faith before people of politics, we all have the responsibility of protecting the Gospel from manipulation by any political philosophy — including our own.

Pope Benedict explained this past weekend in the Czech Republic that a foundation in God and a search for, and commitment to, universal truths is the key to real freedom and just government.

He has long been making this point. He made it as well at the United Nations in 2008, and as far back as in his 1987 book “The Church, Ecumenism and Politics,” written just as communism was beginning to unravel in Europe.

He is inviting us to continue what French philosopher Jacques Maritain called one of the great accomplishments of Christianity in modern society: “[the] evangelization of the secular conscience.”

He is calling us to be, as he said this weekend in Prague, those who “today, across this country and continent, seek to apply their faith respectfully yet decisively in the public arena, in the expectation that social norms and policies be informed by the desire to live by the truth that sets every man and woman free.”

Continuing this evangelization of conscience, in a new evangelization, is our task as Christians.

And politicians and conscientious citizens on both sides of the Atlantic should heed it. We must evangelize our culture, and we must take care that religious freedom is protected and not relegated to the margins by a culture that sees a relativistic secularism as the key to a false, ephemeral freedom.

As we seek freedom, and to better those countries and continents on which we live, we should keep in mind the words of Pope Benedict this weekend:

“Freedom seeks purpose: it requires conviction. True freedom presupposes the search for truth — for the true good — and hence finds its fulfillment precisely in knowing and doing what is right and just. Truth, in other words, is the guiding norm for freedom, and goodness is freedom’s perfection.

‘For Christians, truth has a name: God. And goodness has a face: Jesus Christ.”

This is the charge Pope Benedict has given us. Now, it is up to us to heed his words and take action so that we can witness — and contribute to — the building of a civilization of love.

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