Faith and Politics

Not a Problem, Part of a Solution

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, OCT. 24, 2010 ( With the American midterm elections looming close, issues such as Church-State relations and the religious beliefs of candidates are surfacing again.

Pundits have speculated about the way religious affiliations will affect voters, especially with controversies such as health care reform and changes to immigration laws still fresh.
Earlier this month the seven Catholic bishops of New York State published a statement offering guidelines to help people evaluate which candidates it would be suitable to vote for. Catholics, they said, should judge political matters through the lens of faith and not be guided by self interest or party loyalty alone.
The bishops mentioned a number of issues, ranging from life matters to war and peace and education. It’s rare, they admitted, to find a candidate who agrees with the Church on every matter, but not all have the same weight.

Following the recommendation of the 2008 document, «Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,» issued by the U.S. bishops the New York prelates stated: «The inalienable right to life of every innocent human person outweighs other concerns where Catholics may use prudential judgment, such as how best to meet the needs of the poor or to increase access to health care for all.»
They urged Catholics to take time and care in studying the positions of candidates and concluded with a list of questions people should ask before deciding who to vote for.
The question of faith’s impact on politics has been a topic raised a number of times recently by Benedict XVI. In a message dated Oct. 12 to Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian episcopal conference, the Pope affirmed that politics and society needs to be guided by considerations of the common good.

Christian values are not just useful in determining this what comprises this common good, they make an indispensable contribution, he stated.
New generation
In the message, sent to mark the 46th Italian Catholic Social Week, Benedict XVI called for a new generation of Catholics to come forward and be active in politics. This participation should be grounded in a solid intellectual and moral formation that will enable the formation of ethical principles based on fundamental truths so that decisions will not be based on egoism, avarice or personal ambition.
At a time when politicians are often held in contempt or ridicule the Pontiff stated that: «The socio-political endeavor, with the spiritual resources and the attitudes it requires, remains a lofty vocation, to which the Church invites to respond with humility and determination.»
As to the role of the Church, the Pope affirmed that: «the Catholic Church has a legacy of values that are not things of the past, but constitute a very living and timely reality, capable of offering a creative guideline for the future of a nation.»
His message came shortly after a major speech on Church-State relations during his recent visit to Scotland and England. Addressing politicians and leaders in London’s Westminister Hall the Pope maintained that religion is not a problem legislators need to solve, but rather it has a vital contribution to make to politics.
The Holy Father pointed out the inadequacy of basing a nation’s future on short-term considerations of a merely political nature and urged his listeners to consider the importance of an ethical dimension to policy-making.
This ethical dimension does not have to depend on a particular faith, but can be based on reason’s formulation of objective moral principles. So it is not as though religion is imposing its beliefs, but rather it helps lead reason to the discovery of ethical principles. Then, the Pope noted, religion is in need of reason’s assistance in order to guard against distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism.

Religion has a legitimate role in the public square, the Pontiff stated, and should not be marginalized.  
«This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization,» he concluded.
Only a few days before, Benedict XVI had expressed similar views to the newly accredited German ambassador. In his Sept. 13 speech the Pope observed that if faith in a personal God is abandoned then the difference between good and evil becomes obscured. This then leads to actions being directed by considerations of personal interest or power politics.
Convinced Christians give testimony to society that an order of values is something legitimate. In this sense Christianity has a fundamental role, «in laying the foundations and forming the structures of our culture,» the Pope explained.
He lamented the growing tendency to eliminate Christian concepts of marriage and the family from society’s conscience. The Church cannot, the Pope stated, approve legislative initiatives that propose alternative models to married and family life.
Referring to the area of biotechnology and medicine he affirmed that what is needed is a culture of the person founded on natural law that will protect humans and guard against violations of human dignity.
Such a solid foundation provides a defense against the tendency to relativism, a danger that Pope Benedict has frequently warned against. He spoke again about this in an address given Sept. 8 to members of the bureau of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
It is imperative, he declared, to defend the universal validity of the right to religious freedom. If values, rights, and duties do not have an objective rational foundation then they cannot offer guidance for international institutions.
The Christian faith is a positive force in searching for the foundation of these rights in the natural dignity of the person, helping human reason to seek a basis for this dignity, the Pope commented.
In these recent statements on religion’s role in politics the Pope often refers back to his 2009 encyclical «Charity in Truth.» In that document he rejected the claim that the Church is interfering in politics: «She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation» (No. 9).

Referring to the development of nations Benedict XVI decried the promotion of religious indifference or atheism as something that obstructs our true development, as it precludes countries benefitting from vital spiritual and human resources. Economically developed countries sometimes export this reductive vision of the human person to poor countries, he noted.
If society prescinds itself of religion’s contribution it can fall into the error of giving too much attention to the “how” questions, and not enough to the many “why” questions underlying human activity, the Pope adverted. «When technology is allowed to take over, the result is confusion between ends and means, such that the sole criterion for action in business is thought to be the maximization of profit, in politics the consolidation of power, and in science the findings of research» (No. 71).
To avoid this Christianity needs to have a place in public affairs and reason and faith need be united, each purifying the other, the Pope explained (No. 56). If this dialogue does not take place then humanity will pay an enormous price. Something worth remembering the next time someone says that religion needs to keep out of politics.

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