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Pope: Politics is a Service

Meeting of Catholic Politicians Serving the Latin American Peoples

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“Politics is, first of all, a service,” Pope Francis said December 1, 2017. “It is not the slave of individual ambitions, of the arrogance of factions or interest groups.”
His comments came in a video message sent on the occasion of the Congress, “Meeting of Catholics that Assume Political Responsibility at the Service of the Latin American Peoples,” held December 1-3, 2017, at the headquarters of the Colombian Episcopal Conference, in Bogota. The event was organized by the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (CAL) and the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM).
The Holy Father warned that politics is not “a master that pretends to rule all the dimensions of people’s lives, including falling into forms of autocracy and totalitarianism.” He pointed out that he wasn’t talking about the past, but today’s world…perhaps “of some country of Latin America.”
He went on to say that the service Jesus expected of the Apostles is comparable to what is expected of politicians: “It’s a service of sacrifice and dedication, to such a point that at times politicians can be considered as ‘martyrs’ of causes for the common good of their nations.”
Here is a ZENIT translation of the video-message that the Holy Father Francis sent to the participants.
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The Holy Father’s Video-Message
Good morning! First of all, I want to greet and thank the political leaders that accepted the invitation to take part in an event that I myself encouraged from its genesis: “The Meeting of Catholic Laymen that Assume Political Responsibilities at the Service of the Peoples of Latin America.” I also greet the Lord Cardinals and Bishops that are accompanying you, with whom you will surely have a very profitable dialogue for all.
Since Pope Pius XII and up to now, successive Pontiffs have always referred to politics as a “high form of charity.” It could also be translated as an inestimable service of dedication for the achievement of the common good of society. Politics is, first of all, a service. It is not the slave of individual ambitions, of the arrogance of factions or <interest groups>. As service, it is not either a master that pretends to rule all the dimensions of people’s lives, including falling into forms of autocracy and totalitarianism. And when I speak of autocracy and totalitarianism I’m not talking about the last century, I’m speaking of today, in today’s world, and perhaps, also, of some country of Latin America. It could be affirmed that Jesus’ service – who came to serve and not to be served — and the service that the Lord exacts from His Apostles and disciples is analogically the type of service that is asked of politicians. It’s a service of sacrifice and dedication, to such a point that at times politicians can be considered as “martyrs” of causes for the common good of their nations.
The fundamental reference of this service, which requires constancy, commitment and intelligence, is the common good, without which the rights and the most noble aspirations of people, of families and of intermediary groups, in general, would not be able to be fully fulfilled, because the ordered and civil space in which to live and operate would be lacking. It is about conceiving the common good as an atmosphere for the growth of the person, of the family, of the intermediary groups — the common good. Vatican Council II defined the common good according to the patrimony of the Social Doctrine of the Church, as “the whole of those conditions of social life with which men, families, and associations can attain their perfection with great fullness and facility” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 74). Clearly, one must not oppose service and power — no one wants an impotent power! However, power must be ordered to service so that it does not degenerate. That is, any power that is not ordered to service degenerates. I’m referring, of course, to “good politics,” in its noblest sense, and not to the degeneration of what we call “politicking.” “The best way to attain a genuinely human politics – once again the Council teaches — is to foment an interior sense of justice, of benevolence, and of service to the common good and to strengthen fundamental convictions regarding the true nature of the political community and, finally, the correct exercise and limits of public powers” (Ibid., n. 73). You must all have the certainty that the Catholic Church “praises and esteems the work of those who, at the service of man, dedicate themselves to the res publica and accept the burdens of this office” (Ibid., n. 75).
At the same time, I’m also certain that we all feel the need to rehabilitate the dignity of politics. Referring to Latin America, how can one not observe the popular discredit that all political entities are suffering; the crisis of the political parties; the absence of lofty political debates geared to national and Latin American projects and strategies, which go beyond sabotaged policies! Moreover, frequently open and respectful dialogue, which seeks possible convergence, is often substituted by those stormy mutual accusations and demagogic relapses.  Lacking also is formation and replacement by new political generations. That’s why people look from afar and criticize politicians and see them as a corporation of professionals that have their own interests, or denounce them angrily, sometimes without the necessary distinctions, as tainted with corruption. This has nothing to do with the necessary and positive participation of the peoples, passionate about their life and destiny, which the political scene of nations should encourage. What is clear is that they need political leaders that live passionately their service to peoples, that vibrate with the profound fibers of their ethos and culture, solidary with their sufferings and hopes; politicians that put the common good before their private interests, that don’t let themselves be intimidated by the great financial and media powers, that are competent and patient in face of complex problems, that are open to listening and to learning in a democratic dialogue, that combine the quest for justice with mercy and reconciliation. Let us not be content with the meagreness of politics: we need political leaders capable of mobilizing vast popular sectors in pursuit of great national and Latin American objectives. I know personally Latin American political leaders with a different political orientation, who come close to this ideal figure.
How much we need today “good and noble politics” and its protagonists in Latin America! Do we not have to address problems and challenges of great magnitude? First of all, we need protection of the gift of life in all its stages and manifestations. Latin America also needs industrial, technological, self-sustaining and sustainable growth together with policies that address the drama of poverty and that are geared to equity and inclusion, because there is no true development, which leaves multitudes helpless and continues to fuel scandalous social inequality. An integral education cannot be neglected, which begins in the family and is developed in schooling for all and of quality. The family and social fabric must be strengthened. A culture of encounter – and not of permanent antagonisms – must strengthen the fundamental bonds of humanity and sociability and lay strong foundations for social friendship, which leaves behind the pincers of individualism and massification, polarization and manipulation. We must point ourselves to mature, participatory democracies without blemishes of corruption, or of ideological colonizations, or autocratic pretensions and cheap demagogies. Let us look after our common home and its most vulnerable inhabitants, avoiding all sorts of suicidal indifference and unbridled exploitations. Let us raise very high again and very concretely the need for the economic, social, cultural and political integration of our brother nations, to build our Continent, which will be even greater when it incorporates “all races,” completing their miscegenation, and be a paradigm of respect for human rights, of peace and of justice. We cannot resign ourselves to the deteriorated situation in which we frequently find ourselves today.
I would like to take one more step in this reflection. In his address in Aparecida for the opening of the 5th General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out “the notable absence in the political realm […] of voices and initiatives of Catholic leaders of strong personality and abnegated vocation, which are coherent with their ethical and religious convictions.” And the Bishops of the whole Continent wished to incorporate this observation in the conclusions of Aparecida., speaking of “disciples and missionaries in public life” (n. 502). In truth, in a Continent with a great number of baptized in the Catholic Church, of Catholic cultural substratum, in which the Catholic tradition is still very actual in the peoples and in which great manifestations of popular piety abound, how is it possible that Catholics appear somewhat irrelevant in the political scene, even assimilated to a worldly logic? It’s true that there are testimonies of exemplary Catholics in the public scene, but one notes the absence of strong currents that open the way to the Gospel in the public life of the nations. And this doesn’t mean at all to engage in proselytism through politics. There are many who profess to be Catholics — and we are not allowed to judge their consciences but yes their acts –, which often manifest little coherence with the ethical and religious convictions proper of Catholic teaching. We don’t know what’s going on in their conscience, we cannot judge it, but we see their acts.  There are others who are so absorbed in living their political commitments that their faith is relegated to a second plane, impoverishing themselves, without the capacity to be a guiding principle and to leave their footprint in all the dimensions of a person’s life, including his political practice. And there is no lack of those who feel they are not recognized, encouraged, accompanied and sustained in the custody and growth of their faith, on the part of Pastors and Christian communities. In the end, the Christian contribution to the political event appears only through the statements of the Episcopates, without perceiving the peculiar mission of the Catholic laity to order, manage and transform the society, according to the evangelical criteria and the patrimony of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Hence, I wanted to choose, as the theme of the previous Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the theme: “The Indispensable Commitment of the Catholic Laity in the Public Scene of the Latin American Countries” (March 1-4, 2017).  And on March 13, I sent a letter to the President of that Commission, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, in which I warned once again about the risk of clericalism and posed the question: “What does it mean for us Pastors that the laity work in public life?” ‘It means to look for the way to be able to encourage, accompany and stimulate the attempts, efforts that are already made today to maintain hope and faith alive in a world of contradictions, especially for the poorest. It means for us, Pastors, to commit ourselves in the midst of our people and, with our people, to sustain the faith and their hope, opening doors, working with them, dreaming with them, reflecting and especially praying with them. We need to recognize the city — and therefore all areas where the life of our people unfolds — from a contemplative look, a look of faith that discovers the God that dwells in their homes, in their streets, in their Squares.”
And, on the contrary, “we have often fallen into the temptation of thinking that the so-called “committed layman” is one who works in the endeavours of the Church and/or in the things of the parish or of the diocese and we have reflected little on the way to accompany a baptized person in his public and daily life, and how he commits himself as a Christian in public life. Without realizing it, we have generated a lay elite, believing that, only those that work in the things “of priests” are “committed laymen, and we have forgotten, neglected the believer that often burns his hope in the daily struggle to live his faith. These are the situations that clericalism can’t see, as it is very concerned with controlling areas more than with generating processes. Therefore, we must recognize that the layman, because of his own reality; because of his own identity; because he is immersed in the heart of social, public and political life; because he is in the midst of new cultural ways that are continually gestated needs new forms of organization and celebration of the faith.”
It’s necessary that Catholic laymen be not indifferent to the res publica, or withdraw inside the churches, or expect ecclesiastical directives and orders to fight for justice, for more human ways of life for all. “It’s never the Pastor who tells the layman what he must do or say; laymen know it better than we do . . . It’s not the Pastor who must determine what the faithful must say in the different ambits. As Pastors, united to our people, it does us good to ask ourselves how we are stimulating and promoting charity and fraternity, the desire for the good, and for truth an justice. What are we doing so that corruption won’t nest in our hearts,” including in our hearts as Pastors.  And, at the same time, it does us good to listen very carefully to the experience, reflections, and anxieties that laymen can share with us, who live their faith in the different realms of social and political life.
Your sincere dialogue in this Meeting is very important. Speak freely. It must be a dialogue that is between Catholics, Prelates and politicians, in which communion between persons of the same faith is more determinant than the legitimate oppositions of political options. For some reason and for something we take part in the Eucharist, source, and summit of all communion. From your dialogue illuminating factors can be drawn, orienting factors for the Church’s mission at present. Thank you again and good work!
© Libreria Editrice Vatican
[Original text: Spanish]  [ZENIT’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]

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Jim Fair

Jim Fair is a husband, father, grandfather, writer, and communications consultant. He also likes playing the piano and fishing. He writes from the Chicago area.

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