The often-debated issue of to what extent politics should be guided by religious faith was the topic addressed late last month by Ireland’s bishop of Elphin, Dr Kevin Doran.
At a meeting sponsored by the Iona Institute he spoke about the topic, ‘’How should a Catholic think about politics?’
At the outset he stressed that he was not giving advice on what a Catholic should think about politics, as he did not consider it his role to tell people what to think. Instead, his talk was focused on the link between ethics and politics.
“There is an essential relationship between ethics and politics, but this is not always recognised these days because of the widely divergent views that people hold about what ethics actually is,” Bishop Doran explained.
“It all begins with the experience of morality,” he added. Most people, he noted, experience the desire to be good and to do good. Ethics, he continued, shows us how to move from the desire to be good and do good to carrying out the actions to implement that desire.
“The fundamental ethical question of course, is the question asked by the Rich Young Man in the Gospel (Mt. 19:16-30). What must I do?,” he said.
Truth and conscience
A key element in doing this is the truth. “The good cannot be achieved where the truth is ignored,” he insisted. Moreover, truth is not something we create for ourselves; it is something we are called upon to discover through our use of reason.
At this point the matter of conscience comes into play, that is, our judgments should be guided by a properly formed conscience which is based both on reason and science, along with the Word of God and the teaching of the Church.
Ethics and conscience are relevant to politics because “politics is the science of morality for the city or the state, and its purpose is to move us from the desire for a good society, to the kind of actions and decisions that will lead to the common good, which is the good of all and of each individual.”
In modern times, however, Bishop Doran commented that the interaction of ethics and politics has become confused due to an emphasis on individual freedom at the expense of truth.
There is also a tendency, he noted, “to confuse what is possible and convenient with what is good and true.”
Instead, he explained: “The question that every citizen must ask himself or herself is this: ‘to what extent is our social order based on the truth about the human person.’”
In the second part of his talk Bishop Doran listed the areas Catholic voters must be most concerned about. Starting from the need to promote the principles of the common good and human rights he went on to deal with some specific issues: respect for human life; the family and education; healthcare; housing; refugees; religious freedom; climate change.
In his talk Bishop Doran put in first place the importance of protecting life. “Within the Christian tradition, as in Judaism and in Islam, human life is regarded as a gift from God and not simply the product of a biological process.”
He said it was the task of Catholics “to convince our politicians of the importance of supporting and promoting a culture of life that recognises the unique value of every human person, and we need to actively support those who do.”
A very current topic that Bishop Doran mentioned was the matter of refugees. Due care is needed to ensure that those who are accepted in other countries are genuine refugees, but that has to be balanced with the very urgent needs of so many families who have lost everything.
Religious freedom was another point examined by Bishop Doran and he argued that this is not only the freedom of the majority but also freedom for the minority. Currently there is persecution against Christians in no less than 110 countries and he highlighted the suffering of Christians in the Middle East.
The need to protect religious freedom also extends to peaceful Western countries such as Ireland, the bishop added. The funding of religious-based organizations active in such areas as marriage, education, and health is under threat because of political opposition to Christian principles .
“In the name of inclusivity, Christian organisations are at risk of being excluded,” he stated. “What is needed is a pluralistic, inclusive approach to social service provision that recognizes the unique role and contribution of faith-based organisations alongside other providers,” he said.
Bishop Doran concluded by saying that those who hold public office and do so with integrity provide a very significant service to the common good. “Helping our politicians to make the right decisions requires that we ourselves exercise our own political responsibility,” he observed. A welcome call to constructive engagement in politics by Christians.