Prelates, Politicians and the Public Square

Bishops Speaking Out in Many Countries

MADRID, Spain, JULY 24, 2004 ( The debate in the United States about pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving Communion has grabbed headlines around the world. Less-publicized are the pronouncements made in past months by Catholic bishops in other countries who have drawn attention to the importance of moral principles in politics.

On Tuesday the Executive Committee of the Spanish bishops’ conference released a note dated July 15 concerning the government’s proposal to legalize marriages between homosexuals.

After explaining some reasons why homosexual unions should not be given this recognition, the note invited Catholics to work within the democratic system to ensure that Spain’s laws defend true marriage, that is, between a man and a woman. The bishops also reminded Catholics of the 2003 note by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which says that Catholic parliamentarians have the moral duty to publicly oppose any attempts to legalize homosexual unions.

In fact, in the wake of the Socialist Party’s victory in the national elections last March, the stage is set for a rise in Church-state tensions. In addition to plans to legalize marriage between homosexuals, the new government hopes to change the law governing artificial fecundation and the teaching of religion in public schools.

In an address at the Spanish episcopate’s meeting May 3-7, Cardinal Antonio Rouco of Madrid declared his respect for a state that is neutral in religious matters and for the legitimate autonomy of civil authorities. At the same time the president of the bishops’ conference explained that the Church does not plan to remain silent. He said it will offer what it sees as a contribution to the common good by emitting moral judgments on matters relating to politics.

Substance over form

In Italy, two key prelates recently called for a greater Christian presence in politics. Interviewed by the Repubblica newspaper on July 13, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa declared that politicians cannot relegate their faith to the private sphere.

Cardinal Bertone said that, in an ever-more secularized society, the word of God must be announced in its fullness and in its radical demands. Christian truth, he contended, must not be “amputated” so as to meet halfway the weaknesses of humanity.

Then, last Wednesday, the Repubblica interviewed Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan. Asked if he would be favorable to starting up another Christian political party to replace the disbanded Christian Democrats, the archbishop said he was unconcerned whether a specifically Christian party existed or not. A far more serious problem, he explained, is the absence of Christian values among Catholics active in political life. We need to more attentive to the substance than to the form in which Christian values are made present in politics, he observed.

At the continental level, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community published a statement on May 10 regarding the elections for the European Parliament, which were held in June.

In their document the bishops laid out a number of areas that Catholics should look at when deciding who to vote for. Among these was the matter of respecting life. Even though the European Parliament does not legislate on issues such as abortion or euthanasia, the statement asked voters consider what types of scientific research the parliament would fund.

The bishops noted that European Union legislation has an indirect but significant impact on family life, and they drew attention to the need to support the family founded on marriage as the basic unit of society. Other points dealt with included education and youth, safeguarding the environment, welcoming immigrants, achieving justice for the poor and ensuring greater honesty in public life.

Vote with responsibility

In Mexico, in a statement issued March 25, the country’s bishops called upon citizens to vote responsibly in the local and state elections, which were held in early July. They called upon voters to undertake a “serious moral evaluation” of the candidates and party platforms.

The faithful, explained the document, are free to determine who they vote for. Yet, the parties and candidates they choose should be in accord with the principles of natural law, and committed to serving the common good. For this reason, the Church has a mission to help form the conscience of Christian voters, ensuring it is guided by the ethical principles of social doctrine.

The bishops also addressed the responsibilities of Catholic politicians. They have a “moral duty” to be faithful to evangelical principles and to maintain their commitment to the Catholic faith. Therefore, they should not support laws contrary to ethical and moral principles, for example, in the area of the right to life, the family and marriage.

To the north, Canada’s bishops also issued a document, prior to the national elections held in June. The April document issued by Social Affairs Commission called upon voters to make a discernment based on four major themes: respect for the life and dignity of the human person; support for marriage and the family; the preferential option for the poor; and the common good. The bishops outlined a number of questions on each of these themes, and called upon Catholics to make “clear judgments” and to reflect deeply before voting.

During the election campaign Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary spoke out against the positions of Prime Minister Paul Martin. In a letter placed in parish bulletins Bishop Henry observed that the media normally describe Martin as a “devout Catholic.” But, the letter contended, the prime minister’s support for abortion and same-sex marriage “is a source of scandal in the Catholic community and reflects a fundamental moral incoherence.”

Africa has also seen interventions by bishops in the political arena. Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo accused Africa’s leaders of ignoring the crisis in Zimbabwe, BBC reported July 7. The archbishop accused Prime Minister Robert Mugabe of planning to use food aid as a political tool to win elections next year. He returned to the debate with a statement accusing the government of planning to win the elections by means of fraud and intimidation, BBC reported Wednesday.

The South African Council of Churches also spoke out, condemning human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, the Associated Press reported July 15. The declaration observed that South Africa’s policy of quiet diplomacy had failed and it called for more energetic actions to pressure Zimbabwe.

Durban’s archbishop, Cardinal Wilfred Napier, even opened up the possibility of applying sanctions to Zimbabwe. “The people of Zimbabwe already are suffering,” he said. “Perhaps under sanctions they would suffer for a shorter period of time.”

In Kenya, the Catholic bishops have issued a pastoral letter calling for a renewed effort to evangelize the country, the Catholic Information Service for Africa reported Tuesday. The letter accused political leaders of “greed and egotism.” And it criticized the “continuous bickering by ‘would-be’ or ‘has been’ leaders” that damages people’s trust and confidence. With these and similar comments by bishops on other continents, Catholic politicians have little excuse to say they are not aware of Church teaching.

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