6. Church and politics

Helder Camara, the Brazilian bishop who was a hero to some and a villain to others, once said: “When I speak of God, they tell me that I am a saint. When I speak of justice, they call me a communist”. Very often something similar happens, although the issues are mixed. If the Pope or bishop criticize a law passed by a parliament which allows an attack on human life (abortion, for example), then voices are saying that the church gets involved in politics. One side and the other, the left and the right, seem to agree on one thing: the Church should only speak of spiritual matters, issues related to the liturgy or dogma, but without applying the truths of faith to the concrete and real life, because that is politics. Is that possible?

Teaching of the Catechism:

“The initiative of lay Christians is particularly necessary when it comes to discovering or devise the means to ensure that the requirements of the doctrine and the Christian life permeate the social, political and economic realities. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church” (No. 899).

“The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable with that promotes the well legitimate community that adopts them. Regimes whose nature is contrary to the natural law, public order and the fundamental rights of persons cannot achieve the common good of the nations in which they have been imposed” (1901).

“The authority does not of itself its moral authority. Should not behave in a despotic, but to act for the common good as a moral force, which is based on freedom and on the conscience of the task and obligations it has received. ‘The human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, which means that its obligation comes from the eternal law. To the extent that it departed from the reason, it would be necessary to declare it unfair, because it would not verify the notion of law; it would be rather a form of violence’ (S. Thomas Aquinas, S. Th. 1-2, 93, 3 ad 2)” (1902).

“The authority only legitimately exercises if you are looking for the common good of the group in question and whether, in order to achieve it, he uses means morally. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a situation, the Authority itself collapses completely and a terrible iniquity” (1903).

“It is preferable that a power is balanced by other powers and other areas of competence that keep you in the right limit. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men” (1904).

“The right to religious freedom is not the moral permission to accede to the error, or an alleged right to the error, but a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, that is to say, to immunity from coercion, within just limits, in religious matters on the part of political power. This natural right should be recognized in the legal system of the society in a manner which would constitute a civil law” (2108).

“The political power is obliged to respect the fundamental rights of the human person. And to administer justice humanely by respecting the rights of everyone, especially of families and the disadvantaged. The political rights inherent to citizenship can and should be granted according to the requirements of the common good. They cannot be suspended by the authority without legitimate and proportionate. The exercise of political rights is for the common good of the nation and the whole of the human community” (2237).

“The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the prescriptions of the civil authorities when these precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. The rejection of the obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, has its justification in the distinction between the service of God and the service of the political community. ‘Dad to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’ (Mt 22, 21). ‘We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5, 29)” (2242).

“The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified with any political community, is at once the sign and safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. The Church respects and promotes the freedom and responsibility of the citizens” (2245).

“It belongs to the mission of the Church issue a moral judgment even about things that affect the political order when they are required by the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls, applying all and only those means that are in accordance with the Gospel and for the good of all according to the diversity of the times and conditions” (No 2246).


The last text quoted (No. 2246 of the Catechism) is key to understanding the consciousness of the Church to its right and its duty to comment on issues which, directly or indirectly, have a political dimension. The Church sees herself – because the established Christ as the Light of the world. That is why, when it detects darkness serious affecting men – and not only to the Catholic men-, it feels pushed by the Holy Spirit to speak publicly to denounce such situations and, if possible, to announce the way to remedy them. The examples are many: abortion, euthanasia, the manipulation of human embryos, the death penalty, divorce, the equalization of gay marriage with the families, the use of violence, the use of torture, political dictatorship, social injustice, terrorism and a long etc.

But why does the Church do this? Does It leave its mission to do so? Should It stop doing so?

The first thing to do is to keep our attention on its founder, Jesus Christ. He, who came to give a spiritual message, also got into politics. He did so when he put the law of the Sabbath rest at the service of man. He did so when he defended the rights of women. He did so when he agreed to enter into the house of the Roman centurion, which was the military representative of the oppressor of the Jews, or, as when he accepted as an apostle Saint Matthew, a collaborator of the Romans. He did so when He drove the merchants from the Temple. He did so when forced to Saint Peter to sheathe his sword and forbade him to use violence. In fact, no one would doubt that the reasons that led Christ to the cross were the attacks that had reiterated against Jewish politicians of his time,  the priests and the Pharisees, He called them over and over again ‘Race of vipers’ and ‘bleached’ sepulchers; Pilate, the Roman political representative of the Roman dominating authority, tried to save Him perhaps because it was that the Jewish people were divided, but in the end he ordered his death because the political price to pay was too expensive – the threat that would be denounced by Rome for not standing firm against an alleged Jewish pretender to the throne. In fact, the sign that was on the head of Christ on the Cross in key policy explaining the reason for his death: “Here is the king of the Jews.”

Christ, therefore, got into politics. However, He did it – as does the Church today – to defend the rights of God and human rights. He did so without the use of violence – even in the expulsion of the merchants from the Temple, the Lord does not hit men or animals but limited Himself to knocking down tables and scattering the money across the floor. He even went so far as to condemn the use of violence explicitly, in such a delicate moment as His arrest in the Garden of Olives.

The Catholic Church, for her part, has always been faithful to the teachings of their founder on this point. Because she got into politics It was persecuted by the Roman emperors – She did so when she refused to worship the Roman emperors, which was a way for them to strengthen political power. She got into politics when she dared to publicly criticize the Christian emperors – as did St. Ambrose with Theodosius, which forced her to do public penance for having ordered the death of innocent civilians in 7000 in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. She got into politics during the long and decisive “Investiture Controversy”, in which she defended her rights to appoint bishops, to oppose the various kings who wanted to appoint them. She got into politics when she dared to publicly criticize the Catholic kings that they respect the rights of Native Americans or when she defended the rights of black slaves (Saint Peter Claver). She got into politics when she opposed Hitler, the same as when she opposed Stalin. She got into politics when she opposed the invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that it would lead to greater evils.

It is true that not always the work of the hierarchy of the Church, especially in local areas – has been the ideal at this point. Sometimes it has made mistakes, as recognized by John Paul II, to ask for forgiveness at the dawn of the third millennium. But, on the whole, the Church has, since its inception, intervened to defend her freedom from the attempts by politicians

wanting to dominate and muzzle her. And to defend the rights of the weak, of the innocent, of those who often have not found another voice than that of the Church who will speak for them.

We must therefore conclude that the Church is being faithful to her mission when she proclaims the moral truth, although to do this there is a political dimension, a dislike of politicians or being charged that she is out of her scope of action. Morality is part of the teaching of the gospel as the dogma or liturgy. To say that the Church cannot comment on ethical issues because if you do you get into politics is to ignore what Jesus Christ did and taught and what the Church has done since its origins. In addition, those that accuse the Church of this are usually interested in silencing her because they are discovered in their corruption by the light that emanates from the Word of God that the Church proclaims. To add insult to cynicism, the accusers of the Church do not hesitate to use it when it suits them; an example is what happened in Spain in recent years: in the months prior to the general elections of 2004, John Paul II was openly opposed to the war in Iraq and the Spanish bishops stood in solidarity with the pope, although it was damaging the Popular Party – at that time in power and that gave a more moral support, rather than effective, to the contention-; the PP, however, did not criticize the bishops and the Pope for publicly deauthorizing its action, and that the criticism of the hierarchy affected many of their voters; moreover, the socialists and the communists went to Parliament with the arguments of the Pope and even quoted him verbatim, to erode the Government of PP; four years later, before the elections of 2008, the Spanish bishops published a note to guide the Catholic faithful in the face of the elections, in which they requested that they vote thinking of defending the family, life, the right of parents to educate their children morally and rejection of the political negotiation with terrorists. The reaction of the PSOE was virulent and very aggressive, with terrible insults; the same that the Pope and the bishops had used four years earlier and had not complained that the Church “meddle in politics”, sought to muzzle her and reduce her to silence when what the Church said wasn´t convenient for them.

The indictment, therefore, that the Church is involved in politics does not hold, at least on a regular basis. When she defends the values contained in the Gospel or human rights, the Church does nothing more than fulfill its mission. We have to ask ourselves whether there are governments that legislate against those human rights, violating the limits that should never be crossed, and entering into the intimacy of the consciences of the citizens. On the other hand, at least in a democratic society, all individuals and institutions are entitled to express their opinions freely. Are not, precisely, the most undemocratic, the most tyrannical and dictatorial, those who deny the Church the right to speak and who want to reduce it to silence?

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