The Vatican On Democratic Societies: 10 Statements

Listers, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger (2002) – now Pope Benedict XVI – released a doctrinal note responding to “some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life.” If you are not familiar, it is common for bishops to write to the CDF for clarification on certain issues. In return, the CDF answers by explaining the doctrinal position of the Church. The following is considered a note, because it seeks to articulate selected issues, not the whole of Catholic political thought.

An SPL Introduction: The CDF document and the following high points are without hesitation some of the best resources for discussing Catholic political thought. While it is true that this “note” is not a holistic explanation, it is a good start and reference point – particularly regarding Democracies. Moreover, it displays what is so often lacking in USCCB political documents: an acknowledgment of nature and natural law as the foundation of human society. It is the standard of nature that clarifies and grants unity to Catholic political thought and action. ((USCCB & the CDF on Politics: One is quick to notice a major difference in the two approaches. The USCCB is a hodgepodge of neo-conservative statements, and those statements are rooted in talk of “religious liberty” and “moral convictions.” The CDF on the other hand correctly placed Natural Law as the foundation of all Catholic political discussions. The USCCB’s document on Faithful Citizenship is completely void of any statements on nature or natural law. It is a regrettable exclusion.

Moreover, the absence of Natural Law in USCCB statements leaves the reader confused on on moral issues. For example, if we defend our views of marriage, abortion, and contraceptives by touting religious liberty and moral convictions, it becomes quite difficult to explain how we can then deny the moral convictions of homosexuals, for example. However, if Nature is the standard – which imports Natural Law, humans as political animals, and society as a natural institution – then our Catholic beliefs as far as politics are concerned are holistically ordered according to nature – not a random religious reference point. The views we attempt to bolster in the State are not an attempt to indoctrinate civil authority, but to defend what is natural.))

1. The Well-Formed Conscience: St. Thomas More
Among these, Saint Thomas More, who was proclaimed Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, gave witness by his martyrdom to «the inalienable dignity of the human conscience».Though subjected to various forms of psychological pressure, Saint Thomas More refused to compromise, never forsaking the «constant fidelity to legitimate authority and institutions» which distinguished him; he taught by his life and his death that «man cannot be separated from God, nor politics from morality».

2. Conscience vs Well-Formed Conscience
Listers, the conscience of a person is formed by habit and principles. However, the conscience of each individual can differ greatly from one person to the next. The conscience of an Amish youth would be drastically different from the conscience of a Islamic jihadist. One would feel the pangs of guilt at seeing a movie, and the other could murder infidels not only without guilt, but with pride – in fact his malformed conscience could draw him to murder.

The well-formed conscience the Church supports is a conscience shaped by good habits (the virtues) and Catholic principles. We do acknowledge that all men have a conscience and the ability to ascertain the most basic of moral principles by nature. Still, certain cultures habituate the consciences of their youth to different ends, e.g., the Amish and the jihadist.

The well-formed conscience cultivates those natural moral principles universally observed in the human heart, habituates the individual to them through the natural virtues, and has a special certitude in the principles due to Divine Revelation. Moreover, the natural principles are also perfected in those divine teachings that were revealed to man, and are habituated by the God-given theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity.

3. A Catholic Critique of Modern Democracy: Cultural Relativism
The following is a exemplary snapshot of the ills of modern democracy by the CDF.

A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defence of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law. Furthermore, it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for democracy. As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends, as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.

4. Relativism & Democracy Are Competitive
Political freedom is not – and cannot be – based upon the relativistic idea that all conceptions of the human person’s good have the same value and truth, but rather, on the fact that politics are concerned with very concrete realizations of the true human and social good in given historical, geographic, economic, technological and cultural contexts.

5. The Task of the Church Within the State
It is not the Church’s task to set forth specific political solutions – and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one – to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person. It is, however, the Church’s right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters when this is required by faith or the moral law.

6. Legitimate & Illegitimate Political Pluralism
On the level of concrete political action, there can generally be a plurality of political parties in which Catholics may exercise – especially through legislative assemblies – their right and duty to contribute to the public life of their country.

It should not be confused, however, with an ambiguous pluralism in the choice of moral principles or essential values. The legitimate plurality of temporal options is at the origin of the commitment of Catholics to politics and relates directly to Christian moral and social teaching. It is in the light of this teaching that lay Catholics must assess their participation in political life so as to be sure that it is marked by a coherent responsibility for temporal reality.

7. The Human Person as the Foundation of Democracy
The Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person.

8. Unified Doctrine Must Translate to a Unified Political Principle
In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be proclaimed and put into action.

9. True Peace: A Work of Justice & Charity
Certain pacifistic and ideological visions tend at times to secularize the value of peace, while, in other cases, there is the problem of summary ethical judgments which forget the complexity of the issues involved. Peace is always «the work of justice and the effect of charity».

10. Legitimate Methodologies: Various Expressions vs Relativism
While a plurality of methodologies reflective of different sensibilities and cultures can be legitimate in approaching such questions, no Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements. This is not a question of «confessional values» per se, because such ethical precepts are rooted in human nature itself and belong to the natural moral law.

St. Thomas More, pray for us. To be continued.