A few months ago, I was asked by an RCIA candidate: “Is the Church always so political?” He was referring to the articles, handouts, and other activities we’ve done related to abortion and the 2010 Healthcare Reform Act. The ideal answer would be “No”, but then again, in an ideal world, Adam & Eve would have merely been tested by the forbidden fruit and not tasted it.
There are many areas of life where the Church is rightfully involved (i.e., matters of faith and morals). There are many other areas where governments and politics are a “necessary evil”. The confusion comes when the two appear to overlap. The question then becomes one of precedence: whose views have priority on this issue?
We can take a lot of guidance from the doctrine of Papal Infallibility. This article of our Catholic faith does NOT mean that the Pope is always right and never sins – it means that his teachings (not actions or opinions) are free from error under certain strict guidelines:
1. the Pope must be speaking publicly ex cathedra (“from the chair (of Peter)”), i.e., in his official capacity as Pope, not privately his personal opinion, nor as political head of Vatican City
2. he must be speaking about a matter of faith or morals – the charism of infallibility is meant for the maintenance, interpretation, and legitimate development of Christ’s teachings
From these guidelines (as well as from the USCCB document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship”), we can begin to see where the Church has a legitimate claim on how we should consider a political or cultural issue (as well as where it does not!).
For example, issues of life (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, the bioethics of stem cell research and the creation of synthetic life) have to do with morality (right and wrong) as well as faith (our belief that God is the author of all life, and human life in particular is created in God’s image and likeness). Therefore, we must pay very close attention to what the Church has to say: the Church has priority on these issues. The Church was teaching on life issues long before governments got involved.
However, throughout history, there have been (and still are) areas of politics where the Church and various church officials have intruded where they have no practical knowledge or wisdom. These issues are anything from tax policy to national defense. In these matters, if it is not a clear-cut issue of faith or morals, the bishops, priests, and deacons may share their opinion (as any other citizen), but they do not do so with the weight of authority. When it is not a matter of faith and morals, Catholics are free to disagree with one another (and even with the clergy) about methods for achieving certain goals. Even St. Peter had to be corrected by other members of the Church (Gal 2:11-16), because, even though he knew the proper teaching, his actions were not matching his words.
This is why the document about faithful citizenship was written: to address those areas where a Catholic is left to make up their own minds. The USCCB document essentially tells us that we must be informed and educate ourselves about the issues of the day, because we cannot (and should not) solely rely on church officials to tell us what to think about everything. The teachings may be divinely inspired and error-free, but actions (i.e., policy decisions) are always prone to human error because it is humans who are entrusted to carry them out (to be the hands and feet of Christ).
Case in point: the U.S. Catholic Bishops former support for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCR) now being withdrawn. The bishops acted wrongly in supporting the LCCR in the first place, even though their teachings on human rights and abortion are nonetheless correct.
We are all made in the image and likeness of God, complete with powers of reason, as well as a desire for the virtue of faith. We were never meant to check our brains at the holy water font – we are meant to use God’s gifts (including our intelligence), individually and in community, to build up His kingdom. Sometimes, that means getting involved in the politics of our temporary home while keeping our eyes set upon our eternal home. At other times, it means going against the actions of the clergy, when it becomes apparent to us that they are misguided in their actions.