Monday, November 03, 2008

Elections and Living the Faith

Doctrinal Note
On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
November 24, 2002

I. A constant teaching

1. * * * Christians, as one Early Church writer stated, “play their full role as citizens.”[1] Among the saints, the Church venerates many men and women who served God through their generous commitment to politics and government. 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.”[2] 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.”[3] * * *

By fulfilling their civic duties, “guided by a Christian conscience,”[7] in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values, all the while respecting the nature and rightful autonomy of that order,[8] and cooperating with other citizens according to their particular competence and responsibility.[9] * * *

II. Central points in the current cultural and political debate

2. * * * 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.[12] 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,[13] as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value. * * * The history of the twentieth century demonstrates that those citizens were right who recognized the falsehood of relativism, and with it, the notion that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person, which must govern our understanding of man, the common good and the state.

3. Such relativism, of course, has nothing to do with the legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select, according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good. 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.

From the specificity of the task at hand and the variety of circumstances, a plurality of morally acceptable policies and solutions arises. 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.[14] If Christians must “recognize the legitimacy of differing points of view about the organization of worldly affairs,”[15] they are also called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism. Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.

4. * * * 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.

When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person.

III. Principles of Catholic doctrine on the autonomy of the temporal order and on pluralism.

6. * * * By its interventions in this area, the Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate the freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends – as is its proper function – to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good. The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. “There cannot be two parallel lives in their existence: on the one hand, the so-called ‘spiritual life’, with its values and demands; and on the other, the so-called ‘secular’ life, that is, life in a family, at work, in social responsibilities, in the responsibilities of public life and in culture.”[25] * * *

IV. Considerations regarding particular aspects

7. * * * Faith in Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), calls Christians to exert a greater effort in building a culture which, inspired by the Gospel, will reclaim the values and contents of the Catholic Tradition. The presentation of the fruits of the spiritual, intellectual and moral heritage of Catholicism in terms understandable to modern culture is a task of great urgency today, in order to avoid also a kind of Catholic cultural diaspora. * * *

Christian faith has never presumed to impose a rigid framework on social and political questions, conscious that the historical dimension requires men and women to live in imperfect situations, which are also susceptible to rapid change. For this reason, Christians must reject political positions and activities inspired by a utopian perspective which, turning the tradition of Biblical faith into a kind of prophetic vision without God, makes ill use of religion by directing consciences towards a hope which is merely earthly and which empties or reinterprets the Christian striving towards eternal life.

At the same time, the Church teaches that authentic freedom does not exist without the truth. “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.”[27] In a society in which truth is neither mentioned nor sought, every form of authentic exercise of freedom will be weakened, opening the way to libertine and individualistic distortions and undermining the protection of the good of the human person and of the entire society. * * *

The Sovereign Pontiff John Paul II, in the Audience of November 21, 2002, approved the present Note, adopted in the Plenary Session of this Congregation, and ordered its publication.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, November 24, 2002, the Solemnity of Christ the King.

+ Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect

+ Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B., Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli


[1] Letter to Diognetus, 5,5; Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2240.
[2] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, 1: AAS 93 (2001), 76.
[3] Ibid., 4.
[7] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 76.
[8] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 36.
[9] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Decree Apostolicam actuositatem, 7; Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 36; Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 31 and 43.
[12] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus annus, 46: AAS 83 (1991); Encyclical Letter Veritatis splendor, 101: AAS 85 (1993), 1212–1213; Discourse to the Italian Parliament, 5: L’Osservatore Romano (November 15, 2002).
[13] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, 22: AAS 87 (1995), 425–426.
[14] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 76.
[15] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 75.
[25] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici, 59.
[27] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, 90: AAS 91 (1999), 75.


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