Yet while Christians settle in both Greek and non-Greek cities, as each one's lot is cast, and conform to the customs of the country in dress, diet, and mode of life in general, the whole tenor of their way of living stamps it as worthy of admiration. . . . They take part in everything as citizens. . . . To say it briefly: what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world.Epistle to Diognetus, Chapters 5 and 61
Beyond the fact that Diognetus is a high-ranking pagan, the author and the addressee of the Epistle to Diognetus are lost in the dust of history. Yet even today, the letter evokes a vivid picture of Christian life in the early Church, perhaps in the early 200s. Christians had spread "throughout the cities of the world" (chapter 6). Life for Christians continued to be dangerous, but they did not separate themselves from society. They took part in everything "as citizens."
Everyone Is Called
Today the Church's teaching on political responsibility is tied to the development since the 19th century of what John Paul II has called "the Church's 'social doctrine,' 'social teaching' or even 'social magisterium'."2
In this doctrine the political community exists for the common good, which embraces all that enables individuals, families, and organizations to achieve proper fulfillment. "The common good is always oriented towards the progress of persons."3 It follows that all citizens should participate in the political community, whether as persons who carry out the ordinary range of civic duties or as persons who enter public service in various ways.4 As the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs, the obligation to participate in promoting the common good "is inherent in the dignity of the human person."5
The Catechism echoes a theme from the Church's social teaching: participatory forms of government should be given a place of honor.6 Where such governments exist, citizens have greater opportunities and special obligations to participate. As the Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life observes: "Such [democratic] societies call for new and fuller forms of participation in public life. . . . The life of a democracy could not be productive without the active, responsible and generous involvement of everyone . . . ."7
Change, Promise, Problems
The integration of Catholics more deeply into U.S. society – especially during the last half-century – is the object of much study, with some concluding that Catholics have been too much assimilated and not enough an instrument of change.8
Since the 1960s, government – local, state, and federal – has grown enormously in size. Political debate has become more intense, political campaigns more sophisticated. Studying measurements of human conditions around the world, one author contends that the general welfare of society has been slowly improving. "Mankind's lot has actually improved in terms of practically every measurable indicator" – life expectancy and health, food and hunger, prosperity, environment.9 Yet serious problems are evident, often with deep roots in the past.
A cultural war is underway over admitting moral and religious values into public life. We have come a long way from George Washington's admonition: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."10 The war today is over whose values are admissible — and the closer moral values are tied to religion, the more suspect they are.
The Second Vatican Council set this problem in perspective: "One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives."11 Both Old and New Testaments issue severe warnings against such moral and spiritual incongruity. Clearly, the problem reaches beyond the individual to "professional and social activity,"12 so that today this separation has been institutionalized. It is part of the culture, part of the way we live.
In his 1998 encyclical On the Relationship between Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio), Pope John Paul II traced the growing separation between Christian revelation and reason in modern times, a process that reached its heights in the 19th century and finally resulted in nihilism.13 The enduring truths of morality and religion yield to the fleeting and provisional, process is more honored than substance, and decision-making is driven by a raw pragmatism undergirded by personal choice and social power.
The Doctrinal Note refers to an "ethical pluralism" that does not honor reason or the principles of the natural moral law:
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.
The corollary is that many citizens, including Catholics, are asked to leave their understanding of the human person and the common good in their home and church.
The Struggle to Participate
The politics of exclusion can be viewed from yet another perspective.
Democracy is more than a process in which citizens participate. People participate because they care about the protection of human life, the promotion of justice, and the enhancement of the common good. When the government hinders the pursuit of these goals, people understandably become frustrated or discouraged. Yet being able to struggle for what is right is part of maintaining a healthy democracy.
In his Politics, Aristotle studied the constitutions of many governments of his day. He noted that important changes in the fundamental makeup of a government can occur gradually and even imperceptibly.15 Today one can ask whether if the extraordinary U.S. Constitution, with its deft checks and balances among the three branches of government, has not undergone a change unnoticed by most citizens. Some commentators argue that functions once the province of the legislature or the executive too often have been assumed by the judiciary. The abortion issue is a case in point. A process of serious political debate about abortion was underway in this country when, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court trumped all participants by creating out of whole cloth a fundamental "right" to abortion. To this day the issue remains intractable.
Hadley Arkes, professor of American Institutions at Amherst, argues that citizens have over time lost the sense of how to carry on healthy debate on moral issues like abortion. Politicians have become accustomed to passing the tough issues to the courts. And what Arkes calls the "politics of muteness" emerged:
Politicians stopped speaking about abortion because it was a matter that riled people. . . It became easier to deflect the matter by saying that it was an issue for the courts. . . . In time, then, even ordinary people have come to see abortion as a matter so inscrutable, or so productive of incivility and discord, that only lawyers and judges can deal with its layers of complication.It is necessary, Arkes concludes, to restore speech to the mute: to resume a conversation among the branches of the government, and restore to politicians and ordinary citizens their confidence in being able to carry on a serious conversation on moral questions.
The conversation needs to resume – with hope.
In Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem, "The Deacon's Masterpiece," the "wonderful one-hoss shay" lasted one hundred years and a day and then "went to pieces all at once."17 A moral that we can draw from this is that things that seem unchangeable, change. The U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision looks like a formidable structure, but it too can fall "all at once." Whether gradually or in a day, it will fall.
To bring about change, ordinary citizens and politicians concerned for the dignity of the human person and the welfare of society must act. As John Paul II said in his January 2003 address to the diplomatic corps:
Yet everything can change. It depends on each of us. Everyone can develop within himself his potential for faith, for honesty, for respect for others and for commitment to the service of others.18Action requires virtue. Like all virtues, the virtue of "political responsibility" must avoid excess and deficiency and find the mean.19
On the one hand, politics should not be treated as "dirty" or dishonorable. Vatican II tells us that the art of politics is "difficult yet noble," and it praises those who "take upon themselves the burdens of public office."20
On the other hand, allegiance to one's political party should be tempered. Phrases expressing partisanship are cast about. "Republican through and through." "Democrat first, Catholic second." After living through bitter party divisions in the early years of the new republic, George Washington, in what came to be called his "Farewell Address" (1796), warned his fellow citizens against "the baneful effects of spirit of party." While he knew this inclination would remain with us, he urged "a wise people to discourage and restrain it."21
Aristotle says that politics is a very practical business that requires experience and prudence. Politicians may not be highly versed in political theory. "For we do not find them writing or lecturing about political subjects," he wrote observing the state of affairs in his day.22 But politicians must be experienced, and they must exercise the virtue of prudence as they determine specific means to particular ends.
For St. Thomas Aquinas, prudence rightly counsels, judges, and commands regarding the means to an end. When prudence is directed at the means to achieve the common good of the state, it is called the virtue of political prudence.23 Political prudence is not concerned with calculation of personal benefit, but with determining proper means to achieve the common good. Mere politicians must rise to the level of statesmen.
On October 31, 2000, John Paul II declared St. Thomas More the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. More was competent and experienced, possessed great personal integrity, and provided prudent advice to his King for the advancement of the common good. He had a passion for the truth. "What enlightened his conscience was the sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality."24
In their recent statement, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, the U.S. bishops point to special virtues that we need if we are to further the Gospel of Life in the public arena:
- Courage and honesty to speak the truth about human life,
- Humility to listen to both friend and opponent,
- Perseverance to continue the struggle for the protection of human life,
- Prudence to know when and how to act in the public arena.
The virtues that we practice sustain us in living the Gospel of Life and in becoming living witnesses to the society we seek to change. Despair and its false solutions are supplanted by a rugged hope in what can be. As John Paul II challenges us:
To all the members of the Church, the people of life and for life, I make this most urgent appeal, that together we may offer this world of ours new signs of hope, and work to ensure that justice and solidarity will increase and that a new culture of human life will be affirmed, for the building of an authentic civilization of truth and love.Michael Taylor is the executive director of the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment in Washington, D.C.
In addition to various references in the notes, special attention should be drawn to four documents:
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (November 24, 2002). This document can be found online at: www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/ documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20021124_politica_en.html.
Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millenium (Washington, DC: USCC,1999). For a copy of this document and related program materials, see: www.usccb.org/faithfulcitizenship/index.htm.
U.S. Catholic Bishops, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1998). This document can be found online at: www.usccb.org/prolife/gospel.shtml. It applies to the U.S. situation the profound teaching of John Paul II's earlier encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) (1995). This document can be found online at: www.usccb.org/prolife/tdocs/evangel/evangeli.shtml.
Church documents are published by the following:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, 3211 Fourth Street, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017-1194. Tel: 800-235-8722 or 202-722-8716. A catalogue and order forms are available at: http://www.usccbpublishing.org
Pauline Books and Media, 50 Saint Paul Ave., Boston, MA 02130-3491. Orders can be placed online at: www.pauline.org/store/subtopics/bks_subjects.html. Or visit one of their 18 bookstores in the U.S. and Canada.
Resources for Ation
Issues – Not Candidates
Catholic and other organizations exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are prohibited from participating or intervening in political campaigns on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for office, though this prohibition, of course, does not apply to persons in their individual capacities. Churches may participate in letter-writing campaigns and other efforts to educate legislators about issues of concern and to seek support for legislation. See, "Political Activity Guidelines for Catholic Organizations" (February 29, 2000), Office of General Counsel, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, available at: www.usccb.org/ogc/guidelines.shtml
Things to Do!
Join your parish Pro-Life Committee and sign up for your diocesan phone tree to learn about action needed on issues pending in your city council, state legislature, or in Congress. Stay informed and share this information with friends and neighbors; write letters to elected officials or send them e-mail; call their offices when important votes are pending; meet elected officials face-to-face in their offices, at town meetings, or at other public appearances; write letters-to-the-editor or participate in call-in talk shows. Always be polite. But please speak up!
General information on appropriate specific legislative programs can be obtained from your Diocesan Pro-Life Office.
nchla.org/download.htm – The National Committee for a Human Life Amendment publishes program information on pro-life issues in Congress: legislative reports, fact sheets, legislative briefing pages, and the like.
www.usccb.org/prolife – The Bishops' Secretariat for Pro Life Activities is the prime source for the bishops' policy and teaching statements on pro-life issues, including public policy information.
www.usccb.org/depts.shtml – The departments of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops produce program information on a broad range of public policy issues of concern to the bishops.
clerk.house.gov/members/index.php – For contact information for Members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm – For contact information for Members of the U.S. Senate.
thomas.loc.gov – Maintained by the Library of Congress, the Thomas website offers a searchable database of congressional activity from 1969 to the present.
www.nasccd.org – The National Association of State Catholic Conference Directors' website offers links to state Catholic conferences or their equivalents in 41 states. Many state conferences maintain full web pages with up-to-date information on state legislation.
www.ncsl.org – The National Conference of State Legislators provides a listing of Internet sites for all state legislatures, many of which offer searchable databases of past and current legislation.
- Quotations from this Epistle are based on Johannes Quasten, Patrology, Vol. I: The Beginnings of Patristic Literature (Westminister, MD: The Newman Press, 1950), 250-1.
- Encyclical Letter, On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum (Centesimus Annus) (1991), no. 2. This document can be found online at: www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul _ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus_en.html. For a list of documents from the papal magisterium going back to Leo XIII, see Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (November 24, 2002), n. 11 (hereafter cited as "Doctrinal Note"). Of course, Vatican II is a watershed, especially The Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) (1964), The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) (1965) (hereafter cited as "GS"), and The Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People (Apostolicam Actuositatem) (1965). See Austin Flannery, O.P., General Editor, Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1975).
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, With Modifications from the Editio Typica (New York: Image Doubleday, 1994, 1997), no. 1912 (hereafter cited as "CCC").
- GS, nos. 74, 75; also, no. 31. Also see, CCC, nos. 1905-12.
- CCC, no. 1913.
- CCC, no. 1915.
- Doctrinal Note, no. 1. The Doctrine Note was published, with the approval of Pope John Paul II, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on November 24, 2002.
- "American Catholics have long sought to assimilate into U.S. cultural life. But in assimilating, we have too often been digested." Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1998), no. 25.
- Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 4.
- Cited from Yale Law School Avalon Project: www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm.
- GS, par. 43.
- On the Relationship Between Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio) (1998), pars. 45-48. This document can be found online at: www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/ documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_15101998_fides-et-ratio_en.html.
- Doctrinal Note, no. 2.
- "Then there is extreme gradualness: it very often happens that a considerable change in a country's customs takes place imperceptibly, each little change slipping by unnoticed." Aristotle: The Politics, Trans. T.A. Sinclair, Rev. Trevor J. Saunders (New York: Penguin Books, 1962, 1981), 304.
- Hadley Arkes, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 228.
- "The Deacon's Masterpiece" can be found various places online, e.g.: www.web-books.com/Classics/Poetry/Anthology/Holmes/Deacon.htm
- Address of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to the Diplomatic Corps (January13, 2003), no. 3. This address can be found online at: www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2003/january/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20030113_diplomatic-corps_en.html.
- According to Aristotle, virtue "is a mean between two kinds of vice, one of excess and the other of deficiency ." For example: "In the field of Public Honour and Dishonour the mean is Magnanimity, the excess is called a sort of vanity, and the deficiency Pusillanimity." The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nichomachean Ethics, Trans. J.A. K. Thomson, Rev. Hugh Tredennick, Introduction Jonathan Barnes (New York: Penguin Books, 1955, 1976), 102, 105.
- GS, no. 75.
- See n. 10 above. A very readable background can be found in "The Farewell," Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 120-61.
- The Ethics of Aristotle, 340.
- Summa Theologiae, II-II. 47.10, 11.
- Apostolic Letter, "Proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians," John Paul II (October 31, 2000), no. 4. Available at: www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/motu_proprio/documents/hf_jp-ii_motu-proprio_20001031_thomas-more_en.html
- Living the Gospel of Life, no. 27.
- The Gospel of Life, no. 6.