Sunday, January 14, 2007

Catholics in Public

Civil Responsibility of Catholics
Pope Insists on Role of Faith

By Father John Flynn

ROME, JAN. 14, 2007 ( Christians
have a right to make their voices heard on
political and civil issues. This was one of
the points made by Benedict XVI in his address
to the Roman Curia on Dec. 22. After commenting
on why the Church is opposed to legalizing
marriage for same-sex couples, the Pope defended
the right of the faithful, and the Church itself,
to speak out on this issue.

"If we tell ourselves that the Church ought not
to interfere in such matters, we cannot but
answer: Are we not concerned with the human
being?" the Holy Father stated. It is our duty, he
explained, to defend the human person.

This is sorely needed in contemporary society, the
Pontiff explained earlier in his address. "The
modern spirit has lost its bearings," he
noted, and this means that many people are unsure
of what norms to transmit to their children. In
fact, in many cases we no longer know how to
use our freedom correctly, or what is morally right
or wrong.

"The great problem of the West is forgetfulness of
God," the Pope commented, and this forgetfulness is

Just three days later the Pope returned to this theme,
in his message before giving his blessing
"urbi et orbi" on Christmas Day. "Despite
humanity's many advances, man has always been the
same: a freedom poised between good and evil, between
life and death."

In the modern age our need for faith is greater than
ever, given the complexity of the issues being face.
The message the Church offers does not diminish our
humanity, however, the Pope was quick to point out.
"In truth, Christ comes to destroy only evil, only
sin; everything else, all the rest, he elevates and

Faith in the public arena

There is, nevertheless, opposition to religion playing
any role in public debates, Benedict XVI said. In his
Dec. 9 speech to the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists
the Pope examined the concept of "secularity."

The term, he explained, originally described the status
of the lay Christian who did not belong to the clergy.
In modern times, however, "it has come to mean the
exclusion of religion and its symbols from public
life by confining them to the private sphere and to the
individual conscience."

This understanding of secularity conceives the separation
of Church and state as meaning that the former is not
entitled in any way to intervene in matters concerning
the life and conduct of citizens, the Pope explained.
Moreover, it also demands that all religious symbols be
excluded from public places.

Faced with this challenge Benedict XVI told his listeners
that it is the task of Christians to formulate an
alternative concept of secularity "which, on the one hand,
acknowledges the place that is due to God and his moral
law, to Christ and to his Church in human life, both
individual and social; and on the other, affirms and
respects the 'rightful autonomy of earthly affairs,'" as
defined by the Second Vatican Council constitution
"Gaudium et Spes," (No. 36).

As the Vatican II document made clear, a
"healthy secularity" means autonomy from control by the
Church of the political and social spheres.
Thus, the Church is free to express its point of view
and the people must decide on the best way to organize
political life.

But it is not autonomy from the moral order. It would
be a mistake to accept that religion should be strictly
confined to the private sphere of life, the Pope argued.
The exclusion of religion from public life is not a
rightful secularity, "but its degeneration into secularism,"
he said.

In addition, when the Church comments on legislative
matters this should not be considered as undue meddling,
"but, rather, of the affirmation and defense of the
important values that give meaning to the person's
life and safeguard his or her dignity." It is the duty of
the Church, said the Pontiff, "to firmly proclaim the truth
about man and his destiny."

Concluding his speech the Pope recommended that faced with
people who want "to exclude God from every sphere of life
and present him as man's enemy," Christians should show
"that God is love and wants the good and happiness of all
human beings."

The moral law given to us by God does not seek to
oppress, he explained, "but rather to set us free from
evil and make us happy."

Serving mankind

The December speeches by the Pope on the role of faith in
public life reflected one of his constant concerns during
the past year. Another important commentary by Benedict
XVI on the issue came in his Oct. 19 address to
participants in the national ecclesial convention, held in

The Pope observed that the convention organized by the
Church in Italy had considered the question of the civil
and political responsibility of Catholics. "Christ has
come to save the real, concrete man who lives in history
and in the community, and so Christianity and the Church
have had a public dimension and value from the beginning,"
he affirmed.

The Church, the Holy Father added, is not interested in
becoming a "political agent," and it is the role of the
lay faithful, as citizens, to work directly in the
political sphere. But, he added, the Church does
offer a contribution by means of its social doctrine. In
addition, strengthening moral and spiritual energies means
that there is a greater probability that justice is put
before the satisfaction of personal interests.

When the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, made his
first official visit to Benedict XVI on Nov. 20, the theme
of Church and state once more came to the fore. Both of
these institutions, while distinct, have in common the
function of serving the human person, the Pontiff

The good of citizens cannot be limited to a few material
indicators, such as wealth, education and health. The
religious dimension is also a vital part of well-being,
starting with religious freedom.

But religious freedom, the Pope argued, is not limited
to the right to celebrate services or not have personal
beliefs attacked. Religious freedom also includes the
right of families, religious groups and the Church to
exercise their responsibilities.

This freedom does not jeopardize the state or the
interests of other groups, because it is carried out in
spirit of service to society, Benedict XVI explained. So
when the Church and the faithful affront such issues as
safeguarding human life or defending the family and
marriage they do so not just because of specific
religious beliefs, but "in the context of, and abiding
by, the rules of democratic coexistence for the good
of the whole of society and on behalf of values that
every upright person can share."

These efforts by the Church and Christians are not always
accepted favorably, observed the Pope in his Sept. 8
address to the bishops of the Canadian province of
Ontario, on the occasion of their five-yearly visit
to Rome.

Moreover, he noted that some Christian civic leaders
"sacrifice the unity of faith and sanction the
disintegration of reason and the principles of natural
ethics, by yielding to ephemeral social trends and the
spurious demands of opinion polls."

But, the Pope reminded the bishops: "Democracy succeeds
only to the extent that it is based on truth and a
correct understanding of the human person." For this
reason Catholics involved in political life should be
a witness to "the splendor of truth" and not separate
morality from the public sphere.

Benedict XVI urged the bishops to demonstrate that "[o]ur
Christian faith, far from being an impediment to dialogue,
is a bridge, precisely because it brings together reason
and culture." An appeal valid for Christians in all
countries as a new year begins.


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