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Excerpt on Political Responsibility from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church


Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

October 25, 2004


From the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Part Three, Chapter Twelve, II. Social Doctrine and the Commitment of the Lay Faithful

565. For the lay faithful, political involvement is a worthy and demanding expression of the Christian commitment of service to others.1183 The pursuit of the common good in a spirit of service, the development of justice with particular attention to situations of poverty and suffering, respect for the autonomy of earthly realities, the principle of subsidiarity, the promotion of dialogue and peace in the context of solidarity: these are the criteria that must inspire the Christian laity in their political activity. All believers, insofar as they possess rights and duties as citizens, are obligated to respect these guiding principles. Special attention must be paid to their observance by those who occupy institutional positions dealing with the complex problems of the public domain, whether in local administrations or national and international institutions.

566. The tasks accompanying responsibilities in social and political institutions demand a strict and articulated commitment that is able to demonstrate clearly the absolute necessity of the moral dimension in social and political life through thoughtful contributions to the political debate, planning and the chosen actions. Inadequate attention to the moral dimension leads to the dehumanization of life in society and of social and political institutions, thereby consolidating "structures of sin":1184 "Living and acting in conformity with one's own conscience on questions of politics is not slavish acceptance of positions alien to politics or some kind of confessionalism, but rather the way in which Christians offer their concrete contribution so that, through political life, society will become more just and more consistent with the dignity of the human person".1185

567. In the context of the laity's political commitment, particular attention must be given to preparing believers to exercise the power that will be theirs, especially when they are entrusted with such duties by their fellow citizens in accordance with democratic rules. They must show appreciation for the democratic system "inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them. and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate".1186 They must also reject all secret organizations that seek to influence or subvert the functioning of legitimate institutions. The exercise of authority must take on the character of service to be carried out always in the context of moral law for the attainment of the common good.1187 Those who exercise political authority must see to it that the energies of all citizens are directed towards the common good; and they are to do so not in an authoritarian style but by making use of moral power sustained in freedom.

568. The lay faithful are called to identify steps that can be taken in concrete political situations in order to put into practice the principles and values proper to life in society. This calls for a method of discernment,1188 at both the personal and community levels, structured around certain key elements: knowledge of the situations, analyzed with the help of the social sciences and other appropriate tools; systematic reflection on these realities in the light of the unchanging message of the Gospel and the Church's social teaching; identification of choices aimed at assuring that the situation will evolve positively. When reality is the subject of careful attention and proper interpretation, concrete and effective choices can be made. However, an absolute value must never be attributed to these choices because no problem can be solved once and for all. "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".1189

569. A characteristic context for the exercise of discernment can be found in the functioning of the democratic system, understood by many today in agnostic and relativistic terms that lead to the belief that truth is something determined by the majority and conditioned by political considerations.1190 In such circumstances, discernment is particularly demanding when it is exercised with regard to the objectivity and accuracy of information, scientific research and economic decisions that affect the life of the poorest people. It is likewise demanding when dealing with realities that involve fundamental and unavoidable moral duties, such as the sacredness of life, the indissolubility of marriage, the promotion of the family founded on marriage between a man and a woman.

In such situations certain fundamental criteria are useful: the distinction and, simultaneously, the connection between the legal order and the moral order; fidelity to one's own identity and, at the same time, the willingness to engage in dialogue with all people; the need, in the social judgment and activity of Christians, to refer to the observance of three inseparable values — natural values, with respect for the legitimate autonomy of temporal realities; moral values, promoting an awareness of the intrinsic ethical dimension of every social and political issue; supernatural values, in order to fulfill one's duty in the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

570. When — concerning areas or realities that involve fundamental ethical duties — legislative or political choices contrary to Christian principles and values are proposed or made, the Magisterium teaches that "a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political programme or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals".1191 In cases where it is not possible to avoid the implementation of such political programmes or to block or abrogate such laws, the Magisterium teaches that a parliamentary representative, whose personal absolute opposition to these programmes or laws is clear and known to all, may legitimately support proposals aimed at limiting the damage caused by such programmes or laws and at diminishing their negative effects on the level of culture and public morality. In this regard, a typical example of such a case would be a law permitting abortion.1192 The representative's vote, in any case, cannot be interpreted as support of an unjust law but only as a contribution to reducing the negative consequences of a legislative provision, the responsibility for which lies entirely with those who have brought it into being.

Faced with the many situations involving fundamental and indispensable moral duties, it must be remembered that Christian witness is to be considered a fundamental obligation that can even lead to the sacrificing of one's life, to martyrdom in the name of love and human dignity.1193 The history of the past twenty centuries, as well as that of the last century, is filled with martyrs for Christian truth, witnesses to the faith, hope and love founded on the Gospel. Martyrdom is the witness of one who has been personally conformed to Jesus crucified, expressed in the supreme form of shedding one's blood according to the teaching of the Gospel: if "a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies ... it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24).

571. The political commitment of Catholics is often placed in the context of the "autonomy" of the State, that is, the distinction between the political and religious spheres.1194 This distinction "is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and belongs to the inheritance of contemporary civilization".1195 Catholic moral doctrine, however, clearly rejects the prospects of an autonomy that is understood as independence from the moral law: "Such 'autonomy' refers first of all to the attitude of the person who respects the truths that derive from natural knowledge regarding man's life in society, even if such truths may also be taught by a specific religion, because truth is one".1196 A sincere quest for the truth, using legitimate means to promote and defend the moral truths concerning social life — justice, freedom, respect for life and for other human rights — is a right and duty of all members of a social and political community.

When the Church's Magisterium intervenes in issues concerning social and political life, it does not fail to observe the requirements of a correctly understood autonomy, for "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".1197

572. The principle of autonomy involves respect for every religious confession on the part of the State, which "assures the free exercise of ritual, spiritual, cultural and charitable activities by communities of believers. In a pluralistic society, secularity is a place for communication between the different spiritual traditions and the nation".1198 Unfortunately, even in democratic societies, there still remain expressions of secular intolerance that are hostile to granting any kind of political or cultural relevance to religious faiths. Such intolerance seeks to exclude the activity of Christians from the social and political spheres because Christians strive to uphold the truths taught by the Church and are obedient to the moral duty to act in accordance with their conscience. These attitudes even go so far, and radically so, as to deny the basis of a natural morality. This denial, which is the harbinger of a moral anarchy with the obvious consequence of the stronger prevailing over the weaker, cannot be accepted in any form by legitimate pluralism, since it undermines the very foundations of human society. In the light of this state of affairs, "the marginalization of Christianity ... would not bode well for the future of society or for consensus among peoples; indeed, it would threaten the very spiritual and cultural foundations of civilization".1199

573. A particular area for discernment on the part of the lay faithful concerns the choice of political instruments, that is, membership in a party or in other types of political participation. A choice must be made that is consistent with values, taking into account actual circumstances. In every case, whatever choice is made must be rooted in charity and tend towards the attainment of the common good.1200 It is difficult for the concerns of the Christian faith to be adequately met in one sole political entity; to claim that one party or political coalition responds completely to the demands of faith or of Christian life would give rise to dangerous errors. Christians cannot find one party that fully corresponds to the ethical demands arising from faith and from membership in the Church. Their adherence to a political alliance will never be ideological but always critical; in this way the party and its political platform will be prompted to be ever more conscientious in attaining the true common good, including the spiritual end of the human person.1201

574. The distinction that must be made on the one hand between the demands of faith and socio-political options, and on the other hand between the choices made by individual Christians and the Christian community as such, means that membership in a party or in a political alliance should be considered a personal decision, legitimate at least within the limits of those parties and positions that are not incompatible with Christian faith and values.1202 However, the choice of a party, a political alliance, the persons to whom public life is to be entrusted, while involving the conscience of each person, can never be an exclusively individual choice. "It is up to the Christian community to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, to shed on it the light of the Gospel's inalterable words and to draw principles of reflection, norms of judgment and directives for action from the social teaching of the Church".1203 In any case, "no one is permitted to identify the authority of the Church exclusively with his own opinion";1204 believers should rather "try to guide each other by sincere dialogue in a spirit of mutual charity and with anxious interest above all in the common good".1205


1183 Cf. PAUL VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, 46: AAS 63 (1971),


1184 Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 36: AAS 80 (1988),


1185 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (24 November 2002), 6: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2002, p. 13.

1186 JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 46: AAS 83 (1991), 850.

1187 Cf. SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 74: AAS 58 (1966), 1095-1097.

1188 Cf. CONGREGATION FOR CATHOLIC EDUCATION, Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church's Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests, 8, Vatican Polyglot Press, Rome 1988, pp. 13-14.

1189 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (24 November 2002), 7: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2002, pp. 15-16.

1190 Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Centesimus Annus, 46: AAS 83 (1991), 850-851.

1191 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (24 November 2002), 4: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2002, p. 9.

1192 Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, 73: AAS 87 (1995),


1193 Cf. JOHN PAUL II, Post-Synodal Exhortation, Christifideles Laici, 39: AAS 81

(1989), 466-468.

1194 Cf. SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 76: AAS 58 (1966), 1099-1100.

1195 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (24 November 2002),6: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2002, p. 11.

1196 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (24 November 2002), 6: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2002, p. 12.

1197 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (24 November 2002), 6: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2002, pp. 12-13.

1198 JOHN PAUL II, Address to the Diplomatic Corps (12 January 2004), 3: L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 21 January 2004, p. 3.

1199 CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH, Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life (24 November 2002), 6: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City 2002, p. 14.

1200 Cf. PAUL VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, 46: AAS 63 (1971), 433-435.

1201 Cf. PAUL VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, 46: AAS 63 (1971), 433-435.

1202 Cf. PAUL VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, 50: AAS 63 (1971), 439-440.

1203 PAUL VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens, 4: AAS 63 (1971), 403-404.

1204 SECOND VATICAN ECUMENICAL COUNCIL, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 43: AAS 58 (1966), 1063.

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