Church and State, Part 1
By THE MOST REVEREND WILLIAM E. LORI, S.T.D.
BISHOP OF BRIDGEPORT
As most of you know, I host a weekly radio show on WICC, 600 on the AM dial,
Sundays at 6 p.m. I usually interview a guest and then I take calls from
listeners throughout Fairfield County and beyond. You won't be surprised to
learn that recent shows have included many calls on the upcoming presidential
election. You also won't be surprised to learn that I receive more than a few
letters on the same subject. Some of my listeners and correspondents want to
know why the Church won't enter the fray and support one candidate over another.
Others wonder why the Church is involved in any aspect of politics. They feel
that any such involvement is beyond the purview of the Church and is a breach of
the separation of Church and State.
Of course, intense debates about religion and politics won't be settled in
the space of this brief column. However, as we prepare to cast our votes in
November, I'd like to offer some observations, rooted in the social teaching of
the Church, which might provide helpful guidance.
First, while the faith we profess certainly pertains to our personal
salvation, it also pertains to the innate dignity of every person, to relations
among human beings, and to the good of society as a whole. To be sure, our faith
looks forward to the "consummation of the world" - when the world as we know it
will be transformed by God into "a new heavens and a new earth." Because the
world has a transcendent destiny, the Church cooperates with people of good will
in building up cultures and societies which, in their diversity, are just,
peaceful, and respectful of basic human rights and responsibilities. After all,
God poured out His life in Christ to save the world and to renew all things in
For that reason, the Church engages in works of charity and education and
advocates publicly and privately for the vulnerable. She also supports research
and all forms of genuine human advancement. And while the Church does not
confuse earthly progress with the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Church
condemns injustice even as she welcomes genuine personal and social progress as
a sign of the coming of God's Kingdom (see Gaudium et Spes [Pastoral
Constitution of the Church in the Modern World], 39).
This is the basis for the social teaching of the Church. That teaching is not
idle social commentary but vital moral teaching on the sort of society that is
just, clement, tranquil, and well-ordered. Like all the moral teachings of the
Church, it is rooted in reason illuminated by faith. It includes teachings which
are absolute (the inviolable dignity of innocent human life) and teachings
which, in their application, admit of prudential judgments about which
reasonable people can differ (e.g., economic policy).
The Church's social teaching was drawn together by Pope Leo XIII in the late
19th century. It has been developed and affirmed by each succeeding pontiff,
especially Pope John Paul II.
That teaching is one of our best-kept secrets. Contrary to what many believe,
the Church's social teaching is both consistent and broad. It includes questions
on the protection of the vulnerable, including the unborn and the frail elderly,
as well as questions on war and peace, labor, economics, race relations,
education, the environment, and the overall just ordering of society.
Those teachings are also weighted. The most vulnerable and innocent deserve
the most protection. Hence the Church's uncompromising stand on the need to
legally protect unborn human life, even at its earliest stages, and to never use
it merely as a means to an end - as in embryonic stem-cell research - no matter
how compelling that goal might seem. After all, if a human person does not enjoy
the right to life, he or she enjoys none of the other rights that are consonant
with human dignity.
A second point follows. If we really want to vote conscientiously, we need to
familiarize ourselves with the breadth and depth of the Church's social
teaching. We also need to reverse how our culture usually looks at religion and
politics. Often, it seems that the Church's teaching is measured against
competing political positions. For example, it is compared favorably or
unfavorably to various party platforms. But a conscientious Catholic voter will
instead view political platforms from the vantage of the Church's social
teaching. Such a voter will find that neither major party fully embraces the
broad and consistent view of human life and dignity and the tranquil ordering of
society that is found in the Church's social teaching. Such a voter will also
recognize that the Church's social teaching gives preference to the most
vulnerable and will not be content with any political platform or position that
fails to do the same.
That is why, as informed Catholics and as citizens, we need to participate in
the political process by voting with a well-informed conscience and by
persistently bringing our values and concerns to the attention of our elected
officials. We also need to challenge officials and candidates who claim to be
good Catholics but who also reject or compromise fundamental human rights and
dignity as expressed in the Church's social teaching.
Third, none of this violates the separation of Church and State. The Church
is prohibited from engaging in partisan politics; that is, in promoting one
candidate over another. But the First Amendment in no way prohibits the Church
from speaking out on issues and from helping her members understand how the
positions of political parties and candidates stack up against the Church's
social teaching. If the First Amendment prohibited such activity, then there
would be no real religious freedom in the United States. After all, religious
freedom is not merely the freedom to believe what one wishes to believe in the
privacy of one's mind and home; you can do that in even the most oppressive
Religious freedom means the liberty to bring one's beliefs and values into
the public debate, to challenge the views of candidates for office, and to try
to shape a society more worthy of the human person.
To do all that is not to impose a sectarian view on others but rather to
advance the truth about the human person known to reason (natural law) but
clarified by faith. An open society such as ours will always debate what the
"truth about the human person" means. But we are already in real trouble because
our culture no longer has a coherent and commonly-held view of what it means to
be a human being. It prefers instead to tell us that we are what we want and
tends to promote an ethos in which the ends justify the means and the strong
dominate the weak.
Our culture will not retrieve that just and coherent account of what it means
to be a person without the active participation of people who bring both faith
and reason to the marketplace of ideas.
The political season upon which we've entered is a serious season. We need to
look behind the slogans and the rhetoric, using the Church's social teaching as
a reliable guide. For ultimately it is Christ who, in showing us the Father's
love, "reveals us to ourselves and brings to light our most high calling"
(Gaudium et Spes, 22).
To be continued next month.
To learn more about Catholic social teaching, I advise all Catholics to
consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially # 2419-2463); the
Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the
Modern World); and two landmark encyclicals of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul
II: Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), and Centesimus Annus (On the
Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum).