Faithful Citizenship

“Seek first the kingdom of heaven and everything else will be given to you” (Mt 6:33).

It must have been a moment of quiet exasperation for Jesus. In an encounter with His Apostles after the Resurrection, they asked Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6)?

It was as if they had not heard all of His words about the spiritual nature of His kingdom, of truth, justice, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and peace, and their part in helping to realize it through works of kindness, caring, self-giving and love. Yet, Jesus’ patience with His Apostles and with us is understandable because, while He taught that His kingdom was not like those of political powers of this world, He also spoke insistently of His kingdom and its presence among us.

On the one hand he announced, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” while also asserting that, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Clearly Jesus’ realm was not to be spread by force. He remonstrated with Peter in Gethsemane, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52).

In every age there is the temptation to use the political structures of this world to try to realize the kingdom of God. Sometimes we are tempted to short-circuit the spiritual conversion process by reducing the Gospel message to a particular partisan political position. In this scenario, the bishops are expected to single out specific candidates or legislation for support or disapproval and urge the faithful to follow suit. But in reality the process is much more complex and challenging. Perhaps that is why even the Apostles, after the Resurrection, expected Jesus simply to reestablish a kingdom rather than have them convince others to follow Jesus’ way and create a new order.

We are all charged to seek first the kingdom of God. But we go about our tasks in different ways. This clarity has developed over the life of the Church. Throughout her history the relationship of the Church, and specifically the bishops, to the political powers which surrounded her has frequently been marked by conflict. In her first centuries, the Church, and here we intend all the faithful but particularly the bishops, was subjected to sporadic persecution by Roman authorities unwilling to accept the Christian vision of life reflected in the Christian refusal to participate in the imperial cult.

The ‘Two Swords’

The achievement of political toleration and even favored status in the fourth century brought with it new challenges. In the East, the Church struggled to maintain its autonomy in the face of encroachments by the state. In the West, the Church attempted to assert the independence and even superiority of its spiritual authority over that of state power. Pope Gelasius, in his letter Duo Sunt (496), spoke of two powers (which came to be known as the “two swords”) — one wielded by the emperor or king and the higher one wielded by the Church. Over centuries the Catholic Church and her leaders have divested themselves of these efforts to wield political power in addition to spiritual authority.

These developments have coincided with a deeper understanding of the way in which the threefold munera of Christ are lived out in various ministerial offices (the papacy, the episcopacy, the priesthood) and states in life (clergy, religious, lay) in the Church. Within the communion of the Church, bishops exercise their priestly office through their sacramental ministry, their prophetic role in their authoritative proclamation of the Gospel, and their kingly office through their exercise of leadership and jurisdictional authority in the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium, Nos. 24-27). Together with the Pope, the bishops form a college which serves the Word of God by handing on Divine Revelation entrusted to the Church in scripture and Tradition (cf. Lumen Gentium, Nos. 22-23). Essentially this ministry is one of teaching and convincing the lay faithful to assume their role and task of establishing here and now a political and social order that would reflect Gospel values and hence the beginnings of God’s kingdom that Jesus came to announce.

The Second Vatican Council, in particular, saw the role of the laity to be the sanctification and transformation of the temporal order:

In the Church there is a diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission. Christ conferred on the Apostles and their successors the duty of teaching, sanctifying and ruling in His name and power. But the laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world. . . . They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel. In this way, their temporal activity openly bears witness to Christ and promotes the salvation of men. Since the laity, in accordance with their state of life, live in the midst of the world and its concerns, they are called by God to exercise their apostolate in the world like leaven, with the ardor of the spirit of Christ (Apostolicam Actuositatem, No. 2).

This task of the lay faithful would be all the more significant and challenging in a pluralistic and democratic society where the civil order would be best influenced by the voice of lay leaders. The clergy’s task of teaching and helping to form the conscience of the laity, as envisioned by the Second Vatican Council and subsequent popes, would require patience in dealing with diverse opinions, fidelity in presenting the fullness of Church teaching, and perseverance in continuing to teach, to teach and to teach.

The Role of the Laity

The temptation might be to short-circuit the process and have clergy begin to determine directly political solutions and annunciate preferences in the selection of candidates for public office. For many of the faithful and clergy, this mixing of roles — teacher and political guide — would have the unfortunate effect of diminishing the bishop’s spiritual authority in matters of faith and morals by reducing, in the perception of many, the bishop to the role of a lobbyist.

The laity animate with the light of the Gospel the political realm which is pre-eminently their domain in the temporal order. Shutterstock photo

The understanding of the distinctive role of the laity in the mission of the Church was developed further, beyond the insights of the Second Vatican Council, by Pope St. John Paul II. In his apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici he connected the vocation of the laity in the world to the living out of the universal call to holiness spoken of in Lumen Gentium: “The vocation of the lay faithful to holiness implies that life according to the Spirit expresses itself in a particular way in their involvement in temporal affairs and in their participation in earthly activities. . . Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfill his will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ” (Christifideles Laici, No. 17, emphasis in original). A further distinguishing feature of the laity for John Paul II is their “secularity”: “In this work of contributing to the human family, for which the whole Church is responsible, a particular place falls to the lay faithful, by reason of their ‘secular character,’ obliging them, in their proper and irreplaceable way, to work toward the Christian animation of the temporal order” (Christifideles Laici, No. 36). Included in the temporal order which the laity animate with the light of the Gospel is the political realm which is preeminently the domain of the laity.

It might be helpful to note that, when using the term “secular,” the reference is made in contradistinction to “clerical,” or those in holy orders. “Secularism” is another term usually used to note a view of life that limits reality to what is verifiable in the temporal, material order. This worldview is opposed to those that recognize transcendent points of reference.

Building on the work of his predecessor and the Council, Pope Benedict XVI would assert in his first encyclical that the creation of “a just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 28). This is a far cry from the days when the Church viewed herself or her leaders as wielding secular political or military power. The Holy Father is clear on the distinction: “Fundamental to Christianity is the distinction between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God (cf. Mt 22:21), in other words, the distinction between Church and State, or, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, the autonomy of the temporal sphere. The State may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 28). It is true that the Church seeks to inform the moral deliberation and political participation of her members as well as other believers or persons of good will with its public social teaching, but this is not intended to dictate outcomes in the political arena. As Benedict XVI explains: “This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 28). The Church’s contribution to the pursuit of justice, which is a task of political life, is “to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 28) — beginning with its own members.

Autonomy of Politics and Religion

Pope Francis has consciously echoed these themes of the Council and his predecessors in his own teaching. Like Pope Benedict, he has insisted on the autonomy of politics and religion:

I say that politics is the most important of the civil activities and has its own field of action, which is not that of religion. Political institutions are secular by definition and operate in independent spheres. All my predecessors have said the same thing, for many years at least, albeit with different accents. I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them, but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them (Interview with la Repubblica, Oct. 1, 2013).

In regard to this teaching role of the Church, Pope Francis writes in his first apostolic exhortation: “In her dialogue with the State and with society, the Church does not have solutions for every particular issue. Together with the various sectors of society, she supports those programs which best respond to the dignity of each person and the common good. In doing this, she proposes in a clear way the fundamental values of human life and convictions which can then find expression in political activity” (Evangelii Gaudium, No. 241). The same idea can be found in his most recent encyclical: “There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. Here I would state once more that the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good” (Laudato Si’, No. 188).

Pope Francis, in his Address to the Italian Episcopal Conference (May 18, 2015) has also insisted on the responsibility of the laity for the temporal order without unnecessary clerical supervision and interference: “Lay people with an authentic Christian formation, shouldn’t need a pilot bishop or a pilot monsignor, or a clerical presence to take on responsibilities on all levels. From the political to the social. From the economic to the legislative.” The key is for the Church to provide spiritual and moral formation to her members so that they can fulfill their responsibility for social action and political participation in the light of the Gospel. Here Pope Francis follows Pope Benedict XVI, who taught in Deus Caritas Est that clergy and lay people have complementary roles in public life. Pope Francis, in Evangelii Gaudium, cites Pope Benedict when he says, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (No. 7).

‘Post-Christian’ Cultures

In increasingly “post-Christian” cultures, traditional religious views and the moral values which they have anchored are waning in influence or receding altogether from the public square. Recent studies in the United States, such as the Pew Research Center’s “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (May 15, 2015), can serve as an example. Such studies highlight the shrinking number of Christians within the overall population. Basic Christian moral commitments are viewed as sectarian at best or more often as bigoted. And the moral relativism and confusion of the culture is increasingly carried into the churches by baptized persons who are more formed by their culture than by the faith which they profess.

The post-conciliar vision of the engagement of culture sounded with growing forcefulness by Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now made programmatic in the ministry of Pope Francis — the New Evangelization — calls for informed, educated lay faithful. Echoing his predecessors, Pope Francis has invited all Christians to a renewed encounter with the Person of Christ (see Evangelii Gaudium, No. 3), and to become “missionary disciples” actively inviting others to this encounter (see EG, No. 120). He sees this invitation as rooted in the teaching of the Council that the laity, in virtue of their baptism, “are protagonists in the work of evangelization and human promotion.” As he puts it: “Incorporated in the Church, each member of the People of God is inseparably a disciple and a missionary. We must always start again from this foundation, common to all of us, children of Mother Church” (Address to the Conference “The Mission of Lay Christians in the City” (March 7, 2014). Part of the emphasis in the New Evangelization is that it can be spearheaded by laity centered in parishes, associations, movements and — above all — families. The recent Synods offered the Church an opportunity to ponder how better to form and equip families to be active subjects and participants in this great endeavor. The laity and the Church’s families need the bishops to provide and oversee this formation through their ministry of teaching and governing the Church.

In recent election cycles, which become longer and longer, the bishops of our country, as we exercise our teaching role, have presented a teaching document entitled “Faithful Citizenship.” So too, this past November, the USCCB issued the latest edition.

“Faithful Citizenship” is clear: “We bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote. Our purpose is to help Catholics form their consciences in accordance with God’s truth” (No. 7). To accomplish this goal, the document offers highlights of major themes of Catholic teaching, particularly those that touch on issues that are reflected in the current political process. Foremost among the foundational teachings are the four basic principles of Catholic social doctrine: “the dignity of the human person … the common good; subsidiarity, and solidarity” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, No. 160).

The document groups issues under these headings. “Faithful Citizenship” then underlines the legitimate role of the bishops as teachers of the faith while also urging the laity to take up their responsibilities for the temporal and political order.

It is up to the individual to apply those guiding principles to the specific political issues of the day. The applications may vary. The unity of disciples lies in their willingness to listen to the teaching, to appropriate it and then conscientiously to apply it to the specific political and/or legislative issues of the moment.

My hope is that this brief reflection might encourage readers to turn to “Faithful Citizenship” for a thorough reading of it. That teaching document makes clear the complexity of moral decision-making when exercising political responsibility. It is also emphatic that this task falls to the laity in the civil political order. Clergy have the weighty obligation to teach the Gospel message and the Church’s moral values. The laity have the equally demanding responsibility to apply these teachings to the temporal, political order. Both work together, but neither can replace the other.

CARDINAL WUERL is Archbishop of Washington, D.C.