The Political Environment
For Christians the ‘State’ always comes after the person. First a person finds himself and his dignity in his relationship to God, then he achieves fulfilment in relation to his fellow men. So, man should come into his own first, then society, and finally the political organisation of the State. However, this does not remove the need for the State, as it is indispensable in bringing about and securing any sort of order in society. The State must strive to promote the common good and its most important tool in this respect is the law.
Christian origins of the understanding of the State and Government can be found in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Perhaps the most well known reference point for this is Christ’s pronouncement on the paying of taxes to Caesar. Jesus affirms the need to give to God what is God’s, but he also affirms that temporal power has the right to its due: Jesus does not consider it unjust to pay taxes to Caesar.
The very foundation and purpose of political life is the human person. With this in mind the priority of the political community must be to recognise and respect human dignity through defending and promoting fundamental and inalienable human rights. However, “it should not happen that certain individuals or social groups derive special advantage from that fact that their rights have received preferential protection. Nor should it happen that governments in seeking to protect these rights, become obstacles to their full expression and free use.” (John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris)
The ultimate binding authority in society is the conscience of the individual person and not the State. Immoral laws must not be obeyed, even if a State commands it. Authority must recognise, respect and promote essential human and moral values; and these must not be provisional and changeable ‘majority’ opinions, but must simply be recognised, respected and promoted as elements of an objective moral law, the natural law written in the human heart. Authority must also enact just laws, that is, laws that correspond to the dignity of the human person and to what is required by right reason.
The Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus contains an explicit and articulate judgement with regard to democracy: “The Church values 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. This she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends. Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the ‘subjectivity’ of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility.”
Democracy is not better than a monarchy or an aristocracy because it is more efficient but, rather, because it has a different ethos based on human rights and is a better organisational framework for the fulfilment of the human person. That said, the democratic system must still conform to the moral law and not fall prey to agnosticism and sceptical relativism, compromising ultimate truth in the process. It must also be remembered that truth isn’t necessarily determined by a majority vote and that the Church will stand opposed to the decisions of elected officials if, for example, a political authority approves of legalised abortion or assisted suicide.
Separation of Powers
The Church is explicitly in favour of the separation of powers. Only when the judicial, legislative and executive branches exist independently of one another is a constitutional State possible. In particular, the existence of an independent judiciary is considered in Catholic social ethics the test of an ethically justified political system.
Separation of Church and State
The Church emphasises the autonomy and independence of Church and State. John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus declared that “the Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution”, nor does it belong to her to enter into questions of the merit of political programmes, except as concerns their religious or moral implications. The political and the spiritual common good can be separated to a great extent yet, despite this, there is no reason why the Church and the State cannot work together well. The Church also demands what is implied by the universal principles of religious freedom: freedom of expression and teaching, freedom of public worship and organisational freedom, freedom to appoint her own officials, freedom to construct houses of worship, the right to own private property and also to associate for various educational, cultural, medical and charitable purposes.
The purpose of political parties is to organise the formation of political opinion and to be instruments of the political opinion of all citizens. However, in order for this to work, the parties must themselves be democratically structured and be committed to the common good. Another instrument of political participation is the referendum, whereby a form of direct access to political decisions is practised.
The Church appreciates it when the faithful become involved in political parties and stand up for the realisation of Christian values in a democracy. It is also an honour for any Christian to serve society by becoming involved in politics. Politics are always about what is ‘feasible’: the means of doing what is necessary are not always available, and sometimes the majorities do not exist to transform even fundamental Christian options into policy. Christian politicians should not be blamed if they have to engage in compromises. Nevertheless, there are decisions which a Christian politician, for reasons of conscience, definitely cannot share responsibility. The fundamental values of the human person “life, freedom, dignity” are non-negotiable for a Christian politician. No politician, for example, can describe himself as a Christian and at the same time justify abortion.
The Media and the Provision of Information
Information is among the principle instruments of political participation and the media must be used to build up and sustain the human community in its different sectors: economic, political, cultural, educational and religious. The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good and society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity. The essential question is whether the current information system is contributing to the betterment of the human person: does it make people more aware of the dignity of the human person, more responsible and more open to others, in particular to the neediest and the weakest.
Citizens must have a right to conscientious objection. In this way citizens are not obliged to follow the prescriptions of civil authorities if their precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel (CCC 2242). When asked to cooperate in morally evil acts the Christian must refuse and this refusal should be a basic human right, recognised and protected by the civil authority.
Right and Duty of the State to Inflict Punishment
In order to protect the common good a civil authority must exercise the right and the duty to inflict punishments according to the seriousness of the crimes committed (CCC 2266). The State has a twofold responsibility to discourage behaviour that is harmful to human rights and the fundamental norms of civil life, and to repair, through the penal system, the disorder created by criminal activity. Punishment is not something that merely serves the public order and guarantees the safety of persons, it is also an instrument for the correction of the offender. This is in the hope that the condemned person will be reintegrated into society and that there will be reconciliation with society in general: a restoration of harmony in social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed.
There can never be any justification for torture, even in the case of serious crimes. As John Paul II declared in his address to the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1982, “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim.”
The Death Penalty
The Church also sees as a sign of hope a growing public opposition to the death penalty. Modern society has the means to effectively suppress crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance of reform (JPII, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Viate). However, presuming full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the guilty party the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude the death penalty “when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor” (CCC 2267).
The growing number of countries adopting provisions to abolish the death penalty or suspend its application is also proof of the fact that cases in which it is absolutely necessary to execute the offender “are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (JPII Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae).