Catholics in the Political Community

A whole chapter in the Second Vatican Council’s teaching in the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World is devoted to the question of the role of Catholics in the political community.

This should come as no great surprise. The political life of citizens is intertwined with economic, social, and cultural life precisely because of the very nature of what it means to be human. So participating in political life is not optional.

The Council explained it this way:  “man needs for his development some [relationships], like the family and political community, [that] relate with greater immediacy to his innermost nature; others originate rather from his free decision.”

The underlying principle is that the relational nature of the human being moves the individual to be part of several groups, all of which serve the individual’s growth in the quality of his/her humanity.

Now what exactly is politics? In the words of the council – authoritative teaching – politics involves “the rights and duties of all in the exercise of civil freedom and in the attainment of the common good, and in organizing the relations of citizens among themselves and with respect to public authority.”

Notably, the individual has to work towards attaining the “common good” to the degree that it can be achieved in the political arena. The Council, however, did not leave such a weighty term unexplained.

Once again we come to a peg in the ground, so to speak, that anchors our understanding of the individual’s political rights and duties. The Council said that the common good is:

the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment, [that] today takes on an increasingly universal complexion and consequently involves rights and duties with respect to the whole human race. Every social group must take account of the needs and legitimate aspirations of other groups, and even of the general welfare of the entire human family.

In a rather lengthy way, the Council was highlighting that we are bonded to everyone else not just by sharing a nature with others but, though it’s not said explicitly this in this document, because Christ died for them.

So beyond our shared nature there is a supernatural commonality that has its own teleology, and we can either contribute to this goal or work against it. Thus when we act politically we are obliged to consider the poor, the infirm, the weak, the unborn, the aged, and the marginalized because we are bonded to them.

When we act then we are acting for or against all of these groups. This contradicts the ethic of the “me generation,” but it’s how God has set things up.

Delving into what we share, the Council points, first of all, to “a growing awareness of the exalted dignity proper to the human person, since he stands above all things, and his rights and duties are universal and inviolable.” It also indicated that there is a growing political awareness of this dignity.

The Church was already aware of it on theological grounds, as she had always been. The Council’s statement speaks of “growing” grosso modo because, unfortunately, many Catholics still don’t know about human dignity – or even operate as if it does not exist. This applies to many landowners, to many mothers who abort their children, and many more people as well.

With this foundation laid, the Council then continued:  “Therefore, there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.”

Thus, direct consequences follow from each human being’s dignity, whether we know these people or not, whether they are part of our social class or not. This principle completely frames our political activity because our political decisions affect so many.

One further point: bad conscience cannot be followed. Claims of  conscience” do not give one a backdoor to go around or against Church teaching.

The Council’s teaching points out the truly vast moral horizon of seemingly small actions such as voting. In this light, one simply cannot conceive of political activity as we would support of a football team. There is no “gut feeling” at work here.

Instead, it has to do with making strenuous efforts to know the truth that the Church lays out for us, and then doing the truth. Our own “preferences” don’t enter in because none of us is Lord of the universe. Someone already has that job.

Lastly, political activity can be said to be quasi-religious because through it we develop or destroys our relationships to God and his people: “I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:4) 

We affect people’s lives and deaths by the way we vote.