On 16 January 2003, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a 15-page message for bishops, Catholic politicians and all laity: the Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life.
The Vatican has written about the involvement of Catholics in politics because, some parliaments have enacted bad legislation which threatens real dangers for future generations, even in states where the majority is Catholic.
A misunderstanding about conscience, truth and freedom has been evident in the hesitancy or refusal of many Catholic politicians to contribute Catholic insights to public debate. Some do not see that "Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish", as John Paul II wrote in 1998.
The Doctrinal Note warns of a "kind of cultural relativism" whereby some citizens "claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices" which politicians in turn claim to be "respecting" in their law-making. At the same time, "the value of tolerance" is conveniently invoked to deny Catholics the exercise of their democratic right to introduce "their particular understanding of the human person and the common good."
Many Catholic politicians have passively accepted a double standard which, while denying room to the Catholic view, yet allows other views to impact on legislation. As a result, parliament is deprived of the presence of Christian values where these ought to influence certain laws.
Against this, the Congregation cites the example of Thomas More, Patron of Statesmen and Politicians: "Man cannot be separated from God, nor politics from morality". Here was a man who knew how to adapt himself to the stage of politics, to search out with wit how to benefit nation and neighbour, while keeping his head as long as possible, but his conscience longer.
The Doctrinal Note gives to politicians the principle by which Thomas More operated and by which all Catholic politicians engage in politics without offending their own commitment to faith or nation: "A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation [because they are fundamentally against the dignity of people, e.g., slavery or abortion], the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility" (par 4).
What is a politician to do when all options are defective? Give up? No. But is it morally permissible to vote for a law that accepts an evil, with restrictions, as an alternative to a more permissive law in force or about to be voted on? Yes. For example: "Regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well-known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality" (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 73).
Thomas More once addressed the same issue: "If you cannot pluck up wrong-headed opinions by the root, if you cannot cure according to your heart's desire vices of long standing, yet you must not on that account desert the commonwealth. You must not abandon the ship in the storm [just] because you cannot control the wind É You must handle everything as tactfully as you can, and what you cannot make right you must try to make as little wrong as possible" (Gerard B. Wegemer, St Thomas More On Statesmanship, 1996, pp. 102-103.
The Doctrinal Note gives particular attention to bioethical issues. Catholic politicians are called on to "defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death" (par 4).
Other areas include safeguarding and promoting the family "based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman". Catholic politicians should also work for the "protection of minors and freedom from modern forms of slavery (drug abuse and prostitution) É and the right to religious freedom".
Politics is not to be separated from morality, and neither is the economy, which is to be "at the service of the human person and of the common good". There ought to be "respect for social justice, the principles of human solidarity and subsidiarity É Finally, the question of peace must be mentioned."
Responses to Doctrinal Note
The candidate for the US Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Senator John Kerry, has publicly rejected the Vatican's insistence that Catholic politicians must oppose abortion, because he believed that to "represent all the people" he could not be bound by the Church's teaching (SPUC information news, 20 January 2003).
Bishop William K. Weigand of Sacramento, California, on the other hand, has said that Catholic pro-abortion politicians should abstain from receiving Holy Communion. He referred specifically to California's pro-abortion Governor Gray Davis, who is a Catholic.
Archbishop Barry Hickey of Perth welcomed the Vatican's Doctrinal Note, saying, "Politicians need encouragement and support to carry out what is fundamentally a noble calling. The statement encourages Catholics in politics to be a force for good in political life."
Michael Casanova works at the National Civic Council office in North Melbourne.