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Thoughts on Catholics and Politics: A reflection

27 June 2024


Written by Kenneth Sadler, SCIAF Parish Contact for St Mary's Cathedral, Aberdeen

Is the Catholic faith political? Naturally, this is not a new debate: it has been an issue of contention for millennia. Certainly, Catholic thought has much to say about the principles conducive to the proper ordering of society and life in common. Yet we also remember that Satan’s third temptation of Jesus in the wilderness was a vision of worldly authority: ‘All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’ (Mt 4:9). Catholic tradition also reminds us that pleasure, wealth, status, and power can easily become idols that the fallen human heart mistakes for its true good – with deleterious consequences for individuals, families, societies and nations. 

Christianity is not a political ideology, manifesto, or programme to be imposed from above by a determined government. Love coerced is not love: the revolution that Christ demands is a revolution of the heart, arising from an ongoing free decision that we must make as men and women before God. This revolution of the heart entails a profound reorientation towards Christ, a transformation through which we live in him and he in us. As the Church has insisted with renewed vigour since the Vatican II Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, all the faithful People of God, whatever their state of life, are called to a life of holiness. We are not all called to a life of political action. 

This could be one of the reasons that certain devout Catholics of goodwill can be suspicious when their brothers and sisters in Christ exert their energies engaging in faith-based political activity: does such activism not distract the Christian from his or her individual path to sanctity? However, we do well to remember that, while our faith is always personal, it is never simply private; albeit there are those who seem to wish that it were so. 

More positively, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that the laity have a particular calling to engage in politics: 

- It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens. Social action can assume various concrete forms. It should always have the common good in view and be in conformity with the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. It is the role of the laity "to animate temporal realities with Christian commitment, by which they show that they are witnesses and agents of peace and justice." (CCC 2442) 

Therefore, for many lay faithful, participation in political activity, especially in matters of peace and justice, can be a vital element of their own path of holiness. 

Here we must recognise and affirm the importance of the work of organisations like SCIAF and Justice and Peace Scotland, which apply the principles of Catholic Social Teaching to better understand what is happening across the globe and, after reflection and faith-filled discernment, how to respond. And for SCIAF, political activism and social justice campaigning complement perfectly working with the poorest of our brothers and sisters internationally to end poverty and responding swiftly to help people recover from disasters. 

Neither the Bishops’ Conference, SCIAF, Justice and Peace Scotland, or any other official Catholic organisation or agency will tell us for whom to vote. Rather, we are to discern how best to use our vote considering Church teaching and our properly formed consciences. This is not an easy task: a Catholic who takes seriously the breadth of the faith’s commitments, and wishes to support these commitments through voting, will know what it means to be politically homeless. Nevertheless, we are called to engage in politics, and call on those who seek political office to use their position to do all they can to build the Kingdom of God on earth.

One final thought: commentators across the democratic West have observed and lamented a decline in the standards of political discourse and a rise in polarisation in recent years. Assorted reasons for this coarsening of political space have been proposed, not least social fragmentation, individualism, and the rapid spread of disinformation, detraction and calumny enabled by social media. But another factor is surely the continuing decline of faith and ongoing rise of secularism. Authentic Christianity recognises the importance of politics but does not mistake the ordering of the political community, however imagined and whatever benefits produced, as the ultimate good. This, and the knowledge that everything is under the sovereignty of God, frees Christians to pursue political goals courageously and with conviction, but without fanaticism or a win-at-all-costs zealotry. The exercise of Christian virtues is fundamental for the health of the democratic commonweal.