October 26, 2012

Be Our Guest / Glenn Tebbe

Why doesn’t the Church support or oppose candidates for elected office?

Often, the Catholic Church is criticized for not taking a position regarding candidates for elected office. Many people argue that the Church should get involved since it is the elected officials who enact laws affecting the lives of each of us.

The short answer to this criticism is:

  • By staying non-partisan, the Church retains its freedom to preach the truth in matters of justice and the common good.
  • And the Church institution does not have a vote, but millions of Catholic citizens do.

The Church’s non-partisan position is grounded in its identity and mission.

The Second Vatican Council reiterated that the Church’s purpose is religious and that Christ gave the Church “no proper mission in the political, economic or social order” (“Gaudium et Spes,” #42).

That is why “the Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person” (“Gaudium et Spes,” #76).

Vatican II further taught that out of the Church’s religious mission comes “a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law” (“Gaudium et Spes,” #42).

In short, through her teaching and reflection on the state of the world, the Church seeks to inspire people everywhere to be involved in the affairs of the community, specifically stating that “the responsibility for the civil government of society rests with lay women and men” (“Gaudium et Spes,” #43).

Pope Benedict XVI further clarified this principle in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est.” The Church is

“duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically. … The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in the public life in a personal capacity” (“Deus Caritas Est,” #28, #29)

It may seem contradictory to some that the Church on the one hand encourages and expects the faithful to vote and take an active role in the electoral process, and at the same time not indicate who should be supported. But the Church is being true to itself and its purpose.

The Church is guided by its moral convictions and cannot be tied to a political party or interest group. Her role is that of teacher, and the role of the individual Catholic is to hear, receive and act upon the Church’s teaching.

On a practical level, no political party and too few candidates fully share the Church’s comprehensive commitment to the life and dignity of every person, and to the common good. Candidates, and particularly political parties, often promote specific interest groups.

Ultimately, political parties are interested in political power. The Church’s call for political engagement is different. Instead of self-interest or power, the Church asks persons to engage based on moral convictions rooted in the truth.

Church teaching does not fit into political categories of conservative or liberal or any political platform. Church leaders cannot be co-opted by candidates or political parties or interest groups, but must remain free to preach the truths of the Gospel and to share the light of faith on matters of justice and charity.

It is her role “to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest” (“Deus Caritas Est,” #28).

While federal law does prohibit churches and other tax-exempt institutions from engaging in campaign and election activities, the law is not contrary to Church teaching and practice.

It is interesting to note that the civil regulations make the same clarification as Catholic teaching regarding the role of the Church. Advocacy and education regarding issues, legislation and formation of conscience are permitted. Actions that have the effect of supporting or opposing candidates for elected office are prohibited.

The law supports the theological and practical reasons, which actually strengthens the Church’s role in our society and political process.

(Glenn Tebbe is executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana.)

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