It is not unusual to be asked today, “What is the role of the church in politics?” Another way of putting it is, “What contribution does the church bring to the political order?”
The short answer is that the church has much sacred wisdom and human experience to bring to public policy discussions. If we want a society in which public policy defends the life and dignity of all, supports marriage and family, promotes the common good, recognizes religious freedom personally and institutionally, welcomes immigrants and cares for our neighbors in need, then of course the church must be engaged in the public square.
However, we need to be precise and careful when we use the word “church.” The church must be understood as all her members, even though they have different responsibilities and roles.
The idea that somehow priests or bishops should be the primary church voices addressing public issues, the framing of laws and advocating for specific public policies is too narrow a vision of the church. Such a view would leave out about 99 percent of its members.
Yes, bishops and priests have a special and unique role. They are the teachers of the faith. They pass on and explain the revelation and the received tradition. They call the baptized to live their faith every day.
However, the translation of the Gospel and church teaching into public policy, political practice and influence and articulated cultural values is work that must include the rest of the members of the church.
This distinction between the roles of clergy and laity in reference to the temporal order is spelled out quite clearly in the Second Vatican Council, now over 50 years ago. The council saw the role of the laity as the sanctification and transformation of the temporal order. In the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, this is made explicitly clear.
“The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order as their own special obligation. Led by the light of the Gospel and the mind of the church and motivated by Christian charity, they must act directly and in a definite way in the temporal sphere” (7).
The clergy’s task of teaching and helping to form the consciences of the laity, as envisioned by the council and subsequent popes, requires patience in dealing with diverse opinions, fidelity in presenting the fullness of church teaching and perseverance in continuing to teach.
The temptation might be to short-circuit this process and have clergy impose specific political approaches or policies and even proclaim their preferences for candidates for public office. Such thinking is not new. Shortly after the council in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, there was debate over whether priests should run for political office. I thought it was a bad idea then, as I still do now.
The understanding of the distinct role of the laity in the mission of the church, the transformation of the temporal order and its sanctification was developed further after the Second Vatican Council by Pope Saint John Paul II. In his apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici, he connected the vocation of the laity in the world to living out of the Universal Call to Holiness spoken of in Lumen Gentium:
“The vocation of the lay faithful to holiness implies that life according to the Spirit expresses itself in a particular way in their involvement in temporal affairs and in their participation in earthy activities” (17).
Today this calling is clearly seen as the central role of the bishop and priest to teach the faith, share Catholic moral and social principles and encourage lay men and women in their primary responsibility to take these truths and values into the economic, political and cultural world.
The document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, issued in November 2015 by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with nearly unanimous support, speaks very clearly to the church’s primary role of forming consciences and the particular duty of the laity in the political order and in the realm of partisan politics. The bishops quote Pope Benedict XVI:
“The Church wishes 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” (28).
Pope Francis, in his address to the Italian Episcopal Conference on May 18, 2015, insisted on the responsibility of the laity for the temporal order without unnecessary clerical supervision and interference: “Lay people with an authentic Christian formation, should not need a pilot bishop or a pilot monsignor or a clerical presence to take on responsibilities on all levels. From the political to the social. From the economic to the legislative.”
When we look to Faithful Citizenship statement, the historic presentation of Pope Francis to our Congress, or the writing and example of his recent predecessors, we see the best ways to offer a principled, serious, and challenging call to Catholics to bring their faith into public life. It is essential for lay women and men to take up the responsibility of standing up and speaking out for the values of our faith.
There is much at stake in public life: questions of life and death, war and peace, religious freedom and human dignity. There is simply no substitute for informed, faithful, active and courageous lay women and men who will bring the truth of the Gospel and the wisdom of Catholic teaching into public life.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the archbishop of Washington and was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.
The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.