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Catholics & Politics

Shedding Light on Christian Principles

The Fourth of July seems an appropriate time to consider Catholic concepts of freedom, human rights and justice. Our source is what some call Catholicism’s best kept secret: 130 years of reflection and instruction now called Catholic social teaching.

The origins are traced to the encyclical Rerum Novarum, released by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. Pope Leo concerned himself with matters of human rights, particularly workers’ rights, and supported laborers organizing to advocate for decent working conditions and fair wages.

Succeeding popes — especially Pius XI, St. John XXIII, St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis — have followed Pope Leo’s lead by issuing encyclicals and exhortations pertaining to matters of justice. These statements have offered moral guidance on life issues, human dignity, human development, war and peace, economic justice, family life, care for the earth environment, international cooperation, mass media and religious freedom. National and regional bishops’ conferences have been similarly engaged. Their statements have addressed matters like those mentioned above and have applied them to the way in which these issues strike close to home.

As social teaching has developed, the Church has insisted that abortion, euthanasia and the killing of innocents is always and everywhere grievously wrong; that capital punishment ought to be outlawed; that racism is a sin; that affluent nations and individuals owe support to those experiencing poverty and to the marginalized; that work should be structured so that it honors and benefits the worker; that human beings have a right to education and health care; that marriage and traditional family life are the basis of a sound society; that methods of modern warfare (terrorism, anti-population weapons) render a just war barely possible; that governments and politicians are obliged to promote the common good of humanity, not merely national or individual interests; that consumerism and unregulated capitalism — plus socialism and communism — are dangerous; and that conscientious care for the Earth is a moral obligation. Encyclicals and exhortations also highlight the truth that freedom is a limited good. The common good of humanity and God’s loving will take precedence over personal preferences.

These magisterial declarations intend to stir the consciences of persons in the pew, who are also persons who cast ballots. Not surprisingly, we sometimes find that these statements rankle.

So, we hear protests that bishops, priests and deacons need to stay out of politics and simply preach sacred Scripture and basic doctrine. That would seem to say that it’s OK to talk about Jesus as Son of God and Savior, but not as the one who fraternized with society’s underclass and identified with the “least of these” brothers and sisters. Or, it’s well and good to quote Old Testament prophets and wisdom literature that counsel virtue in one’s personal life, but better to avoid mention of the verses where worshipers are chided for neglecting widows and orphans, cheating in the marketplace and laying burdens on the poor.

Most religious organizations these days are also 501 (c) (3) corporations, so they are barred from prescribing to their members how to vote. But they do, rightly, teach them to examine — in the light of faith — party platforms and the stands taken by individual politicians. The Church is duty-bound to teach principles.

When those principles are proclaimed, biblical and traditional socio-moral standards shed light on contemporary issues — sometimes a glaring, uncomfortable light. Those who preach them are not politicking. They are explaining how Catholic principles apply to more than bedroom, bar room and behavior in the pew or in polite society.

Disciples of Jesus were urged to “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mk 12:17). They also were counseled by the example of St. Peter to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) when threatened with seizure, imprisonment or fines for moral preaching and action.

When we freely, and honestly, heed the counsels of our faith, we often find ourselves critiquing contemporary culture — and that can set off fireworks.

Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM, Ph.D., is the diocesan director for the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. Email her at