The Believer As Citizen: How To Link Faith and Politics

Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, in the October 18 issue of America, has published a piece entitled “The Church in Worldly Affairs: Tensions Between Laity and Clergy.” Much popular press reaction has linked that essay to a “progressive” vs. “conservative” ecclesiological conflict within Church leadership. That is understandable enough, for Archbishop Weakland seems clearly to wish for a Church in which religious authority is more rather than less distributed, especially as between local hierarchies and Rome. Accordingly, he is often labeled a leader of “progressive” bishops. However, I want to assess his article not as another shot in the ecclesiological wars, but as a statement about politics, religion, and, especially, about how they should relate in the democratic context. In this framework, the test is not ideological but analytic: how true, realistic, and accurate are his basic understandings?

The happiest aspect of the piece is precisely that it deals with methodology: with the theoretical questions of how religion and democratic politics can and should relate, rather than with specific political issues or cases. Only by accident can one consider cases fruitfully without having first laid the basic theoretical groundwork. But there are two unhappy aspects of Archbishop Weakland’s article. First, the author and his brethren have already engaged in a great number of cases without serious theoretical justification, leaving much ruin in their wake. Second, this current effort, though welcome, continues to manifest many of the confusions which have plagued hierarchical politics. My comments will identify some of the major confusions, and suggest how to avoid them as we go about the business of constructing effective Catholic political theory and practice.

To portray lay/cleric tensions as a basic and pertinent category affecting the proper relation of politics and religion is simply factually wrong. The fact that many do it is no excuse. It is, indeed, just a reflection of the straw man proclivity: it is much easier to construct a vulnerable target and destroy it than to pursue the always more complicated reality.

Clergy can develop any particular political competence within their native ability, just as laity can. They do not receive such competence with ordination, however. It cannot be presumed, but must be earned and developed. Since they usually have a variety of tasks associated with their clerical assignments, there is a natural, division-of-labor limitation on the number of things about which they can be competent, as is true for all of us. The Vatican II idea that the laity should bear prime responsibility for configuring the world in Christ’s name — an idea seen long before by decent political theorists — is primarily a simple division-of-labor insight: there are countless facets of political, social, and economic reality, and those facets must be polished by people actually there and actually knowledgeable. There is no lay/cleric tension in that truth, just a mature grasp of reality.

And there is a second crucial fact, often noted by John Paul II but not waiting on him: If clergy, without changing hats, enter the most particular aspects of the political fray — at which point by definition people divide as to right action — they may endanger their capacity to represent and call all to the sacramental bounty which Christ left us. If they attach themselves to temporal issues at the divisive level, then they may be repulsive rather than attractive to some of the flock they are to shepherd at the spiritual level. At its worst, this can be seen as simple manipulation and victimization if clergy use an avowedly sacramental context for a particularistic and divisive political purpose. This can be intensely destructive, for it violates a basic relationship of trust, and it is crucially disrespectful of the moral autonomy of the person who is expected to form his own judgment after reflection on principles and circumstances.

These two hard realities — that we are all limited in competence and must demonstrate it if we claim it on a specific matter, and that politics at the point of specification divides political actors and could threaten religious community if distinctions are not upheld — are just realities. They are not “conservative” outcries against “clergy in politics.” Before any Church leaders can deal productively with the “who-does-what” questions, they will need to comprehend these truths and stop pretending that lay-clergy “tensions” is a pivotal category. Any such tensions are just natural repercussions of clerical violations of the rules of competence and trust between the clergy and the flock voluntarily related to them.

The Church of Christ has human concerns given it, explicitly and implicitly, by its Founder. The Gospels make clear that Christians must be concerned for the needs of others, and therefore for the human condition insofar as we can influence it. Since the natural obligation of the state is also the protection and promotion of the human welfare, the actions and concerns of Church and state inevitably overlap and interact. Moreover, no Church member exists religiously without existing politically at the same time. The upshot of these two realities is simple: both formally and through its communicants, the Church is inescapably and perpetually a part of the political order. The fact that some, no doubt in frustration over particular events, cry “keep the Church out of politics” does not mean the cry should be treated as a literal proposition. It should rather be treated as a warning: do it right.

Doing it right means getting certain fundamental facts straight. It means rigorously distinguishing between principle and practice. It means acknowledging, as the current pope routinely does, that “. . . the Church does not have direct competence for proposing technical solutions of an economic-political nature.” Against the background of such a self-disciplined understanding, it then means realizing that the Church does have a great body of faith to preach, including the belief that its adherents should achieve integral lives by seeking to shape social structures and policies with the faith they bring to society.

The real arguments, then, have not to do with “Church in or out of politics,” but how to participate in politics with full respect for all the Church’s missions, for its members’ moral sensitivities, and for the whole of society in and outside the Church.

Archbishop Weakland says that “The most difficult question posed to the Church today by the American political processes is precisely that of compromise, a solution inevitable in a pluralistic society.” A few lines later, in order further to refine the problem, he asks: “When does the Church say that no compromise is permissible or that the ultimate degree of compromise has been reached and one can go no further?”

In these comments the Archbishop is grappling with an important matter, but the categories employed are unreal. They inevitably produce distorted responses when applied, as he tries to apply them, to such issues as legally protected elective abortion. If one believes that convenience-based abortions are never acceptable and involve a radical disproportion between discomfiture, even some excruciating discomfiture on the one hand, and a human life, on the other, then there is nothing to “compromise.” Indeed, one instantly sees that the very category does not fit; indeed it does not fit anything of great value, importance, and moral clarity. For someone who holds such Christian beliefs, this is simply the wrong way to see the problem. There is no reason for him to compromise, no reason to be intimidated by such irrelevant appellations as “single-issue,” “negative,” and the like. Indeed, a healthy society will welcome the clear voices in its midst, whether moved by them or not.

But politics itself — the process by which the state settles the innumerable issues over which men divide — is a process which seeks to synthesize the many, often warring, values sought by society’s members. In performing that synthesis, it attempts to sustain the unifying social fabric, without which there is only jungle. And in that effort, it encourages and if needs be, it forces compromise among the competing voices and interests. If the issue in my breast is profoundly important to me, I cannot realistically think in terms of compromising it. But if I judge social order preferable to anarchy — not for my sake but for the human welfare generally considered — then I will accept the political order’s compromise until, by better persuasion, I can achieve a superior result.

With the reality of compromise better understood, one sees immediately that the question of “When does the Church say that no compromise is permissible” is essentially a non sequitur. That question would portray the Church as back-room dealmaker. The simple fact is the Church does not ever rightly say when to compromise. The state says that, and says it authoritatively. We as churchmen can decide how to react to such political decisions, according to the calculus of our faith. But the Church cannot talk of compromising beliefs it holds dear. The very terminology is misleading.

Though not a part of the Weakland article, social pluralism is often discussed with a confusion similar to that shown on the question of compromise. Given the importance of this concept in our lives, it seems worthwhile to make a slight detour in its favor.

Social pluralism, or the multiplicity of views, is the predictable result of an important social decision: the decision to recognize the worth of persons by granting them free choice in matters of personal belief, in deciding for themselves what is good and worth doing. The pluralism which results from this is not the objective of the social decision. Rather, it is a known and tolerable offshoot of starting one’s social vision with a perception of personal worth rooted in choice-making.

From experience we know that, given such freedom of choice, people will organize pluralistically rather than monolithically. But understanding that likelihood does not mean either relativizing our beliefs or elevating pluralism to the status of an end in itself rather than a byproduct. If I believe that truth is ascertainable, as I do in crucial areas of human principle, I cannot want disagreement as to that truth. But if I also believe that each person has been given a moral character rooted in free exercise of his judgment, then I am obliged to be tolerant of such disagreement. Thus, pluralism need not mean relativism, any more than accepting the polity’s necessary compromise need mean I have compromised my faith.

Archbishop Weakland states that “. . . the American Church in the United States has yet to find a way of addressing political and social issues in an enlightened manner that respects the knowledge, competency, and conscience of the individual Catholics who comprise it.”

I think it would be truer to say that the Church’s leadership has effectively lost the way. That way had been well known within and without the Church for a long time. Summarily, the way to relate the Church to politics with appropriate sensitivity is by relying on and charging the believer-as-citizen, whether cleric or lay, to bring his faith to bear on the political process in all appropriate ways.

The comments above aim to show that there is a natural interaction between Church and politics. It need not be searched for or concocted. And there is a natural and radical difference between the two, which cannot be compromised without inevitable damage to the community of faith. There is, also, a natural procedural linkage which if properly exploited can ensure a Christian impact on society: the believer-as-citizen. That linkage is the only ultimately efficacious way the Church can give guidance to the political order. In the last analysis, in a democracy the decision- makers appropriately want to know where the votes are, and they are with the citizens.

The beautiful part of this potent linkage, of course, is that, though potent, it cannot compromise the religious or sacramental purity of the Church, for the believer-as-citizen cannot pretend to speak for anyone but himself, whatever he takes his inspiration to be. And providing that inspiration by careful exegesis, by profound preaching, by repeated clarification of the principles contained in Christian faith, is a monumental task. Given prevailing divisions of labor, that task can best be done — perhaps can only be done — by the Church leadership, which has exactly such a teaching authority. What is certain is our Church leaders can fruitfully do no more when operating within democratic politics.

This “way” was well known by Yves Simon, Jacques Maritain, John XXIII, and Vatican Council II when the fathers spoke of “The Church in the Modern World.” It has been lost by much of current American Church leadership, and more’s the pity. Perhaps Archbishop Weakland’s article, dealing as it does with such methodological questions, indicates that the leadership is beginning to see that by over-extension of authority and over-specification of religious teachings it has gotten into a theoretical morass. Now it must move to higher and firmer ground.

  • Quentin L. Quade

    Quentin L. Quade, when he wrote this article, was the Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. He later went on to open the Blum Center in 1992 for the purpose of collecting, organizing, synthesizing, and distributing information regarding school choice efforts across the country.

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