Our nation and our church stand at a pivotal moment as we ponder the crucial issue of how religious communities can contribute to the common good in a time of pandemic and bitter partisan political division. For the Catholic community, the penetrating vision of the Second Vatican Council on religion, the state and the political order provides an unparalleled orientation, identifying a clear pathway of public engagement, conscience formation and authentic witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
A new vision of church-state relations
From the start, “Gaudium et Spes” (“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) offers a new approach toward the church’s activity in the public square. Referring to the “church in the modern world” rather than “and the modern world,” the title of the document signals that the church exists on its own terms, not because any agency gives permission or grants a right. As Vatican II’s decree on the church’s missionary activity puts it, “The pilgrim church is by its very nature missionary” (“Ad Gentes,” No. 2). In other words, the church’s autonomy and freedom derive from the fact that it has been sent, that its very nature is missionary.
Moreover, while the church enjoys its autonomy to act in the world, it does not stand in competition with the world. Rather, being in the world means that the church journeys in solidarity with all of humanity. If the church is to preserve its identity as “a sacramental sign and an instrument of intimate union with God, and of the unity of the whole human race” (“GS,” No.42), there must be a proper balance between its autonomy and its solidarity with humanity.
While the church enjoys its autonomy to act in the world, it does not stand in competition with the world.
Maintaining that balance means that while the church does not act as a direct agent in the political, economic and social order—not in the same way, say, as our elected officials do—its mission is to illuminate these dimensions of human life in order “to establish and consolidate the human community according to the law of God” (No. 42). As such, when the church engages the state, it should not limit itself to explicitly “religious” issues. Nor should it engage the state exclusively on issues of self-interest—for example, the protection of religious institutions.
Rather, it must speak about all that pertains to the common good, which “would include the promotion and defense of...goods such as public order and peace, freedom and equality, respect for human life and for the environment, justice and solidarity” (From the doctrinal note published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Nov. 21, 2002, “The Participation of Catholics in Political Life”). And the church’s proclamation of these values is not merely institutional but occurs primarily through the informed consciences of Catholics as citizens, who infuse Gospel values into the life of society and the state.
The church’s religious mission is best understood as one of service. The church offers its teachings with no pretense of having all the answers but recognizes that it will make mistakes and “will attain its full perfection only in the glory of heaven” (“Lumen Gentium,” No. 48). In fact, the church respects human knowledge and “desires to add the light of revealed truth to mankind’s store of experience” (“GS,” No. 33, and “Evangelii Gaudium,” No. 241). This conciliar teaching corrects a mistaken attitude toward the world found in some pre-conciliar societas perfecta ecclesiologies, which viewed the church as divided from and standing over the rest of humanity.
By virtue of the universality of the church’s mission, it is not bound to any particular form of human culture, nor to any political, economic or social system.
By virtue of the universality of the church’s mission, it is not bound to any particular form of human culture, nor to any political, economic or social system. On the contrary, the church’s “universality can be a very close bond between diverse human communities and nations, provided these trust her and truly acknowledge her right to true freedom in fulfilling her mission” (“GS,” No. 42). It is in this spirit that the church “admonishes her own sons, but also humanity as a whole, to overcome all strife between nations and race in this family spirit of God’s children” (No. 42). By building relationships of trust in society, the church not only advances the cause of religious freedom but remains true to carrying out its universal mission.
As the church insists that its right of free exercise “must be recognized in the juridical order and sanctioned as a civil right,” it also recognizes that religious freedom “is not of itself an unlimited right. The just limits of the exercise of religious freedom must be determined in each social situation with political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority through legal norms consistent with the objective moral order” (“Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” No. 422; see also “Dignitatis Humanae,” No. 2). Here again, we have an example of striking a proper balance between the church’s rightful autonomy and its commitment to work in solidarity with others, including civic officials, for the benefit of the human community.
The Vatican II vision of church, state and politics provides a secure pathway as we face the issues of pandemic and partisanship that are becoming destructive of our national unity. The intense debates in recent days about religious freedom versus the right of the state to protect public health provide a key example. For the church, the right to public worship lies at the core of its mission and identity. Similarly, for the state, the protection of its citizens is at the heart of its raison d’être. Too often, the public debate has focused on these sets of rights as if they were absolute.
One way to break this seeming impasse may be found in thefocus in “Gaudium et Spes” on the common good, which recognizes the transcendent goal of each of these claims: public worship and the defense of human life. But it places those claims within the larger context of the whole of human flourishing. Neither public health and the defense of human life nor the right to public worship can be ignored. Both must be integrated into the larger constellation of issues surrounding our response to the pandemic, such as the economic suffering that our country is enduring, the vulnerability of older people and the ways in which people of color are disproportionately suffering during this crisis.
Vatican II invites us to a broad, integrating perspective, rather than one that arises from absolutist interpretations of partial dimensions of the common good.
The conciliar teachings point to the reality that religious freedom can sometimes be limited by the state in accord with laws that promote the common good but that such limitations must be carefully circumscribed and monitored. Vatican II invites us to a broad, integrating perspective, rather than one that arises from absolutist interpretations of partial dimensions of the common good. And the council urges us to pursue wide, cordial public discussions of these questions rather than tactics that lead to confrontation.
This means that the central issue for the church during this election campaign season is to find a way of witnessing to Catholic teaching in the public square without allowing it to become distorted by partisan divisions. One of the council’s most illuminating passages on the role of the church in the modern world provides the inspiration that must inform the church’s contribution to today’s public debate:
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 a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person. The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other (“GS,” No. 76).
Navigating the issues
How can the church be a sign and safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person during the 2020 election cycle?
First, by witnessing to the whole of the church’s social teaching through its participation in public debate and by forming, not replacing, the consciences of believers. Catholic leaders must reject any effort to truncate church teaching and the imperatives of the Gospel in a way that reinforces partisan divisions.
Second, by transcending such divisions in every political relationship and policy discussion. There should be cordiality with all candidates and public officials but not alignment with any candidate or party.
Third, by always recognizing the sacred dignity of conscience among all people, not seeking to short-circuit the responsibility that citizens have to bring the light of their conscience to bear upon their own political choices.
The church is in the world. It is called to be both immanent and transcendent. As Vatican II made clear, that means it must speak prophetically and not be compromised. It must engage the state and public leaders in cordiality but not in partisanship. It must witness to the Gospel in its entirety.
The church’s proclamation of the dignity of the human person and the pursuit of the common good in all of its dimensions provides an essential framework for navigating the issues that divide the nation today. This is why the church enters the public square with both confidence and humility amid the perils that surround us. And it is in the sacred consciences of lay women and men that the church finds its greatest resource for transforming the world.