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Church's Voice Has a Tougher Time in the Public Square

ROME, OCT. 4, 2003 (Zenit) - At the start of his pontificate John Paul II faced a grimacing foe in Communism. Now, on the eve of his 25th anniversary as Pope, the Church is still facing hostility from the secular powers that be -- this time in the West.

In Venezuela, testy relations between Catholic bishops and President Hugo Chávez have taken a turn for the worse, with the populist rebel-turned-leader publicly attacking the Church. In Cuba, Catholics still face persecution, as seen recently in a prison's decision to ban inmates' Bibles. In the Europe Union, the Pope himself has made numerous pleas, so far rejected, for the constitutional recognition of the role of Christianity in the continent's history.

In the United States, too, the race in the California recall election is providing material for conflict. The current governor, Gray Davis, is signing a swath of decrees, among them approval for stem cell research using human embryos. At the signing ceremony, Reuters reported Sept. 24, Davis laid down a challenge, declaring: "I am not going to see religious or political opposition prevent groundbreaking research that can improve people's lives."

Three candidates running for governor -- actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, retired General Wesley Clark and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante -- are Catholic yet declare themselves pro-choice on abortion. Noting Schwarzenegger's and Clark's position, United Press International on Sept. 30 noted: "Both gentlemen thus favor what their church calls an 'abominable crime' for which perpetrators automatically incur excommunication." Davis too is Catholic, though one of the most pro-abortion officeholders in the nation.

The situation is similar in Canada. Shawn McCarthy, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe and Mail, wrote a commentary last May 3 on Canadian politicians and the debate over same-sex marriage. He noted that Paul Martin, at that time touring Canada in his successful campaign to win the party vote for the succession to current Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, took care not to miss Sunday Mass. "And yet despite that strict adherence to Catholicism, Mr. Martin gives virtually no public utterance to his faith as he campaigns to become the 22nd Canadian prime minister," observed McCarthy.

In an interview, Martin explained that he believes a politician must be able to separate his religious convictions from public policy stands. Martin said that while he does not like abortion, he defends "a woman's right to choose."

Prime Minister Chrétien, also a declared Catholic, is firmly pro-choice on abortion. He is also strongly supporting legislation to allow same-sex marriage and stem cell research on human embryos.

Nonjudgmental, sort of

In Scotland, the Catholic Church is taking a critical view of how politicians are managing matters. In the run-up to local elections earlier this year, the seven members of the bishops' conference signed a letter saying Catholics must consider how each party addresses issues such as faith schools, abortion and contraception.

In the document published April 16 by the Scottish Catholic Media Office, the bishops declare that voting "must be done in accord with one's conscience formed by the teachings of the Church."

They explained that it is not the task of the Catholic Church to propose a particular ideology or political manifesto. But they added: "The Church does however present the transcendent values and principles, which provide criteria for evaluating particular political choices."

Bishop Joseph Devine of Motherwell in Scotland returned to the debate with an article published in the Sunday Times on Sept. 28. Public authorities are continually exhorting citizens to avoid racism, drive safely, and look after their health. "If the state is happy to moralize on some issues, why not on others?" he asked.

The state runs campaigns against smoking and drunken driving because of the high social cost of these behaviors. "Why, then, do our policy makers take fright at conveying similarly bold messages in drug and sexual health campaigns?" the bishop wrote. "Why do they instead bend over backwards not to be judgmental?"

He warned: "A failure to set these issues in a moral context can lead to a behavioral free-for-all, creating a moral vacuum in which many, especially impressionable young people, crave guidance and absolute truths only to receive platitudes and a seemingly endless array of choices."

The why of freedom

John Paul II has always paid close attention to the role of religion in the public sphere, bolstered by his experience in dealing with the Communist authorities in Poland. In his first encyclical, "Redemptor Hominis," he asked if in the midst of modern progress "man, as man, is becoming truly better, that is to say more mature spiritually, more aware of the dignity of his humanity, more responsible, more open to others, especially the neediest and the weakest, and readier to give and to aid all" (No. 15).

Political power, he explained, should be exercised for the common good of society and within the context of "the objective ethical order" (No 17). It is an error, observed the Pope, to think that "each human being is free when he makes use of freedom as he wishes, and that this must be our aim in the lives of individuals and societies. In reality, freedom is a great gift only when we know how to use it consciously for everything that is our true good" (No. 21).

John Paul II has repeatedly returned to these social and political themes, in three social encyclicals, numerous interventions on bioethical questions, and frequent commentaries on the United Nations and war and peace. In more recent years, he has increasingly reflected on the role of Christian politicians.

In an Oct. 31, 2000, apostolic letter he named St. Thomas More patron of politicians. "His life teaches us that government is above all an exercise of virtue," wrote the Pope. "What enlightened his conscience was the sense that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality."

A few days later, in his address to political leaders gathered in Rome as part of the Jubilee Year celebrations, John Paul II said: "Christians who engage in politics -- and who wish to do so as Christians -- must act selflessly, not seeking their own advantage, or that of their group or party, but the good of one and all."

When it comes to law making, the Pope exhorted them to "always respect and promote human persons -- in all the variety of their spiritual, material, personal, family and social needs." He specifically mentioned the importance of protecting life and the family based on marriage between a man and a woman.

"Certainly in today's pluralistic society Christian lawmakers are confronted by ideas of life and by laws and requests for legalization which run contrary to their own conscience," noted the Pope. He then exhorted them to bear witness to their own faith.

Last Nov. 14, John Paul II visited the Italian Parliament. He reminded the politicians of his words in "Centesimus Annus" (No. 46) that "a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism." He also urged them to defend human life and the family.

Since then, with the Pope's approval, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has published two documents orienting politicians on how to combine their public duties with Christian principles. The first, in January, dealt with general orientations. The second, in July, addressed the subject of legal recognition to same-sex unions. Among the many legacies of this pontificate is a Church that is not afraid to remind politicians of their duties as Christians.


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