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Civil Responsibility of Catholics

Pope Insists on Role of Faith

By Father John Flynn

ROME, JAN. 16, 2007 (Zenit) - Christians have a right to make their voices heard on political and civil issues. This was one of the points made by Benedict XVI in his address to the Roman Curia on Dec. 22. After commenting on why the Church is opposed to legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, the Pope defended the right of the faithful, and the Church itself, to speak out on this issue.

"If we tell ourselves that the Church ought not to interfere in such matters, we cannot but answer: Are we not concerned with the human being?" the Holy Father stated. It is our duty, he explained, to defend the human person.

This is sorely needed in contemporary society, the Pontiff explained earlier in his address. "The modern spirit has lost its bearings," he noted, and this means that many people are unsure of what norms to transmit to their children. In fact, in many cases we no longer know how to use our freedom correctly, or what is morally right or wrong.

"The great problem of the West is forgetfulness of God," the Pope commented, and this forgetfulness is spreading.

Just three days later the Pope returned to this theme, in his message before giving his blessing "urbi et orbi" on Christmas Day. "Despite humanity's many advances, man has always been the same: a freedom poised between good and evil, between life and death."

In the modern age our need for faith is greater than ever, given the complexity of the issues being face. The message the Church offers does not diminish our humanity, however, the Pope was quick to point out. "In truth, Christ comes to destroy only evil, only sin; everything else, all the rest, he elevates and perfects."

Faith in the public arena

There is, nevertheless, opposition to religion playing any role in public debates, Benedict XVI said. In his Dec. 9 speech to the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists the Pope examined the concept of "secularity."

The term, he explained, originally described the status of the lay Christian who did not belong to the clergy. In modern times, however, "it has come to mean the exclusion of religion and its symbols from public life by confining them to the private sphere and to the individual conscience."

This understanding of secularity conceives the separation of Church and state as meaning that the former is not entitled in any way to intervene in matters concerning the life and conduct of citizens, the Pope explained. Moreover, it also demands that all religious symbols be excluded from public places.

Faced with this challenge Benedict XVI told his listeners that it is the task of Christians to formulate an alternative concept of secularity "which, on the one hand, acknowledges the place that is due to God and his moral law, to Christ and to his Church in human life, both individual and social; and on the other, affirms and respects the 'rightful autonomy of earthly affairs,'" as defined by the Second Vatican Council constitution "Gaudium et Spes," (No. 36).

As the Vatican II document made clear, a "healthy secularity" means autonomy from control by the Church of the political and social spheres. Thus, the Church is free to express its point of view and the people must decide on the best way to organize political life.

But it is not autonomy from the moral order. It would be a mistake to accept that religion should be strictly confined to the private sphere of life, the Pope argued. The exclusion of religion from public life is not a rightful secularity, "but its degeneration into secularism," he said.

In addition, when the Church comments on legislative matters this should not be considered as undue meddling, "but, rather, of the affirmation and defense of the important values that give meaning to the person's life and safeguard his or her dignity." It is the duty of the Church, said the Pontiff, "to firmly proclaim the truth about man and his destiny."

Concluding his speech the Pope recommended that faced with people who want "to exclude God from every sphere of life and present him as man's enemy," Christians should show "that God is love and wants the good and happiness of all human beings."

The moral law given to us by God does not seek to oppress, he explained, "but rather to set us free from evil and make us happy."

Serving mankind

The December speeches by the Pope on the role of faith in public life reflected one of his constant concerns during the past year. Another important commentary by Benedict XVI on the issue came in his Oct. 19 address to participants in the national ecclesial convention, held in Verona.

The Pope observed that the convention organized by the Church in Italy had considered the question of the civil and political responsibility of Catholics. "Christ has come to save the real, concrete man who lives in history and in the community, and so Christianity and the Church have had a public dimension and value from the beginning," he affirmed.

The Church, the Holy Father added, is not interested in becoming a "political agent," and it is the role of the lay faithful, as citizens, to work directly in the political sphere. But, he added, the Church does offer a contribution by means of its social doctrine. In addition, strengthening moral and spiritual energies means that there is a greater probability that justice is put before the satisfaction of personal interests.

When the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, made his first official visit to Benedict XVI on Nov. 20, the theme of Church and state once more came to the fore. Both of these institutions, while distinct, have in common the function of serving the human person, the Pontiff commented.

The good of citizens cannot be limited to a few material indicators, such as wealth, education and health. The religious dimension is also a vital part of well-being, starting with religious freedom.

But religious freedom, the Pope argued, is not limited to the right to celebrate services or not have personal beliefs attacked. Religious freedom also includes the right of families, religious groups and the Church to exercise their responsibilities.

This freedom does not jeopardize the state or the interests of other groups, because it is carried out in spirit of service to society, Benedict XVI explained. So when the Church and the faithful affront such issues as safeguarding human life or defending the family and marriage they do so not just because of specific religious beliefs, but "in the context of, and abiding by, the rules of democratic coexistence for the good of the whole of society and on behalf of values that every upright person can share."

These efforts by the Church and Christians are not always accepted favorably, observed the Pope in his Sept. 8 address to the bishops of the Canadian province of Ontario, on the occasion of their five-yearly visit to Rome.

Moreover, he noted that some Christian civic leaders "sacrifice the unity of faith and sanction the disintegration of reason and the principles of natural ethics, by yielding to ephemeral social trends and the spurious demands of opinion polls."

But, the Pope reminded the bishops: "Democracy succeeds only to the extent that it is based on truth and a correct understanding of the human person." For this reason Catholics involved in political life should be a witness to "the splendor of truth" and not separate morality from the public sphere.

Benedict XVI urged the bishops to demonstrate that "[o]ur Christian faith, far from being an impediment to dialogue, is a bridge, precisely because it brings together reason and culture." An appeal valid for Christians in all countries as a new year begins.

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