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SPECIAL: The Church on Political Life

Compendium Lays Out Guidelines

ROME, JAN. 31, 2005 (Zenit) - Tensions over church-state relations have a long history, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church lays out in its introduction to a chapter on politics. In Old Testament times the prophets regularly denounced the kings for failing to defend the weak and not ensuring justice for the people.

David is the prototype of a king in the Old Testament, and while Israel ceased to have kings, the books and Psalms of the Bible continue to hope for a ruler who would govern with wisdom and justice -- a hope that culminates in the figure of Christ.

The Compendium observes that Jesus criticizes oppression and despotism, but does not directly oppose the civil authorities of his time. The famous line about paying taxes to Caesar rejects efforts by temporal power to make itself absolute, but also gives it a due place. Jesus teaches that human authority, tempted by the desire to dominate, finds "its authentic and complete meaning as service" (No. 383).

In the early Christian community St. Paul recommends payment of taxes, prayers for rulers, and submission to legitimate authority. But, when human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, the Book of Revelation has harsh words for such authority "makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission" (No. 382).

Person-centered politics

Describing the nature of the political community, the Compendium once more places the human person at the center. The person is a naturally social and political being, needing interaction with others to reach complete fulfillment. The political community, therefore, exists in order to facilitate "the full growth of each of its members, called to cooperate steadfastly for the attainment of the common good" (No. 384).

This does not mean that "the people" are some kind of multitude to be manipulated and exploited. Rather, it means they are a group of persons, able to form an opinion on public matters, and with the freedom to express political options.

The Compendium also has something to say on the question of minorities within a political entity or nation. The Church's magisterium affirms that these minorities have rights, and duties, but above all the right to exist. Minorities also have a right to maintain their own culture, language and religion. At the same time, minorities in their quest for autonomy should rely on dialogue and negotiation; terrorism is unjustifiable. Minorities should also work for the common good of the state in which they live.

Putting the human person as the foundation of the political community also brings the Compendium to consider the matter of human rights. The rights and duties of a person "contain a concise summary of the principal moral and juridical requirements that must preside over the construction of the political community," states the text (No. 388).

In addition, friendship and fraternity play a role in political and civil life. Civil friendship implies selflessness, detachment from material goods and accepting the needs of others. Unfortunately, laments the Compendium, all too frequently this has not been put into practice in modern political life. Christians can also find inspiration in the Gospel principle of charity. This can help in establishing community relationships among people.

Exercising authority

Every community needs some ruling authority and there can be different ways in which it is constituted, notes the Compendium. But this authority must also take into account the liberty of individuals and groups, "orienting this freedom, by respecting and defending the independence of the individual and social subjects, for the attainment of the common good" (No. 394).

Authority, the text recommends, should be carried out within the limits of morality and within the framework of a legally constituted juridical order, as well as being oriented toward the common good. If these conditions are fulfilled, then "citizens are conscience-bound to obey."

The Compendium also stipulates that authority ultimately resides in the people who make up the political community. This authority is transferred to those selected to govern, but the people retain the possibility of asserting their sovereignty and to replace those who are governing if they do not carry out their task satisfactorily.

Yet, merely obtaining the consent of the people is not sufficient in order to consider "just" the exercise of authority. "Authority must be guided by the moral law" (No. 396). It must also recognize and respect human and moral values, which cannot be invalidated by a majority vote. Laws, therefore, must "correspond to the dignity of the human person and to what is required by right reason" (No. 398). And when a law is contrary to this reason it is unjust and "ceases to be law and becomes an act of violence."

In this context, "Citizens are not obligated in conscience to follow the prescriptions of civil authorities if their precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel" (No. 399). In fact, there is a duty not to cooperate in morally evil acts, which civil law should recognize and protect.

The Compendium adds that cooperation with unjust laws cannot be justified by saying that it is done in order to respect the freedom of others, nor can it be legitimated by pointing out it is an action required by civil law. "No one can escape the moral responsibility for actions taken, and all will be judged by God himself based on this responsibility" (No. 399).

The text then goes on to consider when there may be the possibility to resist authority that is not being exercised justly. The Compendium is careful to point out that passive resistance is by far preferable, and enumerates a series of conditions that must be met before any form of armed resistance can be considered as a legitimate option.

Authentic democracy

A substantial section is dedicated to democracy. It starts by recalling the words of John Paul II's encyclical "Centesimus Annus," in which the Pope expressed his appreciation for democracy as a system that enables the active participation of citizens. But for a democracy to be authentic it must respect human dignity, be ordered to the common good, and respect a correct hierarchy of values.

The Compendium recommends that those in authority exercise power in the sense of service to the people, avoiding the temptation of seeking personal prestige or advantages. It also condemns corruption as one of the most serious deformities of the democratic system.

Several numbers are dedicated to explaining the importance of the media in a democracy. The Compendium urges that the media place itself at the service of the common good, and that it provide information based on truth, freedom, justice and solidarity. Problems arise when the media is concentrated in the hands of a few, or is dominated by ideology or the desire for profit.

The chapter concludes with a consideration on the relationship between the state and religious communities. The state is exhorted to respect the right to freedom of conscience and religion. However, this freedom may be regulated according to the requirements of prudence and the common good.

The Compendium asks that the state guarantee the Church sufficient freedom of action in order to carry out her mission. For its part, the Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and enters into matters of political programs only with respect to their religious or moral implications. The often-heated debate over religion and politics would benefit greatly if participants took some time to reflect on the principles laid out by the Compendium.


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