As the presidential election heats up, Catholics in America are bound to weigh in and give their two cents worth.
A robust engagement in the political arena by Catholics has always been encouraged by the Church. With that encouragement, however, the Catholic Church makes the distinction between endorsements and denunciations; between officially supporting a political party and publicly condemning them.
The former is forbidden for good reason. But it should be noted that the Church reserves the right to denounce or condemn evil in the political world. To condemn one party or regime does not imply the endorsement of the alternative party or regime.
Historically the Church has condemned many civil rulers, political regimes and ideologies which proved themselves to be contrary to God’s law and the common good. During the twentieth century, for instance, the Catholic Church condemned the Communist governments of Mexico, Spain and the Russian Bolsheviks. In 1937 Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical entitled, “On the Church and the German Reich” (or “Mit Brennender Sorge”). His condemnation of the Third Reich speaks to that ancient pagan error which held the State as supreme:
“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community - however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things - whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.”
The prophetic duty of the Church is to fulfill what the Blessed Virgin exclaimed in her canticle: “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.” What kind of rulers? Rulers who have oppressed their people by taking the place of God. Indeed, throughout the centuries the Church has echoed the words from the inspired book of Wisdom; especially to those who exaggerated their political power:
“Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the LORD and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!” (6:2-3)
Therefore, to condemn or criticize rulers, political parties and evil ideologies such as socialism and communism does not – I repeat, does not – lie outside the competence of the Church. In fact, when circumstances require it, it is her plain duty.
Nevertheless, the mission of saving souls has been hindered whenever there was too close of an alliance between the Church and State. This is why Catholic Church refuses to officially or formally endorse particular forms of governments, political parties or rulers.
Unfortunately, some members of the clergy and of laity have departed from this wise counsel from time to time. It should be emphasized, however, that there is always a price to be paid when this has happened. One example was the French Revolution (1789-1792). Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), author of “Democracy in America” and a native of France, witnessed the consequences of what happens when there is too close of an alliance between the Church and State. When King Louis XVI was dethroned and executed by his political enemies, scores of Catholics suffered martyrdom and persecution as well. It just so happened that the Catholic clergy was perceived, by many, to have a close association with the royal family. Although this was a part of the reason why the Church suffered greatly, it was, nevertheless, a contributing factor.
Tocqueville, a Catholic, happened to visit America in 1831 and wrote his book, “Democracy in America,” from 1835-1840. He saw great potential for the Catholic Church because many of America’s founding principles were consistent with her doctrine. But he issued a warning based on the painful lessons French Catholics experienced just a few decades earlier:
“(T)he Church cannot share the temporal power of the State without being the object of a portion of that hatred which the State excites. Again, when religion clings to the interests of the world, it becomes almost as fragile a thing as the powers of earth.”
In twentieth (and twenty-first) America, Catholics (and here I refer to those Catholics whose mission it is to save souls such as the clergy and lay evangelists) have made the mistake of forging alliances with one of two political parties; namely, the Democrat Party or the Republican Party. As a result of that alliance, fair or unfair, onlookers and prospective converts often associate Catholicism with the sins and weaknesses of that party. And more often than not, such political associations put many souls out of reach. As Tocqueville alluded to, being the object of that hatred with which the State or any political party excites, the mission of the Church becomes as fragile as the party itself.
For instance, not a few Catholics – clergy and laity – have forged close ties with the Democrat Party over the last several decades. But now that the Obama administration (and the DNC) has turned against the Catholic Church with his HHS mandate, very few people have come to her aid. Bishops rightly cried “foul!” but it seems as though calling attention to this injustice has not resonated with the American people. In fact, it is becoming more and more apparent that President Obama has not taken a political hit for his coercive measures. He still enjoys strong approval numbers. Moreover, no one can deny that he has a good chance at winning his bid for reelection.
A valuable lesson can be learned here: It can be argued that too close of alliance with the Democratic Party has mitigated the impact of the Church’s prophetic voice in America. Fair or unfair, there was and still is a widespread public perception that the Catholic Church endorses much of what the Democratic Party stands for. Now that this same party is forcing her violate her conscience, the Church’s condemnation of such an injustice is being met with indifference.