Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Should the Church Get Involved in Politics?

One way to understand the difference between Catholic Social Doctrine and Protestant social ethics is to see the Catholic teaching as moral teaching, rather than political involvement and to see Protestant social ethics as blurring the line between Christian morality and politics. What do I mean by this distinction?

Catholic Social Doctrine is focussed first and foremost on what human persons need to know and do in order to be saved. It is the teaching of pastors to the faithful on the implications of the Gospel for their lives as disciples of Christ. It is not about strategies and trade-offs necessary to effect change in this world. It is not primarily about power politics, parties, coalitions, programs, and electability, although it may affect all these things indirectly. When the Church concentrates on what is morally right and wrong, it inevitably bumps into the political realities of the world around it. That cannot be helped. But when the focus shifts from morality to the effective implementation of programs, something vital is lost - something evangelical is lost.

When the Catholic bishops clarify that abortion is always an intrinsically evil act and that to vote for a politican because he is for legalized abortion, when an alternative exists, is always formal cooperation in moral evil - that may well rule out voting for the Democratic Party in this election. But the main concern of the bishops is not which party wins or which program is put into action. The main concern of the bishops as pastors is to safeguard the souls of their flock and to teach the truth about the taking of human life that arises out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and which can be discerned by reason as natural law. The main concern is moral even though the implications are also political.

Protestants on both the right and the left seem to have lost the ability to make this distinction. For example, when neoconservatives like Colson and Robertson defend the indefensible in the form of the second Iraq War, they display a committment to Republican party unity and conservative ideology that is political and, of greater concern, trumps morality in the form of the just war teaching. To defend an unjust war on utilitarian grounds is unworthy of Christian theologians. And when Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo collaborate in advancing the pro-legalized abortion agenda in the name of Democratic party unity and liberal ideology, they need to be corrected for a moral lapse. Liberal Protestantism, in particular, seems prone to enshrine liberal political ideology on a level of equality with classic Christian orthodoxy. (Well, to be honest, it actually doesn't hold classic orthodoxy that high!).

There is a very large distinction to be made between matters of prudential judgment and the direct evil of breaking God's commandments. For example, it is debatable whether the State should allow no-fault divorce and Christian politicans might well find themselves on either side of a debate over a specific bill relating to divorce. But it is always evil to commit adultery in every situation and there is no debate to be had between Christians on this matter. It is debatable whether a given war is justifiable, but abortion is always wrong. (And, to be fair to the Christian Right, the Iraq War is not as clear cut an issue as abortion by a long shot, except for pacifists and most Evangelicals are not pacifists.)

Perhaps the Church, in the form of the teaching of her pastors, would do well to be much more discrete about making political pronouncements, and save her moral credibility for moral issues that are more clearly matters of faith and more clearly grounded in the Bible and Tradition.

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