The Lay Faithful in Politics

Michael Hull

March 30, 2004

The active participation of the lay faithful in contemporary politics received a strong endorsement at the Second Vatican Council, particularly in Gaudium et spes, Chapter IV, "The Political Community" (nos. 73–76). Likewise, in other documents, the Council fathers highlighted various aspects of the faithful’s involvement in the apostolate (Apostolicam actuositatem), in guarding religious liberty (Dignitatis humanae), and in missionary activity (Ad gentes divinitus). And many of the writings of John XXIII (e.g., Mater et magistra and Pacem in terris) and Paul VI (e.g., Populorum progressio and Octagesima adveniens) encouraged the faithful to engage the world for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Pope John Paul II, close in the footsteps of the Council and his predecessors, has written extensively on diverse areas of the relationship of the Church and society (e.g., Laborem exercens, Centesimus annus, Veritatis splendor, and Evangelium vitae). So important is the role of the lay faithful in politics that the pope writes in Christifideles laici: "In order to achieve their task directed to the Christian animation of the temporal order, in the sense of serving persons and society, the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in ‘public life,’ that is, in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative, and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good" (no. 42, italics original).

However, the substance of the aforementioned "participation in public life" is often confused in the minds of the faithful. For this reason, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a doctrinal note entitled The Participation of Catholics in Political Life to clarify the Church’s teaching. Citing the benefits of democracy and the dangers of ethical pluralism, the Church defends the primacy of the natural moral law and reminds the faithful that "they are called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism" (no. 3). In particular, the doctrinal note points to the political responsibility of the faithful to preserve life (against abortion and euthanasia) and defend the family—essential elements of the common good (no. 4).

Catholics and all citizens have an obligation to follow the natural moral law. While the Church makes no attempt to enter politics in such wise as to support political parties or unduly influence legitimate governments, the Church has a duty to teach firmly what is true. Such teaching ought not to be construed as an attempt "to exercise political power or to eliminate the freedom of Catholics regarding contingent questions. Instead, it intends—as is its proper function—to instruct and illuminate the consciences of the faithful, particularly those involved in political life, so that their actions may always serve the integral promotion of the human person and the common good" (no. 6).

Indeed, the Church has never sought to impose set structures on political or social questions. Rather, she has sought to articulate reasoned principles, ever mindful that there is no freedom outside truth. The Church’s strong defense of the freedom of conscience is not a defense of indifferentism or relativism; it is an affirmation of the ontological dignity of the human person. As the pope writes in Fides et ratio: "Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery" (no. 90). Lay persons have a moral obligation in politics—as anywhere else—to uphold the truth and advance freedom, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.