Religion and politics do mix

February 1, 2017


"The church intervenes in social questions whenever human dignity is wounded ...; They involve the responsibility of everyone toward the entire human family to build a fairer, more just and peaceful society in line with the message of the Gospel."

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, a member of the Pontifical Council for Justice & Peace, shared this insight at a seminar sponsored by the Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research along with the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In reading his presentation and coming across these words, I thought of the adage that religion and politics don't mix, and how false that thinking is. The church does not engage in partisan politics, but the Judeo-Christian principles upon which it is founded have strong political implications.

During the Republican primary race, former Senator Rick Santorum, a Catholic, in response to Pope Francis' papal encyclical on the environment entitled, "On Care for Our Common Home," stated that the pope should stick to "theology and morality."

Yet, as Francis explained in the encyclical letter, "Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods ...; Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded."

This is an example where the church speaks out on social issues when they impact the common good of society and the well-being of its members.

The Jewish prophets spoke out forcefully against injustice toward the widow and orphan, the poor and marginalized, and the alien in their midst. Jesus continued in that tradition by preaching the kingdom of God's justice, love and peace. Social justice is defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as "The respect for the human person and the rights which flow from human dignity and guarantee it. Society must provide the conditions that allow people to obtain what is their due...;"

Building on statements by recent predecessors such as Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis states in the encyclical letter, "The just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation."

To this end, Francis has recently engaged in some interesting endeavors. The Vatican hosted the Fortune+Time Global Forum that offered CEOs, philanthropists, academics, and labor and church leaders an opportunity to "forge a new social compact for the 21st century," at which Francis stated that the global economic system needs a "fundamental renewal" for the "common good of humanity, of the right of each person to share in the resources of this world...;"

The Pontifical Academy for Sciences hosted a conference on the benefits and limits of artificial intelligence, at which Francis met with famed U.S. physicist (and atheist) Stephen Hawking. In his annual message for the World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, Francis reminded us, "An ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence between individuals and among peoples cannot be based on the logic of fear, violence and close-mindedness but on responsibility, respect and sincere dialogue."

On that same day a new Dicastery (office) for Promoting Integral Human Development brought together various Vatican offices focused on peace and justice issues including migrants, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and unemployed, and victims of armed conflict, slavery and torture.

In the United States, the bishops' Office of Migrant and Refugee Services declared Dec.12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, as a National Day of Prayer of Migrants and Immigrants, asking Catholics to reflect on Matthew 25:31-46: "I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me...;"

Archbishop José Horacio Gómez of Los Angeles recently preached, "In our country we need to start building bridges and bringing people together. We need to reach out to those who are hurting. Now is the time to build unity and heal communities through our love for our neighbor and our care for those in need."

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego spoke at the recent Catholic Immigrant Integration Initiative Conference in which he called for compassion for all who are suffering, whether immigrants and refugees or the white middle class without college degrees. He warned, "There is a profound sickness in the soul in American political life. This sickness tears at the fabric of our nation's unity, undermining the core democratic consensus that is the foundation for our identity as Americans. It is our responsibility to heal our nation...;"

Locally, the bishops of Massachusetts recently released a statement seeking criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth that "will recognize and address critical areas that offenders face every day under the current judicial system."

Cardinal John O'Hara, C.S.C., who before being made a bishop served in the 1930s as president of the University of Notre Dame (a sister school to Stonehill College), stated, "The primary function of commerce is service to mankind. Business has a code of ethics based very largely on divine principles. When this code is followed, commerce can and does advance civilization."

Dom Helder Camara, celebrated for his advocacy for the poor and oppressed as a Brazilian archbishop in the 1964-1985, once said, "When I feed the poor, everyone calls me a saint. But when I ask why the poor don't have food, they call me a communist."

As I preached on the scriptural passage 1John3:11-21 at one of our recent weekday masses, the world will sometimes hate us when we work to protect the most vulnerable in our society, such as the unborn, and to respond to those most in need, such as those fleeing war and poverty. But we do so because, as Christ reminds us, what we do for the least of our sisters and brothers we do for him.