The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Political Authority and Its Limits

Today, in our own nation, we are confronted by an administration that apparently believes there is little room in the public square for either the pronouncement or the application of religious values, especially those religious values that conflict with the government's ideology, its own view of the world. Not just the Catholic Church, but all faiths have been put on notice that they will be required to suppress their most basic moral beliefs and take actions that directly contradict these beliefs. This, of course, flies in the face of this nation's founding principles and the Constitution in which these principles are enumerated. Our Constitution prohibits the federal government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion and yet this is exactly what the current administration is attempting to do. The Catholic Church, joined by many of other faiths, has come out strongly against these policies and we can hope that this dispute ultimately will be settled by the U. S. Supreme Court in favor of the Constitution and the Church. Until then, and perhaps even afterwards, the Church -- and that includes all of us, not just our bishops -- must resist the implementation of such policies regardless of the personal consequences.

Many Catholics, along with many other Christians, however, seem not to realize what is at stake and view this issue as just another political controversy, one that will have little or no effect on how they vote in November. If this represents your view I suggest you turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and take a few moments to review the Church's teaching on political authority and its limitations. The Catechism is one of the few sources of wisdom to which we should turn when confronted by the absurdities and disputes and terrors we encounter in the world. The Church's teachings as found in the Catechism derive not only from Holy Scripture but also from Apostolic Tradition and the Church's Magisterium, the teaching authority it received directly from Jesus Christ.

Addressing this issue (CCC 1901-1904), the Catechism first quotes Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical, Pacem in terris:

"Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, 'authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.'" [Pope John XXIII, Pacem in terris 51]
And so, we are called to resist laws or regulations that are "contrary to the moral order." By not doing so we place the salvation of our own souls in jeopardy.

In this same section the Catechism also quotes Pope John Paul II, from his encyclical, Centesimus annus:
"It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the 'rule of law,' in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men." [Pope John Paul II, Centisimus annus, 44]
Here Pope John Paul encourages keeping government authority in check via the application of separation of powers which epitomizes our own constitutional form of government. But he also addresses the necessary presence of "other spheres of responsibility" -- i.e., the Church --to ensure the government does not stray beyond its "proper bounds." The Church, then, must speak out when confronted by the gross usurpation of authority by teaching its members, the community at large, and the government itself. And it must also put its teachings into action by resisting the illegitimate application of authority.

One of our more courageous bishops, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill, in a recent column in his diocesan newspaper, encouraged Catholics to approach the upcoming election responsibly and not vote for candidates who support intrinsic evils. As he stated in his column, “My job is not to tell you for whom you should vote. But I do have a duty to speak out on moral issues.” You can read the bishop's column in its entirety here. (A video of his comments is also available on the same website.)

As Bishop Paprocki told the people of his diocese, we must all “think and pray very carefully” about our votes in the upcoming election.

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