1. A Vatican “office” with its prefect, Cardinal Ratzinger—that was before he became Pope Benedict XVI—published a “doctrinal note” on the question of engagement in political life. See: CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH—DOCTRINAL NOTE on some questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life, 2002. Let me share a few points.
2. Although civil life witnesses to many improvements in conditions of life there is still the issue of “ethical pluralism”. Ethical pluralism in politics says that there are no moral norms rooted in human nature to which politics submit. All conceptions of what is good have the same value. Each to his or her own morality. In politics, says the doctrinal note, people are made not to base their political participation on common good and on human nature.
3. The doctrinal note then states that engagement in politics must be based on “true” human-social good. Yes, there is plurality in opinions and forms of engagement. There is plurality in technical management of politics. But they should not be marked by ethical relativism. Democracy, states the doctrinal note, needs true and solid ethical foundations; democracy needs principles that are “non-negotiable”.
4. Catholics can get themselves involved in many different ways; they must exercise their political rights and duties. Nevertheless, continues the doctrinal note, the variety of involvement should not be confused with pluralism of moral values. All involvement, plural as they may be, should keep intact the Christian moral doctrines. The laity should not deviate from these doctrines in order to make their participation coherent in politics. We can be divergent in our political lines but we are united in our sense of humanity.
5. If citizens participate in a democracy they need to clarify their participation in terms of a correct notion of humanity. What is a human person? Democracy, states the doctrinal note, stands on fragile ground if it does not stand on the central character of the human person. Is the human person respected? Are human rights observed?
6. Catholics have the right and duty to intervene in legislation that violates human life. This intervention will also remind the social order about the sense of human life. Those engaged in making laws have the obligation to oppose whatever is against human life. It is not encouraged that Catholics participate in promoting such laws; not supporting such laws is done with the vote, for example.
7. In case there are laws violating human life that are already in place a legislator should manifest and make known a stand with the effort to limit the effects of that law. The doctrinal note gives the example of opposing abortion which is legal in some countries.
8. A “well-formed Christian conscience” does not support programs contrary to faith and morals. The Christian must be vigilant in commitment to faith and morals in any and all political involvement.
9. The doctrinal note then gives a list of principles on which votes and choices can base.
For the Catholic Voter
1. In Church tradition there is what is called as the “(moral) natural law”. This law states: “Do good; avoid evil”. How do we do good and avoid evil. The natural law offers three principles. First is to preserve and protect life. For the Church “life” means from conception to natural death. Second is to recognize family life and the upbringing and education of the offspring. For the Church this means that the family is grounded on the marriage of a man and a woman. Parents have the right and duty to educate their children. Third is the search for truth and social solidarity. For the Church this means religious freedom, the common good, participation in subsidiarity and solidarity.
2. If an electoral candidate does not respect these then the Catholic may refuse voting for that candidate. But then the three principles, above, look very limited. The “doctrinal note” of Cardinal Ratzinger can help us.
3. The document does not claim to give an exhaustive list. It does not present the entire teaching of the Church on this matter. It “intends only to recall some principles proper to the Christian conscience”. The note enumerates some principles.
a. the right to life from conception to natural death
b. the respect and protection of the human embryo
c. the protection and promotion of the human family founded on the man-woman marriage
d. the guarantee of the freedom of the education of children
e. the social protection of minors
f. the right to religious freedom
g. the development of an economy oriented to the common good
h. the development of social justice, solidarity and subsidiarity
i. the assurance of peace
4. This is a helpful list. This list is clearly relying on the Thomistic “natural law”. If we look closely there is a close link between the wider social life and the principles of right to life, right to family, to upbringing and education of children, and the right to truth and a healthy social life. In the wider social life, for example, a government might opt for privatizing all services—such as health services. There are repercussions here on, say, the right to life. When hospitals become very expensive many will think twice about caring for their ill, thus opening doors to possible (hidden) euthanasia or abortion. The contractualization of labor, for example, can interfere in family life and correct upbringing. The young man or woman in precarious job conditions will stay away from the option of marriage, will raise a family however and be unable to focus to educate their children. The wide social life and the private individual-family life are interconnected. If we watch the socio-economic platforms of candidates we can somehow link that to our very own private lives.
5. The doctrinal note of Cardinal Ratzinger stands on the basic principle of human dignity and full human integrity. The principles spring from this respect for the person. They are “non-negotiable”. Now, what does “non-negotiable” mean?
6. The principles listed are “ethical principles” and not juridical principles, says the note. As ethical principles they orient judgements and choices in political life. Of course the ethical does not remove the consultation made on the fields of, say, the social and legal sciences. Also it should not forget “practical wisdom”. Principles may sound very convincing but their applications “in the concrete” can tell another story. A direct application from general principles to choice of candidate can be naïve too. The principles guide. But we need evaluation on other levels too, such as
a. the capacity to manage efficiently a government office
b. the aptitude to make priorities in decisions
c. the sensitivity and skill to organize governance for the common good
d. the ability to be non-violent
7. Ethical principles, especially when “authorized” by the natural law, are “non-negotiable”. A candidate should be a person of those principles. But still, we need to avoid being naïve regarding skills, aptitudes, or what we nowadays call as “competence”.
8. The doctrinal note of Cardinal Ratzinger is in reaction to moral relativism. Human dignity cannot be relativized. The Weberian “access to” wealth-power-prestige, if we are to take an example, does not determine human dignity. A person’s dignity is not based on which social-economic class that person belong to. As we know dignity is based on the fact of being “image of God”.
9. Hopefully we can be guided by certain principles. Let us add the principle of respecting the justice of the environment—ecological justice.
10. The doctrinal note of Cardinal Ratzinger reminds Church members to be coherent with human dignity and integration. We may be opposed against each other due to political lines but we should be united in our sense of human dignity.
1. Birth: Each person is unique—and unique in the eyes of God. Christian engagement here is not primarily “dictated” by a moral position. Something more basic is here. The Christian is “dictated upon” by love for life. Hence reject candidates who will open the doors to abortion and death penalty and to any other form of killing. Hence the Christian is called to be vigilant about welcoming and respecting life.