Recently, I have begun a series on the Catholic understanding of human nature from a philosophical perspective. Before returning to the next installment in the series, I thought it best to give some commentary on pressing issues in our culture. I believe this will enhance the need for a clear and thorough understanding of human life and human nature and the effects of that understanding on our practical lives.
Without question, one of the most contentious issues in the western world today is that of immigration. Intense fervor has been on display following the implementation of President Trump’s immigration policy. There has also been fierce debate and protest regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold President Trump’s travel ban. In the midst of these events, prominent public figures in the Church have given their opinions on the matter. Most notably, the Chairmen of the U.S. Bishops’ Migration Committee and Religious Liberty Committee issued a joint statement on the travel ban ruling. And the Editor-at-Large of America Magazine, Father James Martin, S.J., has been very vocal on his social media accounts denouncing the Supreme Court decision as well as the administration’s immigration policies in general. He has even said that this travel ban and the immigration policies of the administration are “evil” and “unchristian.” The Pope himself famously denounced anyone who wants to build walls as people who are “not Christian.”
My objective here is not to argue for one side or another in the seemingly endless debates regarding these issues. Rather, I want to point out some problems with the way these debates are characterized in themselves, no matter what side of the issues one happens to agree with. I will then suggest some principles to clarify how these debates should be approached.
Render Unto Caesar
One problem, as I see it, with how these events are unfolding is that when leaders in the Church comment on matters of policy over time it tends to give the impression that the Church has an official standing on the matter at hand. What makes matters worse is when prominent leaders publicly disagree about matters of policy. Then it seems as if the Church has a befuddled or contradictory stance on the issue. Another problem with public pronouncements on policy by Church leaders is that over time it can tend to blur the true mission and mandate of the Church in the minds of the faithful. Over-involvement in political issues and extended public debate by priests on these topics has the tendency to secularize the mission of the Church.
The mission of the Church is to bring Christ’s salvation to the whole world. He told His apostles to preach the Gospel to all living creatures, make disciples of all nations, and teach them to observe all that He commanded (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15). It is well to remember that when Jesus spoke of acts of mercy and welcoming the stranger (Matthew 25:31-36) He was not instituting a political framework for those in power to follow. He was exhorting individual Christians to exercise charity for their neighbor no matter their condition. The mission of the Church is not to give commentary on political issues. The mission is to spread God’s grace and save souls from perdition. This does not mean that priests cannot have political opinions or exercise proper political privileges and rights. But it does mean that priests, who carry on Christ’s work in a unique way, must be cautious with their words and actions so as not to give the impression that the Church’s mission is chiefly concerned with governmental or political causes. As Christ said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world…” (John 18:36). It is the mission of the Church to increase the citizenry of that Kingdom as much as possible, and She must take care to ensure that such a lofty mission is not co-opted for worldly purposes.
Matters of Faith and Matters of the World
Now, some might think that such a stance is untenable. What about when atrocities are committed by the government like murder, forced labor in concentration camps, genocide, etc. Shouldn’t the Church speak out about such things? After all, didn’t Saint Paul and many of the apostles condemn many abhorrent practices of the government and culture of their day? Well, yes, the Church should speak out when atrocities are committed. And depending upon the specific governmental policies, the Church should speak out on them if they are found to be particularly morally repugnant. The question is, how do we determine which political actions and issues are ones that the Church should speak out about and which are not? There is not enough space here to fully flesh out an answer (the reader interested in the fuller explanation can find it here and here). However, two basic distinctions can help us to see which issues deserve commentary and which are best left to the lay faithful and politicians. The first distinction is between matters of moral absolutes and matters of prudential judgment. The second distinction is between matters of faith and morals and matters of this world.
Moral absolutes concern actions which are always in and of themselves immoral regardless of circumstances or intentions. Murder, rape, and theft all constitute moral absolutes according to Church teaching. If a law or policy of government were to sanction anything that is absolutely morally repugnant, the Church has an obligation to speak out against these things and guard the faithful against them. This, I maintain, is what the apostles were doing in the early Church. Matters of prudential judgment concern things that are not necessarily immoral in themselves, but can be made good or bad depending on circumstances and intentions. Matters of faith concern the truths of the faith that have been revealed by God and definitively taught by the Church and which must be held by the faithful. The Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and Papal Infallibility are examples of matters of faith. Matters of the world have to do with things that have not been revealed by God, but which are known by the use of human reason and are governed according to reason. The power Christ gave to the Church to teach, to forgive sins, and to “bind and loose” only has to do with faith and morals, not matters of this world (Matthew 16:13-20; Mat. 18:17-18; John 20:22–23).
The Kingdom of Heaven
However, some may see this position as a violation of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Specifically, in chapter 2 paragraph 70 it states that the Gospel must be lived by the faithful in their entire lives and this involves politics, trade, law, arts, labor etc. It seems to me that my position holds in light of this objection. I do not disagree that the Gospel must be lived and defended in all parts of life. However, it is still important to be careful with how one goes about this in order to avoid both confusion and scandal. In areas of politics that do not touch on moral absolutes, it seems better to me, as I have argued, to let the lay faithful take the charge on these issues so as not to give the impression that, one, the Church has an official doctrine regarding particular political matters and, two, the mission of the Church is not blurred and seen as a this-worldly political cause. If moral absolutes are involved in political issues and they are violated in an egregious way, it is important for all the faithful and the clergy to speak out. The Gospel needs to be preached and lived in every part of life. But as we carry out his task we must be wise as serpents and simple as doves (Matthew 10:16). We must carry the Church’s mission into the world in order to carry the world into the Church and not vice versa.
So, it is neither within the Church’s mission nor within Her powers given by Christ to comment on or be competent in matters of policy. If policies fall short of infringing upon moral absolutes then it would be wise for Church leaders to keep their political opinions to themselves. Otherwise, they tend to jeopardize the other-worldly mission and nature of the Church as well as Her authority in matters of faith and morals. This world will never be perfect and it is not the mission of the Church to make it so (Matthew 26: 1-11). It is the mission of the Church to bring souls to Christ and He will make them perfect and give them eternal life in paradise.
Now, how can we know when an issue involves a moral absolute? And, how can we clearly distinguish matters of faith and matters of this world? The traditional answer of the Church is that absolute moral wrongs positively frustrate one or more of the various ends of human nature. Since human nature was created by God such wrongs are an offense against God and neighbor. Matters of faith have to do with things that cannot be refuted by human reason but cannot also be proved by it either. Faith goes beyond reason without confounding it. Therefore, in order to better understand moral absolutes and the relevance of faith in human life, it is necessary to make a study of human nature. It is to this study that I will return in my next column with another installment in my ongoing series on human nature.