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Catholics Must Be Active in Politics

I was a high school student in the ‘60s at the Ateneo de Naga University when I learned at a very young age why Catholics must get involved in politics.

The journey that I traversed was bumpy because of my conservative Catholic upbringing. As a young boy, my grade-school teachers, my scoutmasters, and my parents taught me to be obedient, respectful of authority, and to never rock the boat, so to speak, as the key to smooth personal relationships.

I was socialized believing that the poor and the persecuted are blessed for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The focus in my early catechism classes on the importance of the “afterlife” rather than the “here and now” had a paralyzing effect that, by default, made me view life on earth as transitory and, therefore, not of much importance.

So, for the wrong reasons, I never showed genuine concern for the plight of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized in society. After all, they would be rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven when they die. Why bother?

I was in fourth-year high school when I began to understand something I never understood before. Fr. James J. O’Brien, SJ, our socio-economics teacher, introduced our class to several papal encyclicals that contained the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

At first, I met with skepticism Fr. O’Brien’s first foray into teaching the encyclicals in a class about economics. But l later realized that the topics he was teaching were too important to ignore.

Encyclicals are papal letters addressed to Catholic clergy and the laity containing the pope’s views on Church teachings and doctrine in a particular area of concern.

If my memory serves me right, Fr. O’Brien discussed in our class four of the seven major encyclicals at that time: Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor), Mater et Magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress), Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), and Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples).

In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII, in response to the social conflict in the wake of capitalism and industrialization, declared that the role of the state is to promote justice through protection of rights, while the church must speak out on social issues to teach correct social principles and promote class harmony. Rerum Novarum also affirms the dignity of labor and the workers’ right to form labor unions.

In Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII explained why justice and the common good served as the norms of social conduct. The balance between excessive intervention of the state against the need for state intervention to curb injustices and to promote human dignity are two of the recurring themes of this encyclical.

In Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII explained the rights and obligations of individuals and of the state. He called for a strong involvement of the Catholic Church and faith-based organizations in the promotion of human rights, justice, peace-building and peaceful resolution of conflicts. He drew attention on the importance of human dignity and equality among people, and even mentioned the rights of women and nuclear non-proliferation.

In Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI addressed the world economy and its effects on people around the world. The encyclical discusses several principles of Catholic social teaching such as the right to security of employment; the right to a just wage; the right to a decent working condition; and the right to form a union.

By studying and reflecting on these encyclicals, I gradually realized that there was sufficient theological and moral basis for Catholics to actively participate in the transformation of society in the “here and now,” as mandated by the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

Whatever doubts or questions I had pertaining to the social teachings of the Catholic Church were answered years later during the Synod of Bishops in 1971. In their document Justice in the World, the bishops wrote: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appears to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel or, in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

Thus, in my mind, there is no question whatsoever that Catholics are morally bound to speak out not only against injustice, but also against the systemic proliferation of lies and hatred that damages the people’s trust in one another.

But it appears that the social teachings of the Catholic Church have generally fallen on deaf ears among many Catholics for reasons I cannot understand.

It pains me to feel the silence of many – not all, of course – of our priests, bishops, archbishops, and many Catholics amid extreme poverty, extra-judicial killings, low wages, corruption in government, illegal detention of activists and journalists, and abuse of power by many of our politicians.

Sometime in the late ‘40s, an unbeliever by the name of Albert Camus told a group of Dominicans, “What the world expects of Christians is that Christians speak out loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in a such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak our clearly and to pay up personally.”

Later in his life, Camus joined the resistance while millions of French Catholics remained undecided and uncommitted.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the young Lutheran pastor who joined the underground to defeat Hitler, wrote: “It is not with the next world that we are concerned, but with this world as created and pursued and set subject to laws and atoned for and made new. God is still found where there is suffering and pain.”

During an informal Q&A with members of Italy’s Christian Life Community and the Student Missionary League last May 2015, Pope Francis was quoted by the Catholic News Service as saying: “Do I as a Catholic watch from my balcony? No, you can’t watch from the balcony. Get right in there!”

Continued Pope Francis, Catholics must get involved in politics even if it may be “dirty,” frustrating and fraught with failure.

If all this means anything, it means that the Catholic Church urges its members to be active in politics for the right reasons, and to not be afraid of being falsely accused of adhering to errors in matters of faith.



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