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A public church, not a partisan church

The temptation to ally the church with a particular political party and its program is a perennial one, it seems. When that temptation is not resisted, it invariably leads to trouble – politically and, more importantly, evangelically. That was true in 20th century Quebec, Ireland, Spain and Portugal; it is now a danger in 21st century Poland, where a number of Polish bishops have identified the church’s public interests with those of “Law and Justice,” the present governing party.

As I had been invited to speak to several groups in Poland at events marking the 40th anniversary of John Paul II’s election, I thought it a good moment to raise some cautions about this, drawn from the teaching of Poland’s greatest son, in these terms:

“As envisioned by John Paul II, the Church of the 21st century was neither an established Church nor a partisan Church: it was not a Church that sought to put state power or the mechanisms of a particular political party behind its truth claims. As the Pope wrote in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, ‘the Church proposes; she imposes nothing.’ The Church asks, and if necessary the Church demands (as it did under communism), to be able to makes its evangelical proposal in public; and the Church claims the right, as a civil society institution, to be a vigorous partner in the public debate. But the Church does not seek legal establishment, nor does it ally itself with any political party. Partisanship jeopardizes the independence of the Church and, even more importantly, partisanship reduces the Gospel to a political program – precisely one of the criticisms that John Paul II made of certain forms of Latin American liberation theology. 

“Nor was the 21st century Church described in the teaching of John Paul II a privatized Church, withdrawn from the public square by its own decision, by the application of coercive state power, or both. 

“European Catholicism had long been accustomed to ecclesiastical establishment. Those days, John Paul II knew, were over. And the alternative to ecclesiastical establishment was neither a privatized Church nor a ghettoized Church nor a partisan Church but a public Church: what John Paul II called in Redemptoris Missio a proposing Church.   

“As John Paul II taught explicitly in his most developed social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, this proposing Church would work in public primarily through the free associations of civil society, rather than as a political actor. The proposing, public Catholicism of the 21st century would make arguments; it would not seek to craft policies, although the arguments it made would suggest that some policies were more compatible than others with freedom lived nobly, in solidarity, and for the common good. The proposing, public Church sketched by John Paul II’s social magisterium would work at a deeper level of public life – the level of cultural self-awareness and self-understanding. The Church would, in other words, be the guardian of the truths that make it possible to live freedom well.” 

In a conversation with several Polish bishops concerned about the problem of the church in Poland being perceived as a partisan political actor, I suggested looking to the U.S. bishops’ role in the pro-life battles of the past 40 years as a model for their consideration. In their promotion of the right to life from conception until natural death, the American bishops have, over four decades, made explicitly public arguments that any reasonable person can engage. In the abortion debate, they’ve appealed to science (human conception produces a human being, as we know from elementary biology and genetics) and they’ve appealed to rational principles of justice (innocent human life deserves the protection of the laws). Those appeals, plus the effects of the sonogram and other technologies, have made a real difference over time. 

And while the pro-life cause has come to be identified primarily with the Republican Party, the U.S. bishops have consistently urged the Democratic Party to be open to pro-life candidates at every level – even as the bishops have been critical of Republican policy in other areas. The bishops, in other words, have been public actors, not partisan actors, in the drama of American politics. It was, I suggested, a lesson from which my Polish friends might learn.

George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow and William E. Simon chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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