Canon Law and Political Discourse: What the Church Can and Must Offer Politics

Ius & Iustitium is happy to present this guest post by Rev. James Bradley, J.C.D. Rev. Bradley is Assistant Professor of Canon Law at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.

Three months out from the U.S. presidential election, one in which two of the four prospective presidential and vice-presidential candidates were baptized in the Catholic Church, we inevitably hear again the same old criticism of religious involvement in political life. There is nothing new under the sun. Yet as attention is focused more and more on the election, from the perspective of the Catholic Church’s polity and law, and thus also its interaction with the political and social order of the civil society, revisiting and re-presenting the whys and wherefores of ecclesiastical involvement in political discourse is perhaps a helpful exercise for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. I want to do this briefly from a juridical perspective based on the Catholic Church’s legal system: her canon law. My purpose is not to prove a point, per se, but to demonstrate in simple terms why the Catholic Church involves herself in political discourse, under what terms she does this, and why this cannot be simply and uncritically dismissed.

First, the Catholic Church understands herself to be a principally spiritual reality. Those who have received baptism are by that act incorporated into the person and life of Jesus Christ in a mystical way. Christ is the second person of the Trinity, and thus those who are incorporated into his life necessarily constitute the holy people of God. These people, the Christian faithful so-called because of their new identity, participate in the life of Christ in the unity of the Godhead, and are thus “called to exercise the mission which God has entrusted to the Church to fulfill in the world,” each according to his or her own condition (c. 204 §1). As Christians through baptism they are one with Christ and one with the Church, his mystical body. As Saint Joan of Arc puts it: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” For a Catholic, being Christian involves an intimate union with Christ through the Church.

This is all very well, but clearly the Catholic Church is not just a spiritual entity. Instead the Church as the mystical body of Christ is “constituted and organized in this world as a society” (c. 204 §2). The two realities go hand-in-hand: the spiritual reality is constituted and organized as a society. The ideas of the people of God and the Church as society are thus not in opposition, but complimentary, organic, and reliant each on the other. Immediately we can see why for Catholics the argument about religious liberty and freedom to worship is misplaced. The free exercise of religion demands more than worship; it demands the freedom to act as a society without interference. And we can also see why, as a society, the Church embraces the principles of legal personality, acknowledging rights and responsibilities to physical and juridic persons.

That the Church is a society is, somewhat surprisingly, not a widely contested point. Although the Catholic Church is increasingly viewed as irrelevant by those external to her life (and even, sadly, by some within), this is not an argument against the idea itself. Even if it ever were a point of real contention, the Church’s self-understanding as the mystical body of Christ consisted and organized as a society means that she professes certain rights and obligations. The fact of that profession means these cannot be easily dismissed. The Church’s members on earth are, with other citizens, subject to the rights and obligations of the civil order. And so where there is true and authentic freedom within the civil order, these citizens—whether they hold a particular status in the Church or not—possess the same liberties as others within that civil order. They are thus free (from the perspective of the civil authority) to conform their “civil” life to their life of faith, if they so wish. Even where there exists a separation of Church and state, this cannot justly extend to personal conscience. From the perspective of the ecclesiastical authority this is put not in terms of rights, but duties: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21).

Within that ecclesiastical self-understanding or polity, the Catholic Church therefore professes “the duty and innate right, independent of any human power whatsoever, to preach the gospel to all peoples” (c. 747). From the perspective of the Church’s law this necessarily flows from the spiritual nature of the Church: the Church is the body of Christ, which is constituted as a society. The Church articulates the practical repercussions of this in this way: “It belongs to the Church always and everywhere to announce moral principles, even about the social order, and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it” (c. 747 §2).

Individual citizens of the free civil society are at liberty to express their views on political matters. Here the Church asserts that, as a society, she is herself also free to do so through her members. This is achieved in general ways by Catholics who faithfully live out the authoritative teachings of the Church, and in specific ways by those within the Church who possess the legitimate authority and power to do carry out this teaching function in the name of the Church. Naturally this includes the bishops, “who by divine institution succeed to the place of the apostles through the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, [and] are constituted pastors in the Church, so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship, and ministers of governance” (c. 375 §1).

As I began by saying, it is not my intention in this short text to convince dissenters that the assertions the Church makes for herself are true. I clearly believe them to be not only true, but life-giving and positive for the world: civil society and the Church’s members alike. Yet my point is this: the basis upon which the Church makes these assertions is not so different from that by which free civil societies make claims for the freedom of speech, of religion, and peaceable assembly. Nobody is going to pretend that every pronouncement of the Church’s leaders in political dialogue is going to be on the mark, and there is certainly scope for disagreement. But those voices can and must be heard, not just because of the freedom those individuals possess in the civil realm, but because the very ideas of authentic liberty that right-thinking people seek to promote depend on it

Rev. James Bradley, J.C.D.