Catholic Social Teaching Corner: Moral Schizophrenia?

March 31, 2012

The Church and the Individual Christian in Public Life One characteristic of Pope Benedict’s magisterium is that some of his most attention-getting points, and occasional controversies, come from statements of lesser authority – discourses, homilies, interviews – than the great teaching documents by which popes usually make an imprint in the world. This is in part because he has a way of speaking in full fledged theological treatises even off the cuff, and in part because of his appealing candor. An interview on his recent airplane trip to Mexico provided the opportunity for two trenchant observations on Catholic social teaching. As reported by the Vatican Information Service, a Mexican journalist asked whether the Church does enough concerning the great social inequalities in Latin America. The Holy Father responded, “The Church must of course ask if she does enough for social justice on that great continent. It is a question of conscience which we must always pose ourselves. … What must the Church do? What can she not do? What must she not do? The Church is not a political power, she is not a party but a moral entity, a moral power. [Emphasis added.] Here is a simply stated expression of the role of the Church in the social realm. She is a “moral power,” not a political one. The Church does not get involved in the nitty-gritty of civic life but offers moral principles to guide the participation of the laity. This view of the Church avoids the two extremes of theocracy, on the one hand, and of a merely aesthetic Church afraid to engage in the world, on the other. So often nowadays, when the Church is accused of interfering in politics, it is actually the opposite that is happening. The state is interfering in the realm of morality, taking upon itself the task of defining right and wrong – whether it’s about abortion, contraception mandates, or concocting new criteria for a just war. Pope Benedict then went on to describe the basic duty of the Church to guide the laity in their public life: In Latin America, as elsewhere, no small number of Catholics show a kind of schizophrenia between individual and public morals. … We must educate people to overcome this schizophrenia, educate them not only in … individual morality, but also in public morality. [Emphasis added.]     “Schizophrenia” is a striking term to describe the problem of Catholics whose personal devotion is not matched by their public attachment to Church social teaching. It is caused by ignorance of the doctrine and the relative ease of jumping in with one political camp or another based on a portion of the Christian message. Rather we are called to accept the fullness of the teaching at the expense of being a bit of a political outsider. The “public morality” the Pope mentions is precisely the way a Christian brings the Gospel fully into the social realm. Reminiscent of the term “political holiness” – albeit used by liberation theologians – public morality on the part of Catholics is what is so crucially called for in the world today. It is the light of Christ shed on public discourse. Pope Benedict, simply as a theologian, has digested the fullness of Catholic Social Teaching over the course of his life. His simple summations are worth remembering. The world needs the moral force that the Church represents. As Christ’s enemies sought to destroy him, so certain powers today will seek to silence the Church. But if pastors teach Catholic social thought and the laity witness to a true public morality, the Gospel in all its fullness will never fail to be proclaimed and lived.

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