Deus Caritas Est
Pope Benedict XVI's new encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, was published today. It's well worth the time it takes to read it. Here's a quote from the encyclical which seems particularly relevant to our readers:
The Church's social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church's responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church's immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.
The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply (Deus Caritas Est, #28a).
There is so much in the pope's first encyclical that is encouraging, but I find this particular passage very encouraging for progressive Catholics who are concerned about social justice, but who nevertheless believe in an appropriate separation between Church and State. Most progressive Catholics agree that the Church has a meaningful role to play within political and social life, and I think Pope Benedict XVI has hit the proverbial nail on the head: "...it is not the Church's responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly."
It is not the Church's job to run the State or to coerce political leaders into following its own teaching, rather it is the Church's job to offer wise counsel for the formation of consciences and to offer insight into the requirements of justice. It is heartening to see that Pope Benedict XVI: a) does not believe or teach that the Church is the sole arbiter of what is just or what is unjust; and b) that he believes the conscience, formed by but not replaced by the teaching of the Church, should still be the prevailing factor in political life. Maybe Pope Benedict XVI's progressive understanding of the separation of Church and State, and the Church's role in society, will help all of the lay faithful come to a similarly progressive understanding in which the Church is not dictator over the State but one participant among many in social and political life.