Religion and politics according to Pope Benedict XVI

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  In this role, he was in charge of defending the one true meaning of the church’s doctrine against a range of other interpretations.  On April 24, 2005, this chief “ideologue” of more than a billion Roman Catholics also became their leader.

It is important to point this out because Benedict XVI is probably the sharpest and most intellectually prepared of all those who had the rare opportunity to lead the world’s largest religion.  Out of curiosity, I started to read the writings of this new Pope. I was amazed to discover how well he grasped the complexities of the modern world, and how concerned he was to define the church’s role in the face of modernity.   His reputation as a conservative precedes him, but this label does not at all do justice to the nuances of his thought. Benedict strikes me as a true modern – perhaps the first modern Pope — one who understands and recognizes the growing differentiation and autonomy of the various spheres of human life.

A core issue that absorbed him was the relationship between politics and religion, state and church, and the pursuit of justice in relation to the service of love.  His first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, would deal precisely with these questions.  Lucid and deeply philosophical, this encyclical is perhaps the best available summing up of the church’s understanding of its role in the modern world.  This is of immense interest to me, not so much as a Catholic, but as a student of modernity.  Here I present what I think constitutes the church’s position on these issues – issues that are of great relevance to our present situation in the Philippines.

Benedict states the principle of church and state separation simply: “The state may not impose religion, yet it must guarantee religious freedom and harmony between the followers of different religions. For her part, the church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured, on the basis of her faith, as a community that the state must recognize.  The two spheres are distinct, yet always interrelated.”

The separation of the two spheres is understood by most people; it is the interrelation, I think, that has caused confusion.  Benedict’s position is finely nuanced, and strives for utmost clarity.  “The just ordering of society and the state is a central responsibility of politics. As Augustine once said, a state that is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves.”  How true!

“Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics.”  I think every democrat can easily agree with that.  But Benedict goes further – he follows Kant and lays down the premises for the church’s role in the pursuit of justice (which, he grants, is the principal function of politics).  His argument is compelling.  “Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which, by its very nature has to do with ethics. The state must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now.  But… what is justice?  The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.  Here politics and faith meet.”

To Benedict, faith is a “purifying force for reason itself….faith liberates reason from its blind spots… faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.”  I love this formulation, but this is where theology and sociology part ways.  The question is: whose faith?  Benedict anticipates this question, and offers a ready answer.  Catholic social doctrine, he says, “has no intention of giving the church power over the state.  Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith.  Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.”

“To help purify reason” – what does it mean in politics?  “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 one’s personal interest.”  If this is not clear enough, Benedict makes it even clearer – I imagine – for people like Pampanga governor Fr. Eddie Panlilio, who prays for discernment about his future role in Philippine politics.

“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 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 the church.  Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good concerns the church deeply.”

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