“Catholics in Public Life,” round table at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross

On April 9, a round table on “the participation of Catholics in political life” was held in the Höffner auditorium of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, in connection with the doctrinal note of the same title published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Joining Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation, were a number of well-known political and intellectual figures: Francesco Cossiga, Giuseppe De Rita, Prof. Ernesto Galli della Loggia, Prof. Paolo Del Debbio and Msgr. Ángel Rodríguez Luño. The meeting was opened with a greeting from the Chancellor of the University, Msgr. Javier Echevarría, who spoke of politics as a path to sanctity, in light of the example of St. Thomas More, patron of statesmen and politicians.

“The document is addressed to Catholics, but it is intended to provide food for thought for everyone,” said Cardinal Ratzinger in his address. “Politics is carried out on the plane of reason, a reason that is common to all men and women. A secular state,” he stressed, “excludes theocracy and the formation of political policies dictated by faith. Faith can illuminate the realm of politics, but one cannot reduce the political field, which is based on reason, to faith.” Politics “is guided by reason and by the natural virtues of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude.” The Cardinal stressed that this distinction of two spheres has always been part of Christian tradition, based on the words of Christ himself who said that one must give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. The lay and secular nature that is proper to politics also excludes “a positivism and empiricism that shrivels reason” and “that is blind to moral values.”

The former President of Italy, Francesco Cossiga, noted that “this document clarifies some points that should guide not only Catholics and Christians, but anyone who supports democracy.” Among these, Cossiga mentioned the impossibility of holding that “politics should be situated at the margin of ethics,” as though it could be reduced to a technical undertaking.” He also spoke of faith and reason as two types of knowledge that are not two separate truths, but rather two ways of knowing the moral law. The secularity of politics, therefore, is a question of respecting others’ freedom, rather than diluting one’s own faith.

Msgr. Ángel Rodríguez Luño, professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said that the Christian faith could not be identified with any specific political platform. But faith does entail clear consequences for political activity insofar as one’s “faith confirms, adds to, or modifies the political culture of those who accept it.” In addition, “history shows that faith has at times also been innovative and creative in the social and political sphere.” The two key ideas in the doctrinal note, according to Professor Rodríguez Luño, are “consistency” and “freedom.” The principal role of the Church is that of forming consciences, rather than creating a culture, so that there be well-formed individuals capable of expressing a culture within the context of legitimate plurality.

Professor Giuseppe De Rita, Secretary General of the CENSIS Foundation (Center for the Study of Social Investments), emphasized the note’s “just condemnation of cultural relativism and ethical pluralism,” along with its “positive affirmation of the centrality of the person, since democratic participation is only possible to the extent that it is founded on a correct understanding of the human person.” Therefore, “every democracy will be fragile if it does not have as its foundation the centrality of the person.”

Professor Ernesto Galli della Loggia, an editor for Corriere della Sera and a professor of the History of Political Parties and Movements at the University of Perugia, pointed out that the doctrinal note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”highlights one of the central problems of today’s liberal society,” namely “the lack of shared values.” For a society to function properly, he stressed, formal laws and economic and political apparatus are not enough; the people in the society must also possess values that they share in common.

The academic discussion ended with comments by Paolo Del Debbio, Professor of Social Ethics and Comunication and author of a recent book on globalization. According to Del Debbio, a Catholic active in politics today should avoid vague debates about values in general. Instead he should strive to “indicate some very specific paths for actions that are based on these values.”

Romana, n. 36, January-June 2003, p. 0.

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