The Church and Politics
Religion is a powerful force in Fiji. Here Fr Barr, from a Christian and Catholic perspective, considers what others have said on its actual and intended role, most especially in societies experiencing political oppression or conflict. **
By Fr Kevin BarrWe often hear the words: “The church should not meddle in politics”, or “Religion and politics don’t mix”.
It is a fact that, throughout the course of history, the church and religion have been used for political purposes by those in power (or those claiming power) to validate their claims or policies. For example, in South Africa, the government used theological concepts and biblical texts to justify the system of apartheid.
In the past, the church sometimes acted as a higher authority and tried to manipulate and control the political power of the state. Occasionally (for example in England and in France) church prelates acted as important ministers of a nation.
Historically, representatives of religion have allowed religion to be used to support the political regimes of rich aristocracies and received in return certain favours and privileges. This has happened in South America, Central America and the Philippines.
Today, throughout most of the world, there is a recognised separation of church and state. Both are autonomous and one is not subject to the control of the other. Where this separation of church and state is recognised we say that society is secularised. Peter Berger well defines secularisation as “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols”. In a secularised society institutional religion in the form of a state church ceases to impose order on the world by way of external controls. However the church and religion can still be important and exert an influence on the lives of individuals and, through them, on society. Moreover, as an institution in society, the Church can voice its opinions publicly. However it is one voice only and does not exercise dominant power in society.
Some statements on the Church and Politics
The legitimacy of the separation of church and state is recognised by Pope Paul VI when he said:
“Founded to establish on earth the kingdom of heaven and not to conquer any
earthly power, the Church clearly states that the two realms are distinct, just as
the two powers, ecclesiastical and civil, are supreme, each in its own domain. But
since the Church lives in history she is to “scrutinise the signs of the times and
interpret them in the light of the Gospel”. Sharing the noblest aspirations of men
and suffering when she sees them not satisfied, she wishes to help them attain their
full flowering, and that is why she offers men what she possesses as her
characteristic attribute: a global vision of man and the human race.”
(On the Progress of Peoples, No.13)
The Church also makes it clear that it wants to remain independent of any particular political or economic system. Its role is to uphold principles and values rather than systems.
Concerning the role of priests and religious in politics, Catholic social thought has usually made a distinction between a general and a direct involvement in the world of politics between politics broadly defined and partisan politics. While every Catholic is exhorted to be involved in politics in the first sense, active roles in party politics belong exclusively to the laity. Except for very special reasons, the Church forbids its priests and religious to be involved in party politics and to accept any political office. (cf Canon Law Can 385 par. 3 and Can 287 par. 2) also the document Religious and Human Promotion 1978 (par. 7 12).
The Church in a Secular Society
We noted above that in most countries of the world today there is a separation of church and state. Society in those countries is said to be secularised. The secularisation of society has given rise to two different interpretations and reactions.
Some see the church as having no role to play in politics and in the development of this world. They think that the Church should be concerned only with “spiritual” things and “other worldly salvation”. Religion should be a private matter for individuals. Its concern should not be with this world but with the world to come. Some may even say that this world is evil and that Christians should have nothing to do with it. We should look for salvation only in a future life beyond the grave.
Others react to this “privatization” of religion to the narrowing down of religion merely to the inner life of the private individual. They say that religious faith must always be personal but it can never be merely private. It always has social consequences. This view stresses that our Christian faith cannot remain aloof from what happens in this world and that Christians must accept responsibility for what takes place in the world around them. Our Christian faith must help to enlighten and direct our existence on earth. Our religion is not a separate compartment of our lives so we cannot separate faith and life. Because politics, the economy, culture, and religion are all part of life, we cannot dissociate faith and the economy, faith and culture, faith and politics. Mahatma Gandhi once remarked: “I am told that religion and politics are different spheres of life. But I would say without a moment’s hesitation and yet in all honesty that those who claim this do not know what religion is”.
It should be clear that the church does not seek to be involved in politics in the sense that it promotes a particular party or political platform. But, if it is to fulfil its prophetic role, it must be “political” in the sense that it brings the message and values of the gospel to this world today. This message cannot be divorced from the economic, social and political dimensions of a particular historical context and the challenges and demands that arise from it.
It would be naive to think that the church must support any government simply because it happens to be in power. Those who use Romans chapter 13 to uphold the status quo misunderstand Paul’s meaning and the total message of the scriptures. It is incumbent upon the church in its prophetic role to hold up to the scrutiny of the gospel and the values of the Kingdom any government or regime in which it finds itself and under which its children must live, and to evaluate and, if necessary, criticise the actions and policies of that government.
The Church as the Conscience of Society
In 1976, President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya said to the Catholic Bishops of Kenya: “The Church is the conscience of society, and today’s society needs a conscience. Do not be afraid to speak. If we go wrong and you keep quiet, one day you may have to answer for our mistakes”. And the American theologian, Monika Hellwig, wrote: “The task of the churches is at all times to protest against injustice, to challenge what is inhuman, and to side with the poor and oppressed.”
The church must raise its voice in criticism whenever the values of human dignity, justice, freedom and community are at stake.
A good analysis of the relationship between the church and politics in South Africa and the need for a prophetic stand of the churches is provided in the Kairos Document issued by a number of South African theologians in 1985. These theologians criticised first of all what they called “State Theology” the misuse by government of theological concepts and biblical texts to justify the status quo of apartheid. Here religion was being used for political purposes to “bless injustice, canonise the will of the powerful, and reduce the poor to passivity, obedience and apathy”. They also criticised “Church Theology” whereby many in the church, while critical of apartheid, called for peace, harmony, unity and reconciliation without challenging the injustice of the system. Their stance was to call for a “Prophetic Theology” which would analyse what is happening in society, interpret what is happening in the light of the gospel, and call for justice.
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador spoke out fearlessly in the name of the poor against an oppressive government and privileged aristocracy. He was murdered one day as he celebrated the Eucharist for being the voice of the poor. He once wrote:
“The Church is persecuted because it wants to be truly the Church of Christ. As
long as the Church preaches an eternal salvation without involving itself in the
real problems of our world, the Church is respected and praised and even given
privileges. But if it is faithful to its mission of pointing out the sin that puts many
in misery, and if it proclaims the hope of a more just and human world, then it is
persecuted and slandered and called subversive and communist.”
In Africa, Bishop Patrick Kalilombe of Malawi was expelled from his diocese of Lilongwe by the government. He reflected that whenever the Church in Africa tried to exercise its prophetic mission and speak out for the poor, it was accused by those in positions of socio economic and political power of unduly meddling in affairs outside its competence. The Church was told to stick to its proper religious duties which were seen as individual morality, ritual activities, intra church order and discipline, and matters of life after death. Yet these same authorities who demand that the Church stick to its spiritual responsibilities often ask the Church for services such as education, health care, rural development, care of orphans, etc.which have quite temporal implications. Kalilombe (1987) comments:
“These church services are welcome, appreciated, and encouraged so long as they
promote the interests, objectives, and programmes of those who are in positions of
power and privilege. Nobody objects provided that no questions are asked as to
whether the system is equitable and beneficial for all the other members of
One is reminded of the words of Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. But, if I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist”.
Karl Rahner - The Church as a critic of society
In an address to the South Pacific Association of Theological Schools (SPATS) on the 10th June 2002 the late Savenaca Siwatibau then Vice Chancellor of USP spoke of the tremendous changes brought about by individualism and the capitalist economy on the traditional societies of the Pacific. He spoke of poverty, the dislocation of family life, inequality, corruption and the inability of governments to really address these issues. He asked "What can the Churches do?"
He noted that, in the past, the Churches have mostly been active as social welfare agents ministering to the needs of the victims of society but rarely addressing the root causes that created these problems in the first place. He then recalled the words of Dom Helder Camara: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint but, when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." He then continued:
"I believe that the churches have a very important and critical role to play in the Pacific today, not only to be called saints but also not to be afraid to be called 'communists'. Church leaders and theological teachers need to begin to question why things are as they are, to analyse the root causes, and to seek solutions rooted in the basic values of Christianity that all religions share."
The Vice Chancellor then posed a number of questions for the Churches:
"Should the Churches stick to their role as saints and administer only to
spiritual needs and physical needs of victims? Do they ask questions
about root causes and seek answers to correct these? Does the Church
remain only the saint and therefore accept that the majority of our
peoples may continue to be marginalized and remain deprived of the
benefits of development? Does it also dare to be called 'communist'
following the example of Jesus when he overthrew the tables of the
money changers and chased out those who traded in the temple of God
in Jerusalem. To ask questions about causes is to analyse, to publicise
and to work to root out the causes of exploitation, of oppression and of
corruption in our countries. It is not to be afraid to question those in
power. Is it possible that the churches can be accused of cowardly
silence or even compliance, in the face of abuse of power by those who
wield it in our countries?"
Mr Siwatibau noted that the Churches and Church leaders are respected and wield considerable influence in our societies and asked what they should be doing to curb the scourge of corruption, entrench good governance and strong leadership in the societies of the Pacific because:
"the churches have an important role in assisting those who wield power
to do so with compassion and justice. … As a layperson, my
understanding is that Jesus was a social activist who was fearless of
those in power, and did not hesitate to expose their hypocrisy and
corruption. How far will the churches in today's Pacific follow his
** Fr Barr informs me trhat part of the article appeared in the Fiji Times "but they somehow left out the second page and jumped form page one to page three." Some readers may therefore have alreay read part of the article.