Christian Conscience and the Future of Politics

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Pope Benedict XVI has long made clear that Christianity does not believe in political messiahs. Recently, he reminded us that only faith in the true Messiah — Jesus Christ — can allow us to influence politics in a profoundly ethical way.

His words in September in the Czech Republic — a country celebrating 20 years since the fall of Communism — have important implications for all of Europe, for the Philippines and for the American continent, places whose history is inseparable from Christianity.

Speaking there at an ecumenical meeting, the pope noted, “As Europe listens to the story of Christianity, she hears her own. Her notions of justice, freedom and social responsibility, together with the cultural and legal institutions established to preserve these ideas and hand them on to future generations, are shaped by her Christian inheritance.”

Moreover, Pope Benedict explained, Christianity must not be limited to the margins of society. Religious liberty must be protected, and Christianity must have a voice in the public arena, in shaping the conscience of the continent and in bringing moral consensus.

He said, “I wish to underline the irreplaceable role of Christianity for the formation of the conscience of each generation and the promotion of a basic ethical consensus that serves every person who calls this continent ‘home’!”

What Pope Benedict said about Europe holds equally true for the Philippines and the Americas. Christians must bring the truth of their faith to bear on the formation of their nations’ consciences.

The same day the pope spoke in Prague about religion and ethics in the public square, a symposium on religious liberty sponsored by the Knights of Columbus was held in Mexico City. It discussed the history — and future — of religious freedom in the American hemisphere.

In the Americas, as in Europe and the Philippines, the entire history is one of “baptized Christians.” Christians founded each country in America, and, equally important, each country has a strong Catholic tradition.

Indeed, from the days of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga — the first bishop of Mexico — to the important work for religious freedom in the United States carried out by Bishop John Carroll, our predecessors in the Knights of Columbus and countless others, the Americas have been an important place for debates over conscience and religious liberty.

In the past century, the Catholic Church has been a witness to conscience, whether the issue was civil rights, religious liberty or the right to life.

So, what should the future of politics look like?

We should start by considering how Catholic social teaching can inform the entirety of our political platforms. There must be space for Christianity in the “political ethics” of the state.

Long before there was a “left wing” or a “right wing,” there was the Gospel, and long after these political labels have faded into oblivion, the Gospel will remain. As people of faith, we all have the responsibility of protecting the Gospel from manipulation by any political philosophy — including our own.

Pope Benedict is calling us to continue what French philosopher Jacques Maritain called the “evangelization of the secular conscience” by applying “faith respectfully yet decisively in the public arena, in the expectation that social norms and policies be informed by the desire to live by the truth that sets every man and woman free” (cf. Caritas in Veritate, 9).

Our task as Knights is to continue this evangelization of conscience and to work for the protection of religious freedom. In step with Pope Benedict and his predecessors, we embrace these responsibilities. And in this light, we recall the meaning of true freedom. During his meeting with Czech leaders, Pope Benedict put it this way: “True freedom presupposes the search for truth — for the true good — and hence finds its fulfillment precisely in knowing and doing what is right and just. … For Christians, truth has a name: God. And goodness has a face: Jesus Christ.”

Vivat Jesus!