It is an election year once more, and an old question has again come to the fore: the involvement of the Church in politics. Granting that the Hierarchy itself should not be involved in partisan politics, the following questions have been asked: 1) Can Associations of Christian Faithful—either Public or Private—engage in partisan politics? 2) If Public Associations of Christian Faithful cannot engage in partisan politics, can Private Associations of Christian Faithful do?
THIS is indeed a thorny issue that has been discussed in ecclesiastical circles repeatedly. What is novel is the way it is being asked now. The concrete application is of course quite obvious: Can the Couples for Christ or the Knights of Columbus—for example—issue a mandate for its members to push for the candidacy of a specific person or party? The pertinent provisions of Canon Law on this issue can be summarized as follows.
1. Existence & Nature of Associations of Christian Faithful
In the Church there are associations distinct from institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, in which the Christian faithful, either clergy or laity, or clergy and laity together, strive by common effort to promote a more perfect life, or to foster public worship or Christian doctrine, or to exercise other apostolic works, namely to engage in efforts of evangelization, to exercise works of piety or charity and to animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit (c.298, §1).
2. There are Two Kinds of Associations of Christian Faithful:
a) Private Associations. Can.299: §1. The Christian faithful are free, by means of a private agreement made among themselves, to establish associations to attain the aims mentioned in c.298, §1, with due regard for the prescriptions of c.301, §1.
§2. Such associations are called private associations even though they are praised or recommended by ecclesiastical authority.
§3. No private association of the Christian faithful in the Church is recognized unless its statutes are reviewed by competent authority.
b) Public Associations. Can.301: §1. Competent ecclesiastical authority alone has the right to erect associations of the Christian faithful which set out to teach Christian doctrine in the name of the Church or to promote public worship or which aim at other ends whose pursuit by their nature is reserved to the same ecclesiastical authority.
§2. Competent ecclesiastical authority, if it judges it expedient, can also erect associations of the Christian faithful in order to attain directly or indirectly other spiritual ends whose accomplishment has not been sufficiently provided for by the efforts of private persons.
§3. Associations of the Christian faithful which are erected by competent ecclesiastical authority are called public associations.
The distinction between public and private associations of faithful, therefore, stems neither from the nature of their ends, nor even from the degree of supervision or control of the competent ecclesiastical authority over their actuations, but rather in the way do they come about:
— Public associations of faithful are erected by the competent ecclesiastical authority.
— Private associations of faithful are established by mutual agreement of private individuals, and then praised, recommended or recognized by the competent ecclesiastical authority after reviewing their statutes.
3. Autonomy of Associations of Christian Faithful
The Code of Canon Law is quite clear in stating the sphere of autonomy of such associations of Christian faithful:
a) Public Associations: Can. 315. Public associations on their own initiative can begin undertakings in keeping with their character, and they can direct them in accord with their statutes, but under the further direction of the ecclesiastical authority mentioned in c.312, §1.
b) Private Associations: Can. 321. The Christian faithful guide and direct private associations according to the prescriptions of their statutes.
Such autonomy, therefore, is not absolute, as provided by c.232:
§1. Although private associations of the Christian faithful enjoy autonomy in accord with the norm of c.321, they are subject to the vigilance of ecclesiastical authority in accord with the norm of c.305, and are subject to the governance of the same authority.
§2. It is also the responsibility of ecclesiastical authority, while observing the autonomy
proper to private associations, to be watchful and take care that their energies are not dissipated and that their exercise of their apostolate is ordered toward the common good.
The aims of associations of faithful have to be not only consistent with but also relevant to the fundamental pretension of the Ecclesiastical Juridic Ordering: the salvation of souls. Can.298, §1 specifies this when it establishes that the faithful in such associations strive by common effort: (i.e., individually they can freely do other things on their own)
• to promote a more perfect life;
• to foster public worship or Christian doctrine;
• to engage in efforts of evangelization;
• to exercise works of piety or charity and
• to animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit.
4. Can associations of Christian faithful engage in partisan politics?
The point may be raised that engaging in partisan politics might fall under the heading of the canonically recognized aim of Associations of Christian faithful to animate the temporal order with the Christian spirit (c.298, §1). After all, such evangelizing action is indeed what is proper of the Church as a whole, and more specifically of its lay faithful.
However, such an interpretation would unduly compromise a fundamental right of every Catholic faithful—autonomy in temporal affairs—laid down in c.227: Lay Christian faithful have the right to have recognized that freedom in the affairs of the earthly city which belongs to all citizens; when they exercise such freedom, however, they are to take care that their actions are imbued with the spirit of the gospel and take into account the doctrine set forth by the magisterium of the Church; but they are to avoid proposing their own opinion as the teaching of the Church in questions which are open to various opinions.
In effect, every Christian faithful—but most especially a Catholic layman—has the right to engage in partisan politics, without such right being limited by the Ecclesiastical juridic ordering, except in accord with c.227.
If an Association of Christian Faithful were as a body to engage in partisan politics, then the corporate position would unduly infringe on the individual right of the members of the said association to maintain their own partisan political orientation. In other words, if an Association of Christian Faithful were to have an official position as regards partisan politics, then its members would have to toe that line; hence, the individual members would not have the freedom to follow their own party leanings, if they are to remain in good graces within the Association. This would be tantamount to the Association, proposing their own opinion as the teaching of the Church in questions which are open to various opinions (c.227).
The right of the individual Christian layman to autonomy in temporal matters (including partisan politics) is recognized in the Canonical Order. Such a right is as fundamental as the Right to Religious Freedom of the citizen under the Law of the State.
In other words, just as it would be unjust for a State institution to actively promote a purely religious position, it also would be equally unjust for an Ecclesiastical institution (e.g., Association of Faithful, whether public or private) to corporately foster a specific political partisan position.
This is the reason why after all these years the Catholic Church has always resisted resorting to what others have touted as the Catholic vote.
(This article originally appeared on The CBCP Monitor, Vol.11, No.5, March 5-18, 2007.)