Faith and politics, and how they work together

By Patrick Schmadeke

(Fourth in a series of six articles on political conscience formation)

The recent scandal of God’s human family was brought to light from leaked documents revealing details of the mass detention of 1 million Uighurs — a minority Muslim population in China. Couched in the language of vocation or education centers, the aim of these internment camps, speckled across the northwest-most region of China (Xinjiang), is a bleaching of Uighur culture. The contents of the 24 pages of leaked documents are horrific and remind us that hatred of diversity ripples through history.

Why are God’s children so cruel to God’s children?

Schmadeke

To this particular instance, and to all instances of hatred, injustice, negligence, oppression and fear, the Christian is to respond in both the realm of faith and of politics. We can use tools such as the four principles of Catholic Social Teaching (the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity and the dignity of the human person) and natural law for shared starting points of dialogue between faith and politics. However, these disciplines do have unique objects, or ends. Where the object of faith is God, the object of politics is the common good. When either discipline forgets its proper object, efforts inevitably go awry.

Beginning with “the very noble art of politics” (“Gaudium et Spes,” No. 75), it is essential to keep in mind that the object of our politics is the common good. In order to realize the common good, our political efforts must be one of organized communal efforts. No one individual, one demographic or one segment of the population can have the full view of the needs of the community at their fingertips. The body politic, an analogue to Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12-27), has many parts, each of which performs a unique and necessary function. The neglect of one part of the body politic inevitably compromises the integrity of the whole. It is for this reason that we must attend especially to the most vulnerable parts of the body politic as we work towards the common good.

Human flourishing in the common good, unlike the contemporary narrative of American individualism, is expressed in participatory community life. As St. Thomas Aquinas observed, drawing on Aristotle, we are “civic and social animals” (“Summa Theologiae” I-II 72.4). Our flourishing is indissolubly bound with the flourishing of our neighbors — those across the hedge row, across the street, down the interstate and on the other side of any human-invented border. We are an indispensable means of communicating God’s love to one another. Therefore, any effort in the political realm that puts an artificial distance between us is contrary to the common good, and our own flourishing.

The object of faith and theology, though not discontinuous with the common good, does have a wider horizon, namely God. Our image of God has been under constant refinement as God’s salvation has unfolded through history. The better we come to know God, the ultimate mystery, the better we come to understand ourselves as made in the imago Dei, the image of God. When we see each other as made in the imago Dei, we see ourselves and others as one in Christ in the community of faith.

The inexhaustible dignity that this communion in Christ bestows on the human family is articulated by the realm of faith and handed on to the political order to enact in policy decisions. Thus, the realm of theology runs ahead of the political order to point out where it ought to go, offering it correction, guidance and wisdom along the way. This is not to say that the church is a political community. Rather, it is a faith community and the implications of its faith have political consequences.

Lest we conflate faith and politics, which happens with some regularity, it is necessary to flesh out a fuller vision of politics and civic engagement. Far from equating civic engagement with casting a ballot every four years the body politic lives on civic engagement of a more regular kind. A dynamic vision of civic engagement is an essential dimension to living out one’s faith. This will be the topic of the next article.

(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic Tradition and its relevance to the world today.)

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