Tense Twins: The Church and Political Life

Tense Twins: The Church and Political Life
The Irish Spirit – Issue No. 4
Exclusive Excerpt from How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice by Michael Kelly and Austen Ivereigh


It is common to hear that religion and politics should be kept apart. But what is meant by ‘religion’? The contemporary meaning of the word ‘religion’ came into being along with the ideology underpinning modern Western democracies that seeks to separate private and public, religious and secular. In The Myth of Religious Violence, William T. Cavanaugh shows that the idea that ‘religion’ should have nothing to do with ‘rational’ spheres such as economics and politics is “one of the foundational legitimising myths of the liberal nation-state”.

The attempt to drive religion out of politics does not have a happy history.  The greatest horrors of the twentieth century were inflicted by totalitarian states among whose first moves was the abolition of faith from the public sphere and the subordination of religion to the state, justified by an ideology that interprets the ‘will of the people’ as a license for unchecked, unlimited power. Among the first moves of communist and many fascist regimes was to abolish any legal recognition of God and to impose compulsory atheism classes; religion pointed to a power and authority beyond state control and therefore implied limits to the state.

Conversely, some of the proudest moments of Western political history — the abolition of the slave trade, for example, or the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — are uplifting examples of what happens when religion enters politics.  The greatest achievements in Western history are products of a civilisation in which Church and state cooperate, and reason and faith are in dialogue. In Northern Ireland, when the atmosphere was too toxic to allow politicians to speak across the sectarian divide, courageous clergy and laity from different Christian denominations worked together on ecumenical programmes and began to build bridges which laid foundations for the peace process.

Religious freedom underpins democracy and pluralism. True democracy allows religion a voice in the public sphere. When critics resent the Church for  ‘interfering’ or for ‘playing politics,’ it usually means they disagree with the Church’s position rather than its decision to speak out. The same critic will usually say nothing when the Church has intervened politically on a matter with which they agree. Some accuse the Church of being reactionary or right-wing for opposing ‘women’s rights’ (in arguing against abortion laws) or  ‘gay rights’ (when it opposes, say, same-sex adoption), or of being left-wing in advocating a right to housing or an end to direct provision for asylum seekers, opposing the death penalty, or criticising a model of economic growth that puts money before people.

In short, people are against the Church ‘interfering’ in what they would much rather be left alone; and in favour of  ‘interfering’ in what they believe should be changed. So, when should the Church speak out on political matters?

When to Speak and When to Stay Silent

When should the Church speak? The answer is rarely and cautiously, and almost always because it is a matter that touches on questions of human dignity, on core freedoms and rights (such as the right to life or to religious freedom), or on basic principles of Catholic social teaching, which is the fruit of the Church’s ethical reflections on what makes for human flourishing. In these cases, the Church not only needs to speak out; it has a duty to do so.

When it speaks, the Church typically prefers to lay down broad ethical principles rather than attacking particular policies or parties, leaving those involved to argue about the application of the principles. The bishops might tell you, for example, that people have a right to a dignified standard of living that persons who are unemployed deserve to be treated with respect.  They will also say that the state has finite resources and people ought to be encouraged to play a fuller role in society by taking up employment if they can. What social welfare policy flows from these principles? Bishops might get involved in that question, but generally they leave it to politicians to debate and work out.

The Church promotes active citizenship and political engagement. Church leaders tell Catholics to get out and vote, and to be involved. Catholics are simultaneously members of the Church and citizens who obey the law and work for the good of the nation wherever they are, whatever regime they are under. This ‘dual citizenship’ is not a divided loyalty, for there is no contradiction, but it does produce a healthy tension. Living in the world while looking to a transcendent horizon is one reason why Catholics are unusually active in politics in countries where they are not a majority.

The Church typically doesn’t tell Catholics who to vote for, but rather what they believe Catholics should be concerned about in any given election. The Church is not partisan; it does not favour one political party over another. Nor does it blow with the wind; it starts from deep-seated principles that stand true in spite of changing times. It is the bishops’ task to articulate Catholic teaching on behalf of Catholic voters in the language of reason, and the voters’ task to challenge candidates to respond to them; and then to decide, in conscience, how to vote.

In a modern democracy, the Church has a right to speak out for the same reason any other civil-society association or organisation does — a natural right to proclaim and promote its values, and to persuade others of these values; to get a debate going about the health of society and its priorities, applying the wisdom and insights of the Christian tradition to the great questions besetting contemporary society.  The Church does this because it cares, above all, for the ‘common good,’ described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily”. The common good is a key tenet of the Church’s vision for society and the principles which it believes lie behind its healthy functioning.

The Church in Ireland

When the Church raises its voice in Irish domestic affairs, it does so by virtue of its moral authority, its independent sovereign jurisdiction, and its strong presence in Irish civil society. In the Republic, Catholicism is the religious affiliation of the overwhelming majority of citizens. North of the border, Catholicism is fast approaching 50% of the population. Catholics attend and run 1,360 parishes across the island that are often the focal point for the local community. Parishes respond to the needs of the community in ways as diverse as parent and toddler groups, day care for the elderly, hot meals for those experiencing homelessness, food banks for those in need and as hosts for organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous. In challenging communities, parishes and religious organisations have pioneered initiatives like breakfast clubs for children and after-school spaces where children can complete their homework in a calm and safe environment. Parishes run youth clubs and other activities to ensure that young people have somewhere to escape from hanging around on street corners at the lure of criminal gangs.

Catholics reach out to the poorest and most vulnerable irrespective of their beliefs. Catholic charitable action is not proselytising or trying to convert people: as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “Those who practise charity in the Church’s name will never seek to impose the Church’s faith upon others.” As many Catholics say, “We care for the poor not because they are Catholics but because we are.” That doesn’t make Catholic charitable action independent of faith; there is no greater witness to Christ’s love than to serve the poor both through practical, direct assistance and through advocacy on their behalf. Before either can happen, the needs of the poor must first be ‘sensed’: Christianity has from its beginning been acutely tuned to human need.

The reality of Christian mission in today’s parishes is a story of thousands of quiet kindnesses. In many of the most disadvantaged communities it is the Church and faith-based organisations that provide warmth, food, friendship and support for individuals who have fallen on the worst of times: the homeless, those in the grip of alcoholism or drug addiction, individuals with undiagnosed mental health problems, and those overwhelmed by multiple crises. Churches provide debt counselling, English language lessons for migrants, emergency accommodation, and, sometimes most important of all, someone to listen.

Catholic charities often do what no one else does, blazing a trail others later follow — out on the edge with those on the edge. There are countless examples of charitable outreach pioneered by Catholics that over time became ‘mainstream’ charitable activities; hospices caring for the terminally ill are a prime example. Others remain preserves of the Church. No organisation compares with the Apostleship of the Sea, which provides support and assistance to hundreds of thousands of seafarers visiting ports each year.

Finally, Catholics are guided by a coherent set of principles, embodied in Catholic social teaching, which in turn enrich Irish social and political thinking and strengthen civil society. Through nationwide organisations, Catholic charities advocate on behalf of those they serve, influencing policy decisions and helping to shape laws that serve the interests of the poor.

The Irish Bishops’ Conference – headquartered at Maynooth – works to develop links between the Church and legislators and officials. Those links not only help relations between Church and state, but also provide a much-needed channel of communication between civil society and government. Because the Church is present among the poorest and most vulnerable in society, it can be their voice in the corridors of power, calling for a living wage and focusing public attention on joblessness and poverty.

What the Church Stands For

When Catholics vote or become politically active, their priorities and concerns will differ, along with their loyalties and their affiliations. But there are key principles on which all Catholics should agree because they have been consistently taught by the Church since 1891 when Pope Leo XIII issued the first ‘social encyclical’ of modern times: Rerum Novarum. Since then, there have been many more encyclicals — the latest are Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 Caritas in Veritate and Pope Francis’ 2015 Laudato Si’ — along with many other Church documents expanding on and applying these principles to contemporary challenges.

These principles are captured in a body of teaching known as Catholic Social Teaching (CST). It offers a set of principles for reflection, criteria for judgment, and directives for action. Its purpose is to contribute to the formation of conscience as a basis for specific action. It amounts, in effect, to a Catholic vision of politics, society, and the economy.

Existing frame

The Catholic Church uses its power and influence to advance a reactionary agenda designed to frustrate progress in human rights and liberties. Bishops tell people how to vote and threaten politicians with excommunication when they don’t do the Pope’s bidding. The Church is essentially right-wing, seeking to impose outdated views on a secular state and on people who have no Christian allegiance.


The Church raises its voice in the public sphere whenever an issue touches on the common good, often on questions of basic freedoms and rights, and especially when it can be a voice for the voiceless. Its authority to speak out derives from its moral authority and independence as one of the world’s leading and oldest civil society organisations. It is neither right- nor left-wing, and has no allegiance to particular political parties, but exists to defend the common good and the Gospel in its integrity. It defends, and speaks up for, a distinction between the political and the religious; it upholds what it calls a ‘positive secularity,’ and deplores both religious fundamentalism and an aggressive kind of secularism that seeks to banish faith from the public sphere. The Catholic Church’s political agenda can be summed up as Catholic social teaching plus religious freedom, the freedom that underpins all other rights and freedoms.

Key messages

The Church has a natural right to speak out derived from its moral authority and its presence in society.

The Church advocates religious freedom and the proper distinction between faith and politics. At the same time, it calls for the political and the religious to be in dialogue, not separated.

Bishops do not speak out before elections to persuade Catholics to vote one way or another; they identify the issues they think Catholics should be concerned about and that voters should be asking the candidates to address. Nor do they put pressure on politicians to vote this or that way by refusing them Communion.

The Catholic Church’s political agenda can be summed up in Catholic social teaching and religious freedom. It is an agenda that is the bedrock of freedom and civilisation, and is a key contribution in contemporary Western society to creating a society of human flourishing that recognises the God-given rights and the dignity of all people.











How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice by Michael Kelly and Austen Ivereigh is available from Columba Books