Should the pope stay out of political issues?


By Fr. Bud Grant

A few weeks ago, during an interview about the pope’s encyclical Laudato Si, I was asked to comment on a trending media event: Pope Francis had said that if Donald Trump wanted to build a wall instead of a bridge, he wasn’t a Christian.

Fr. Grant
Fr. Grant

This tempest in a teapot (one of many this election cycle) raises a recurring issue: should the pope stay out of politics, or does he have a responsibility to address the issues of our day? (In this case, the issue was not the candidate, but his stated intention to block immigrants entering the U.S. from Latin America.) In reference to climate change, Rick Santorum — a Roman Catholic — once argued that the Holy Father “is better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality” ( 6.3.15). But this begs the question. Is care for God’s creation only a matter of science (and politics!) or is it also a question of “morality and theology?”

Criticism comes from the other direction as well. During an interview with a Native American journalist, I was asked only one question: “I just don’t understand you Christians. Why don’t you care about Grandmother Earth?” This charge isn’t new. In 1967, historian Lynn White Jr. tossed a gauntlet at Christian ethicists. “Christianity,” he charged, “is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” which has resulted in the “conquest of nature” for which “Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt.” (Science, March 10, 1967, vol.155 1203-1207). So, when should religious leaders risk the criticism of being too “political” and what social issues merit “moral or theological” consideration?
Ecclesial intervention into “politics” is as old as the church itself. The maxim of Jesus to “render unto Caesar…” (Mt.22: 15-22) is a political statement. When the emperor Theodosius commanded a massacre, St. Ambrose required him to do penance. Pope Leo III set the crown of the (Holy) Roman Empire on Charlemagne’s head at St. Peter’s. Pope Gregory VII ended his life in ignominious exile for having the temerity to remove that same crown from Henry IV because the emperor attempted to impinge the autonomy of the church.


To put it bluntly, all matters that impact our social, cultural, economic, ecological and, yes, political relationships, are also theological and moral, indeed spiritual. Thus Pope Francis has no problem critiquing politics: “a politics concerned with immediate results … is driven to produce short-term growth … governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment. The myopia of power politics delays the inclusion of a far sighted environmental agenda within the overall agenda of governments.”

At his core, the Holy Father is so concerned about all of these interwoven relationships that he cannot fathom theology and morality being sidelined in such vital conversations: “we must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honestly. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment” (LS 178, 229).

Pope Francis insists that there is no area of our common life that is not theological, moral and spiritual. On the contrary, engaging in conversation with the larger society is our fundamental responsibility as a Catholic, a Christian, a believer, a human. This is not to endorse theocracy. Such an extreme is as abhorrent as remaining mute in the face of injustice. But in responding to bullying demagoguery with a moral and theological judgment, he is just doing his job.

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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