Church and society

Pope John Paul II, when he is not traveling, receives an unending stream of visitors, in groups or singly, dignitaries of every kind and every profession, local curial officials, bishops on their once-every-five-years visit, laity and clergy from every corner of the world.  The Holy Father listens to their speeches or addresses and then almost always responds in kind.  Among the more significant of these are his addresses on different subjects to national blocs of Bishops on their five-year ad limina visit.

Church institutions

In January of this year John Paul II addressed the Bishops of Eastern France on the Church’s role in society, especially from the viewpoint of institutional relations with a State in which various spiritual families have a place.  To ask only one question, is it legitimate for the church to exercise pressure?

We should note that the term “Church” does not apply merely to Bishops or the hierarchy.  The “Church” very much includes the laity whose specific task in Catholic teaching is to engage in “temporal affairs.”

Consequently, the Pope notes, first of all, that the faithful must respond to their vocation given them by Christ.  This they do when “they take an active part in the tasks which have yet to be fulfilled for the humanization of society.”  At the same time they must remain faithful to what is most previous, the spiritual and human values which they cannot relinquish without causing harm.


Secondly, this basic task requires religious freedom.  This is not just the freedom of tending your own “secret garden,” that is, the freedom to worship and the freedom to provide an education inspired by Christian values.  It must also include civil and social freedom for Church-inspired institutions.  After all, these are necessary means to carry out the church’s civilizing mission.

Problems in Canada

You may say: we know all that and we don’t have any problem with these things in Canada, so let’s move on.  Well just wait a minute.

A few months ago the McKenna government of New Brunswick expropriated seven Catholic hospitals.  There is talk about similar measures in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Newfoundland.  In the last-named province there is also talk about merging the denomination schools into one neutral system.  Neutrality, as we all know by now, has come to be interchangeable with secularity.

This move to take over denominational institutions comes at a time when government health care and educational philosophies in Canada are almost diametrically contrary to what Catholics and many Protestants believe in.  (Practically every Protestant denomination today has a group fighting the secular, anti-life accommodations of their leaders and ruling bureaucracies.)

Distinct, not separation

John Paul goes on to state that there is indeed a distinction between the civil and religious fields, but not a separation: they involve the same people.

“The respect we have for others’ convictions,” he says, “presupposes that ours are equally respected.  The plurality of concepts about life cannot imply a marginalization or disparagement of those concepts held by a large part of the nation’s citizens.”

In my opinion that is precisely what’s happening in Canada.  Pluralism is being interpreted as being the same as secularism.  Some Canadians want to build a wall between Church and State, with the Church on the outside of the city-state.

There is indeed a distinction between the civil and religious fields, but not a separation.

Let me quickly quote several other passages from this address.

•    “Basically, in their participation in the life of secular society, the faithful of the Church are inspired by their concept of the human person, conscious of their responsibility within the community and in solidarity with the whole human family.”
•    Christians find enlightenment about the meaning of life and reference points for their action in their faith.
•    “Humbly recognizing imperfection does not mean giving up the search for perfection.  Recognizing the existence of many moral transgressions in no way justifies amorality.  All in all, we do not want to claim superiority; we want to join our brothers and sisters of good will to defend the true greatness of the human person.”
•    The precepts of the Gospel invite all Christ’s “disciples” to “develop the spirit of solidarity and service.”  Practically speaking, that “means a burst of civic-mindedness, in the best sense of the term.”
•    “Christians especially cannot become resigned to seeing the continuation or worsening of the ills which afflict all too many of their brothers and sisters.”
(From “Church has role in society,” Osservatore Romano, English edition, February 5, 1992, p. 7).