Reflection: Politics and Mission

Catholic politicians should become “a leaven for the renewal of civil and political life and witnesses of political love for those most in need”.

When we, as Christians hear the words mission and missionary, we probably tend to think of a previous era, when dedicated and courageous men and women, mostly from Europe, set out to bring the Gospel to Africa, Asia, the Americas and other ‘discovered’ parts of the world.

Today, with the steady weakening of faith in Europe, we talk about the re-missioning or re-evangelisation of the very countries that sent the old missionaries abroad in the first place. Among these, Indian, Filipino, Nigerian, and Congolese priests and female religious from the global south leave their homelands to work in the once-fruitful Catholic vineyards of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Ireland.

This mental picture of mission was no doubt only a partially accurate one, since there were also missionary activities within the old countries themselves, often focused on poor and marginalised communities; and because the missionary effort in Africa and other developing regions relied as much on the evangelising efforts of local catechists and faith group leaders as it did on foreign priests and religious. The true picture of mission, however, is an even wider one that embraces areas of life that we usually do not consider to be missionary fields, e.g., politics.

In a recent speech Pope Francis to the International Catholic Legislators’ Network, –  a body that promotes Christian values and witness among people holding public office, such as members of parliaments and other legislative assemblies -,  he noted that ours is a world in which so many vulnerable people depend on political authorities and institutions for the protection of their rights and that this imposes a profound duty on those who devise policies and laws: “Yours is the challenge of working to safeguard and enhance within the public sphere those right relationships that allow each person to be treated with the respect, and indeed the love, that is due to him or her.” To achieve this, Catholic politicians should become “a leaven for the renewal of civil and political life and witnesses of political love for those most in need.”

This idea of Christian witness in political life is not new, of course. Throughout history, there have been politicians and holders of public office who have based their work on the values of truth, justice and solidarity. Many of them suffered for it, sometimes by declining to follow paths which would have been good for their careers, but bad for their consciences.

Others, like the patron saint of politicians, Thomas More, paid the highest price, accepting death rather than compromising on what they held to be essential truths. This field of mission is one that is particularly suited to lay people.

The Second Vatican Council set this out in the document Gaudium et Spes, as follows; “Since they have an active role to play in the whole life of the Church, lay people are not only bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit, but are also called to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society […] Those who are suited should prepare themselves for the difficult, but at the same time, the very noble art of politics, and should seek to practise this art without regard for their own interests or for material advantages. With integrity and wisdom, they must take action against any form of injustice and tyranny, against arbitrary domination by an individual or a political party and any intolerance. They should dedicate themselves to the service of all with sincerity and fairness, indeed, with the charity and fortitude demanded by political life.”

This, then, is the mission of the Christian in politics – to take action against injustice and to serve with charity and fortitude. The fact that relatively few politicians appear to live up to the requirements of this mission is disappointing, though, given the many temptations of power and status, it’s not surprising. This should not stop us from encouraging Christians to venture into public life or from insisting that they do so, regardless of their ideological beliefs, first and foremost as witnesses of political love.

(Photo: South Africa Parliament. SA Media) – (Mike Pothier – South Africa)

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