Question 221:

What are the Vatican’s views of the political systems? Is a totalitarian regime where Christians hold the power not more acceptable to the Vatican?



The text introducing the Theme ”Religion and the World” part III, 2 and part IV deals with this question. The relevant statement in the “Katholischer Erwachsenen-Katechismus” (Catholic Adult-Catechism of the German Bishops Conference), Vol. 2, Section III, 3: ‚Christians and the political community (pp. 244ff.) provide further answers to this question. We cite excerpts from this text:

“The Christian Gospels and political power

Christians lived and still live in many different political systems. What guidance can they draw from the Gospels to form their view of the political community, the exercise of political power and the position of people vis-à-vis political authority? […]

Jesus’ answer to the question about the payment of taxes to the Roman Emperor (the Caesar), which every Jew had to pay (head tax) has to be understood against the backdrop of the turbulences and the varying political endeavours of the times. The coin with the picture and the inscription contained Caesar’s demand to be worshipped as a divine being. The Zealots therefore rejected the tax, others were willing to pay it if reluctantly. The question as to whether it was permitted to pay the tax, was designed to lead Jesus into a trap. If he said ‘yes’, his opponents would no longer believe in his proclamation of the Kingdom of God; if he said ‘no’, he could be accused to be a rebel against Caesar’s reign and could be condemned. Jesus answer: Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's (Mk 12:17) is of basic principle importance. It implies a principle. Jesus recognises the right of the State to that which is its due, but he also limits it with the supremacy of God. He goes beyond the political question and proclaims God’s right as the superior in comparison with the political. This is a provision against unjust demands and claims of power which disregard God. Jesus’ words point in the direction of how we should respond to the authority of the state but it does not provide detailed instructions or how to respond in every single case. In the course of history there have been many different interpretations of his word. The different situations required different and new concrete choices.

Jesus’ realistic view of the current and continuing conditions in the world and the teaching about the required response by the disciples is made clear to us in another text of the New Testament. Reagrding the tendancy to be seen as important, a weakness that afflicts the disciples, too, he teaches:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

This is the fundamental law that Jesus pronounces for the communion of brothers and sisters who want to be serve God. Serving each other according to the example Jesus gave (Mark 10:45) is the antithesis of all the striving for power that dominates the world. God wants all people to be freed from oppression and injustice. This principle stated by Jesus becomes a challenge for earthly human thinking and an accusation against the State that abuses its power, whichever form it may have. With his proclamation, which is based on God’s liberating message, Jesus also qualifies any attachment to a particular form of earthly government. Where a State exerts its power for the benefit of everyone it serves God and can claim respect and obedience.

Similarly, St Paul asks Roman Christians to submit to the superior (State) powers (Rom 13: 1-7). He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted (13:2). Citizens owe obedience to government authority, not in fear of punishment but because they know that the authorities are God’s servants (13,4f). But there is also a caveat: The State is responsible before God and cannot claim to be absolute. Its task is to protect the good and to punish those doing wrong. If the State exceeds its competences the duty of obedience no longer exists. […]

From the beginning Christians opposed government authorities who exceeded the boundaries set by God […]

The different statements in the New Testament show that the view of political power in the early Church was different. As long as the political leaders did not offend against God’s law Christians lived as faithful citizens of the State. But as soon as the State abuses its authority or becomes an unlawful State, Christians see themselves as obligated to refuse obedience. God’s authority always exceeds the authority of the State.

In the Christian relation with worldly authority the command to love one’s enemies is of particular importance. Jesus asks his disciples to pray for those who persecute him (Mt 5:44; cf. Lk 1:28). In the Pastoral Epistles of the new Testament Christians are reminded to pray for all people including for the rulers and for all who exert power (1 Tim 2:1f). Even during persecution Christians practiced the love of their enemies (Mt. 5:44; cf. Lk 6:28) and never stopped praying for those in Government. The oldest prayer of this was written by Clement of Rome around 96 AD.:

“To our rulers and governors on the earth—to them Thou, Lord, gavest the power of the kingdom by Thy glorious and ineffable might, to the end that we may know the glory and honour given to them by Thee and be subject to them, in nought resisting Thy will;…

…do Thou, Lord, direct their counsel according to that which is good and well-pleasing in Thy sight, that, devoutly in peace and meekness exercising the power given them by Thee, they may find Thee propitious.”

(1 Clement 60,4-61,2). (Katholischer Erwachsenen-Katechismus. 2. Band: Leben aus dem Glauben [Catholic Adult-Catechism by the German Bishops Conference, vol. 2: Life based on Faith], pp. 244-247. See also:


Principles and objectives of the modern political community

Regarding the principles and objectives of modern political communities the idea of human rights has gained considerable importance. In a free legal state the previous system of estates of the realm has been abolished. There is equality of all citizens before the law. Society is pluralistic. It includes different religions and philosophies. The State grants each individual and the religious institutions in society the freedom of religion and denomination. […]

Christians can live as faithful believers in any kind of political system, even as oppressed and silent Church, but they are not indifferent to the reasoning given for political communities and their authorities, how they engage with the dignity of human beings and human rights, and whether they recognise or oppress religion.

The Church as communion of the faithful cannot claim a mandate for the actual shaping of political community, but the internal dynamics of its religious message result in the endeavour to contribute to the peaceful and human coexistence of human beings. […]

If one follows the meaning of Catholic social teaching and the human rights Charta of the United Nations, according to which the human person is the root cause, the bearer and the aim of all institutions (cf. Gaudium et Spes 25f; 63), then the form of government most likely to reach these objectives is a state under the rule of law with a democratic structure and a democratically elected government. The people united in a nation state have to decide which form of government they consider to be most appropriate for their particular situation (cf. Gaudium et Spes 74). The Second Vatican Council deliberately does not comment on the question of the best possible form of State. It emphasises: “The Church, by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.” (Gaudium et Spes 76). History and the present time show that a democratic form of government is most likely to create those just conditions that are appropriate for the individual and for society as a whole.

A realistic view of the human condition does not overlook that there are dangers to democracy even from within democracy. There could, for example, be attempts to secure majority decisions on topics which do not fall within the remit of parliamentary vote but which are a matter of conscience and moral reasoning. It is also dangerous to democracy if minorities are disregarded or suppressed or if lobbyists exert undue pressure on members of the parliament.

A truly democratic exercising of power is possible where the power is split across several authorities. In a parliamentary democracy the people are sovereign and elect the legislative authority. This then institutes the executive authority and controls it. Both create the conditions for an independent judicial authority. The individual authorities limit each other.

The most noble task of government is to protect the constitutional rights. These are not granted to the citizens by the political authority but the are the given baseline and are to be protected and politically implemented.

These days there are increasing international relations and the dependency of all human beings and nations on each other. It is becoming more and more important to understand the common good not as a national but as a universal good and to fill it with meaning, in particular as industry, science, technology, communications etc. already exist in a de-facto world society. Since Pius XII all Popes have increasingly stressed a worldwide collaboration of nation states and emphasised their responsibility for the international community. […]

From an economic, social, political and cultural point of view it may well be reasonable if nations agree to a restricted sovereignty in different areas. This does not mean that they necessarily lose their identity as legal and cultural communities. (Ibid., pp. 248-252).

Faith and politics, Church and state

For a long period of time the relationship between Church and democracy was not free of tensions. The development of the state to a modern secular state and in particular to a democracy with a rule of law has made it possible to see the relationship between faith and politics and between church and state less tense that in former times.

After the Church acquired a positive view of free democracy the Second Vatican Council (1965) was able to say about the relationship between Church and State:

‚The Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent from each other. Yet both, under different titles, are devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same men. The more that both foster sounder cooperation between themselves with due consideration for the circumstances of time and place, the more effective will their service be exercised for the good of all. (Gaudium et Spes, 76).

The Church is interested in the salvation of all human beings in the glorification of God through following Christ. This salvation is based on the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, it is hidden and will only be fully visible at the Second Coming of Christ. World history and the salvation process are linked, but cannot be combined in a worldly system available to people. There can be no theocracy on earth. It is therefore not the role of the Church to plan and shape the situation on earth through politics and science. The Church contributes to the justice and love flourishing in society, it proclaims the principles, it criticises openly when political conditions conflict with the dignity of human beings. (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 63; 76).

The Church does not develop a catalogue of political measures. Its Chris-given mission and goals are of the religious kind (GS 42). Its mission is quite different from that of politics. Its liberation from its bondage to decay and being brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8,19) also includes the concern for the ordering of human society. (GS 39). The Church is a sign and a tool for the deepest union with God and for the union of every man (Lumen Gentium 1; cf. GS 42). Through proclaiming the faith and sanctifying the faithful through the sacraments it unites people with God. From this should arise a new human way of living together. An important area in which Christians as citizens of the state should meet this requirement, is the area of political activity. Christians must not withdraw from political responsibility for fear of getting their hands dirty. […]

Where political movements become inward looking salvation movements and attempt to turn the state into the most comprehensive and meaningful force of human existence, Christians are required to introduce humane moral concepts into society and to prevent that people become a mere function of state and of society. […]

Christians are asked to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's“(Mk 12:17). This calls upon Christians to give the political authorities that which is their due, but no more than that. Christians cannot and must not assent to demands which are incompatible with the actual and ultimate goal for mankind. “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts. 5:29). (Ibid., pp. 252-255).

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