Catholic Social Teaching: Political, but not Partisan

Justice and Peace Way of the Cross held on Good Friday in Saskatoon: prayers address many issues of justice and peace. (Photo by Tim Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News)

By Myron Rogal

Coordinator of Justice and Peace, Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon

We all know that factors such as the availability of health care, access to land and food, safe and affordable housing, quality education, peace and freedom from violence and oppression can deeply influence the length and quality of people’s lives. The call to social justice is to address these issues where needed, especially with a concern towards those struggling most in our midst, in order to change lives for the better. Political decisions made at local, national and global levels determine to a large extent what a society offers to its people. Thus, to act for social justice is fundamentally a political act.

This political nature of social justice makes many people of faith uncomfortable, as they don’t wish to link too closely the Church or the mission of social justice with the agenda of any particular party or political ideology. This is a wise caution, as party politics at times invite compromise, and faith is not about compromise; rather, faith brings to our public life a set of values and a concern with the dignity of all people, and seeks to address particular issues out of that larger vision.

It is prudent to make a distinction between political and being partisan.

This distinction is not always clear to those around us. Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara famously said “when I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they’re poor the call me a communist.”

A call for justice is a call for political action, but not a call for support of one party or ideology. It is not ultimately important which party or parties makes good decisions, it is important that good decisions are made. The best way to test whether an action is political or partisan is to ask whether the action is about issues and outcomes or about who will get elected. Advocating, for example, for adequate available healthcare may require conversations with various political leaders. Aligning oneself with the position of one or the other does not mean identifying with that party, it simply means supporting their stance on a particular issue.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that people of faith cannot be partisan. We are each able to make our choices about which parties are more likely to make good decisions and to support and engage in that activity as best suits our conscience. For the Church, however, the separation between political and partisan is crucial.