Was the Papal Visit Political?
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
May 2008

(For related story, see
Reflections on my Visit to the White House to See Pope Benedict XVI.)

Did the Pope talk about politics during his recent trip to the United States? The answer to that question depends on how you define “politics.”

“Politics” can have different definitions. Sometimes it refers only to words and actions concerning candidates or political parties. This is how the Internal Revenue Service defines “political activity.” Federal law prohibits churches participating in this type of “politics.” The Holy Father did not engage in this type of political activity. For that matter, the U.S. bishops, the United States Catholic Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the North Dakota Catholic Conference, do not engage in this type of “politics,” although some people might describe their activities as “political.”

When used in that sense, “political” refers to activities related to the development of public policy. Sometimes those activities are very specific, such as taking a position on a particular piece of legislation. The federal government does not consider this type of activity “political,” but some people do.

If we use this definition, yes, the Catholic Church engages in “politics.” She has no choice. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his first encyclical,
Deus Caritas Est, politics concerns justice and justice has to do with ethics. Moreover, politics is an exercise of reason, but reason is purified by faith. “Here,” he writes, “politics and faith meet.” While the Church does not propose a specific political system, She does teach and guide on matters of faith and morality; matters that inevitably impact politics.

Moreover, the Catholic Church, as one of the largest providers of social services in the world, has practical experience to provide to those developing public policies that impact care of the human person. To withhold this counsel would be a disservice to the common good and contrary to the principles of democracy.

Even in this sense of the word “politics,” however, the pope said little during his U.S. visit. He talked of working toward an immigration policy that respected families, of the need to protect the family, marriage, and the dignity of all human life, and of the importance of addressing harm to the environment and global climate change. We know that he and President Bush discussed Iraq, Africa, Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the need to “confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights.” Beyond this, however, the pope said little concerning specific issues and never mentioned any existing or proposed policies.

Detractors, bloggers, and some members of the press tried to make the pope’s comments more “political.” When the pope merely spoke against violence toward immigrants and the importance of preserving immigrant families, one politician accused the pope of playing politics in an attempt to recruit immigrants into the Catholic Church. Not able to find juicy political sound-bites in the pope’s speeches, some reporters and bloggers turned to writing on which political figures did or did not receive communion. The subject, of course, has nothing to do with what the Holy Father said during his visit and is, ultimately, a pastoral, not political, matter.

Yet Pope Benedict XVI’s visit was full of political implications. In the broad sense of the word, “politics” is about the ordering of society and is, therefore, about the human person. Nothing about the human person can be detached from fundamental truth about our origin, destiny, and being. We are created in the image of God, for God, and related to God. We are social creatures, connected in visible and invisible ways to each other. Understanding and living according to these basic truths about the human person has political consequences.

The Holy Father spoke of the importance of truth against the “dictatorship of relativism.” This message has political consequences. If there is no truth or if the truth is unknown, politics becomes an expedient vehicle benefiting only the powerful.

He spoke of the inherent rights and responsibilities of the human person. This message has political consequences. If rights and responsibilities are not inherent, but are merely given or taken away by those with political power, people become mere tools, the worth of whom depends upon their perceived usefulness.

He spoke of hope in Christ. This message has political implications. Without hope, politics becomes pointless and debased. Without Christ, who conquered death and is our hope, politics becomes an instrument of the culture of death.

Did the Pope talk about politics during his recent trip to the United States? Yes. The Holy Father preached the gospel of Jesus Christ.