The way in which Catholic bishops engage with the political process in Western liberal democracies is the fruit of a long and complex history. With the demise of Christendom and the loosening of the bond between throne and altar, popes and bishops have had to reorder their relationships to the secular order.
This has meant a certain detachment from the political process and even a reluctance to be seen interfering in politics. The separation of church and state was a hard-won achievement in the West, and by and large it has worked to the benefit of both. It does not mean total separation, but it does mean that the relationship between the secular and the sacral has changed. This shows itself in the detachment of church leaders from the business of lawmaking and government—except when in the defence of church teachings and interests.
But bishops are quick to speak and act, for instance, on life issues (such as abortion and euthanasia), on religious freedom and on questions having to do with marriage and the family. To those we might add issues of sexuality and gender. So, too, they are quick to intervene when it comes to Catholic schools, hospitals and welfare agencies. They are also keen to play both sides of the political aisle, in part to foster social amity but also because they know that the electoral wheel turns; if they attach themselves too closely to one side of politics, they will pay a heavy price when the wheel does turn.
As a prudential arrangement, this has worked well enough in most circumstances. But there have been moments in recent history when it has broken down and left the bishops seeming to be impotent bystanders or even unconscious collaborators. Think of Hitler’s Germany, where all accepted norms were cast aside and the beast was unleashed. Papal and episcopal attempts to deal with the beast missed the mark: something new and different was needed.
Diplomacy is a powerful tool as long as accepted norms are respected. But in the Catholic Church’s attempts to deal diplomatically with Hitler, the limits of diplomacy were apparent.
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Most Rev. Mark Coleridge is the Archbishop of Brisbane and is the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
With thanks to America Magazine and Archbishop Mark Coleridge, where this article originally appeared.