Douglas Roche


July 13, 2015

The content of Pope Francis's encyclical, Laudato Si, is so vast it would take up the entire length of this column just to deal with its main themes.

I know the WCR will have plenty of coverage of this great document, which is a riveting challenge to global capitalism, so I want to concentrate here on how a Catholic politician ought to respond to papal social teaching – and how I myself handled these challenges.

No sooner had Francis' encyclical hit the Internet than Jeb Bush, one of five Catholics seeking the U.S. Republican presidential nomination, said: "I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope." That's not why he goes to Mass, he added.


Rick Santorum, another Catholic vying for nomination, said Pope Francis should "leave science to scientists."

My mind went back to the famous quip of the conservative columnist William Buckley when Pope John XXIII issued his first encyclical, Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), calling for governments to play a greater role in a more just economy: "Mater si, magistra, non!"

In other words, the Church is a mother who loves us, but she should stay out of the way of business.


John F. Kennedy had to grapple with these themes when, as a Catholic running in 1960 for the U.S. presidency, he encountered deep suspicion that the Church would control his actions.

He spoke to a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, and firmly asserted he wasn't taking orders from Rome: "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act."

Then he famously added: "I do not speak for my Church on public matters and the Church does not speak for me."

This black-and-white distinction between Church and state has always concerned me and especially so when I was in active political life.

No pope, bishop or priest ever told me directly how to vote or what to say in the political arena. That's not the point. It's what my conscience told me to do that's important.


And how is my conscience formed? First of all, by trying to understand who I am and why I am on earth and how I should treat other persons. These are core thoughts emanating from my humanity, not my race, culture or religion. But they also stem from the spiritual essence that animates human beings.

There are many caring people who are not religious. But the very nature of religion is to lift us up and show us the path to God – which, to boil down a lot of the Church's social teaching, is scarred and encumbered by suffering. Humanity's suffering is a result of unjust economic systems.

I have been deeply affected by the analysis of the unjust economic and social order by a lot of popes, starting with Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century.

Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which said that war as a means of repairing injustice no longer makes sense, affected me profoundly. It probably led to my decision to seek election to Parliament.

When I arrived there, I didn't go around quoting the pope all day long. I had to address the issues of war and peace, and economic and social policy all in their own right. I had many sources of information on the daily issues.


But the critical analyses of policies through the prism of social justice – were the most vulnerable people being helped or exploited? – guided me. Why should such teaching – dealing with protecting the human dignity of all – not be such a guide?

It is ridiculous to divorce the Church's analyses of the economic and social order from daily political decisions. The Church is not a personal pipeline to Jesus; rather it is a fountain of social justice teaching only the stupidest would ignore.

My point here is that Pope Francis is talking about far more than the science of climate change in his new encyclical. He is challenging our whole economic system, which leaves so many by the wayside and endangers the planet.

He's giving politicians plenty to think about when they go to Mass, especially this pungent line: "What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?"