Homily on Religion and Politics

One of rules of the modern Catholic Church is that their priests and bishops should not be actively involved in government. So even if they asked me, I cannot stand for election to Parliament! I think the reason for this is that there have been too many cases in the past where the Church has been so closely linked with one government or another, that corruption has crept in.

The first Christians were clear that we should try to be good citizens (1 Peter 2:13-17) and that was fairly easy whilst we were a tiny minority in the pagan Roman world. But then in the 4thC, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, problems increased. Sometimes the work of the Church could do great good, as one hopes it does today, encouraging those in power to serve their people rather than their own interests; some Bishops even found themselves having to run their region, as the Roman Empire crumbled, and they were able to do much good in maintaining stability and order. But power corrupts, and sadly the rest of the Church’s record has been mixed, to say the least!

Now the simple solution to this has sometimes been to say that not only Bishops and Priests but all Christians should simply keep out of politics ; that politics and religion don’t mix. But Christianity is based on the belief that God is not just spiritual, but that God chose to enter into our physical world, as Jesus Christ, and that he made it clear that following him did not mean just being good in the religious sense but also meant going out of our way to help others, especially the poor and the sick, as we heard in our Gospel today. (Matt 25:31-46) So Jesus tells us that if we fail to feed the poor, to welcome strangers, (even immigrants!) to care for the sick and for those in prison, then we actually fail to serve God. So we have a duty to try to make our country a place where this kind of care for others, whoever they are, can take place, and doing that does mean entering the murky world of politics, whether we like it or not.

There are two areas of life where the Catholic Church has some firm views to offer our society. The first is our belief in what we call the Common Good, working for a society in which no-one is excluded or marginalised. The second is our belief in the sanctity of every human life, from protecting the life of the child in the womb to caring for the very old and the dying. There will always be argument about how to do this best, and we may opt to support one political party or another at our General Election next May, but doing nothing is not an option for us. We have to face the fact that no political party in the UK, that is likely to win an election and do any good, has the perfect set of policies that we can support; and that voting is therefore a compromise. Indeed in the UK it is often best as a Christian to vote tactically, in other words to vote for the party that is likely in your area to keep out the party you least want to see in power.

 Our problem in West Oxfordshire is that our MP (who just happens to be the Prime Minister) has such a wopping majority that it hardly seems worth voting at all. But we need to remember that, unless we vote, we really have no right later to put pressure on him with our letters and petitions to make him move more on the things we think are important. It is also the case that if the number of people failing to vote gets larger and larger because we are sick of it all, then eventually some other group may gain power and do things we really would hate to see happen. That, after all, is how the Nazis in Germany came to power in the 1930’s!

Yes, we may be sick of the antics of some of our politicians, and we may be disillusioned with the particular political party we have supported in the past; but as Christians we cannot give up trying to make our country and our world a better place, because if we do, we are actually giving up on God!

We just need to realise that what we Christians think is good and right for the world is an ideal that is beyond the reach of any political party, and that we must make the best of what there is to get as many good things as possible done. We also need to be aware of our responsibility as citizens to be involved in the life of our community in one way or another. We should therefore be proud of the fact that Catholics in the UK have a great record on this: from some excellent hard-working MP’s to those who are active in local government and in charities and other groups working in one way or another for the good of others. Long may this tradition continue, for in all these things we must realise, as we are reminded today, that we are thereby serving Christ the King.

Whatever we do, whatever the Church does, we risk being criticised in one way or another. A famous Brazilian Bishop once said “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist.” Yes Catholics have sometimes appeared to veer too far to the right or to the left in trying to make the world a better place. This is always a danger. Pope Francis has already been accused of this by some on the right when he speaks about poverty or opposes war, and has been accused equally by some on the left when he speaks about the importance of the family and of personal morality. He sets us all an example by speaking bravely on all these subjects, whatever other people say about him, and surely we should be true to the teachings of Jesus Christ in the same way. We may think that there is little we can do to change things, but if everyone thought like that, nothing would change. The Hospice movement caring for the dying started by a few people taking action, and it has now changed the face of Britain. Individual actions can make a difference, & so we must never give up!

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