The Church – supporting political engagement
What role can the Church play in enabling its members to bear witness to truth in public life?
For a plethora of reasons, Christians often feel deterred from entering the political sphere. Whether this is owing to perceived ‘barriers to entry’, to an aversion to conflict/confrontation, or even to fear of upsetting the status quo, many Christians feel a sense of reluctance towards the idea of being involved in politics or public policy. Many Christians feel outright hostility to the idea, as indeed they feel inadequate when confronted about their beliefs and may feel embarrassed at not being able to mount a more articulate defence.
As Christians, we not only have a right to participate in politics and the political process “bringing to bear religiously derived moral principles in democratic deliberation about sound public policy”, but an obligation to do so. This obligation stems from: our call to love; to practice charity in truth and truth in charity; to pursue the common good as a direct response to God’s command in Genesis to ‘cultivate the garden’ and to seek justice—embracing the principle of solidarity in regarding injustice committed against another as no less serious than an injustice against oneself.
Importantly, in pursuing the common good one not only practices charity, which gives “real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbour,” but indeed, one engages in evangelisation. Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi stated that this end is intrinsic to the mission of the Church.
This point is reiterated by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) who in a 1996 statement on “The Common Good and Catholic Social Teaching” assert that evangelisation “always requires the transformation of an unjust social order; and one of its primary tasks is to oppose and denounce such injustices.” The statement goes on to say that all Catholics who engage in the political life of the nation “are entitled to regard themselves as engaging in evangelisation.”
Whilst admittedly not everyone has a vocation to public office, as members of the Church we must defend the truth and articulate it “with humility and conviction, and bear witness to it in life.” Indeed “the more we strive to secure a common good, corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them.” The Church recognises that it too has a duty to fulfil in facilitating the active participation of its members in opposing and denouncing injustice, and one such way is to encourage and to empower its members to participate in the realm of politics.
To that end, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has, for eleven years now, been the trailblazer in the Catholic Church in Europe with its ground-breaking “Catholic Parliamentary and Public Policy Internship scheme (CPPPI scheme).” In its current configuration, the CPPPI scheme provides eight recently graduated Catholics with an intensive experience of political and social action in a spiritual context. Four interns are placed with Christian Members of Parliament in Westminster, one in a parliamentary support role within the Secretariat, two in public policy with CAFOD and CSAN, and one in a media internship in Archbishop’s House Westminster.
This scheme is an unparalleled opportunity for any young Catholic who is passionate about politics and his/her faith, and who is discerning a vocation to public office. The scheme facilitates spiritual and personal growth whilst affording to participants invaluable first-hand experience of policy formation, public service and the influence of Christian ethics on decision making at the very highest level in British Politics.
In light of the success of the CPPPI scheme, it is a wonder that the model has not been replicated by other Bishops’ Conferences. The holistic approach fostered by the scheme, combining spiritual formation, practical experience with an MP and the study of Christian ethics and Catholic Social Teaching maximises the possible benefit to participants, whilst the knowledge, skills and experience accrued during this internship provide the best possible preparation for a career in public service.
Former interns now work in a panoply of political roles, from Brussels to Westminster, and the feedback is unequivocal —that the experience and contacts gained during the CPPPI scheme opened doors for interns and opened minds. It is pertinent to point out that the year-long internship has also led to participants subsequently realising that a vocation to public office is not for them. This is another important facet of the internship scheme.
With the rate of youth unemployment in Europe approaching 25%, and many young people turning to internships —both paid and unpaid—as a means of entering the job market, exploitation is increasingly reported as a proportion of those recruiting interns seek to tap into the abundant “free labour.” In this context, quality internships are even more highly sought after [Proof of this is to consider that the European Commission had record numbers of applications for its traineeship scheme (October 2014 session) 15,607 for 1400 places].
The role that the Church can play in inspiring and emboldening its youth to oppose and denounce injustice and to articulate and defend the truth cannot be underestimated. The Church must continue to encourage and empower its young members to engage in the political sphere. We must remember that we are called to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ and indeed that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but the Spirit of power and love and self-control (2Tim 1:7).”
Stephen N. Rooney