I believe God wants me to be president," George W. Bush once said. Well, perhaps. One's personal call from God is a mysterious thing and God's "plan" for human history is even harder for mortals to fathom.
But even though God has called a person to a specific role, that is no guarantee that one carries out that role in accordance with God's plan.
Perhaps it is also true that Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger were called by God to assume the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church. And yet when Bush ordered the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were outspoken opponents of that decision. In fact, so were the leaders of most Christian bodies around the world.
Did God get his wires crossed in calling Bush to the presidency and John Paul II to the papacy?
"The Church is not to be confused with the political community and is not bound to any political system," says the Compendium of Church Social Doctrine. "At the level of concrete historical dynamics, the coming of the kingdom of God cannot be discerned in the perspective of a determined and definitive social, economic or political organization" (nn. 50, 51).
In other words, neither the spread of the American Empire nor the expansion of socialism nor any other political movement represent progress towards establishing the kingdom of God. Yet, at various points in history, some Christians have tried to identify God's kingdom with their favourite political agendas.
One of the great achievements of Christianity has been the distinction between the Church and politics. In the Christian world view, freedom of religion is necessary in order to respect the dignity of human conscience. As well, there is no Christian civil law akin to, say, the Islamic Sharia. The state ought to have autonomy from religious domination.
But the state must also respect human dignity. In those cases where it doesn't – far too numerous to enumerate – the Church and Church leaders have a right and responsibility to speak out in defence of that dignity.
The Church is not a political entity. The Second Vatican Council said the source and the summit of the life of the Church is the liturgy, . . . not running the government. The council also said the Church is "the sign and safeguard of the transcendent dimension of the human person."
It is a sign in that if we take the Church seriously, we are saying there is more to the person than mere flesh and blood, more than the pursuit of power and pleasure.
The Church is a safeguard in that the Church, through its words and actions, holds the powerless, the abused and the poor in its arms. It calls for them to have the same rights as the wealthy and powerful. Church communities, says the Compendium, "offer themselves as places of communion, witness and mission, and as catalysts for the redemption and transformation of social relationships" (n. 52).
The Church by offering Christ's promise of eternal life, does not defuse the striving for a better human society. It fortifies that striving. The more our faith is strengthened, the more we have "an irrepressible longing for a foretaste in this world, in the context of human relationships, of what will be a definitive reality in the world to come" (n. 58).
The Church bears the hope of the world. It reminds the world of its own incompleteness. In that reminding, it often has things to say about the proper ordering of social relationships.
But the success of human society is not the central preoccupation of the Church. Others are called to that task. But those who are called to oversee human society should not be so bold as to identify their own initiatives with the will of God. They are labouring in the earthly kingdom which – even at its very best – is but a foretaste of God's kingdom.
Too often, those political initiatives are far from the best that humanity is capable of – they are too often more representative of a pursuit of wealth and power than they are of hope in the eternal.
(Fifth in a series of articles)