The Vatican’s recent attempt to broker talks between the government and opposition parties in Venezuela has failed. This may be bad news for Venezuela. The Vatican peace effort was thought by some to be the last chance to avoid violent conflict in that country. However, our concern here is not with Venezuela’s stability, important as that is, but with the propriety of a religious authority intervening in a country’s internal politics. Should the Vatican have undertaken these talks in the first place?
A first reaction might very well be: What could be wrong with the Vicar of Christ, the Prince of Peace, waging peace? Shouldn’t all Christians strive to be agents of peace?
Current Catholic teaching clarifies that the Church’s mission includes fostering peace and justice in this world. The Second Vatican Council declared that the Church is “called to be a sign and instrument of union with God and unity among humanity” (emphasis added). The point of Christianity is not merely to get individuals into heaven after they die, but also to increase a true harmony among humans that is itself a communion in the love that is of God and is God.
And yet, such Vatican efforts to facilitate negotiations between competing political factions raises thorny issues about the proper relationship between religion and politics. On the one hand, our “post-modern” world increasingly recognizes that religion and politics are inseparable, that religious beliefs are generally intended to inform all dimensions of believers’ lives. On the other hand, most of us are not ready to collapse religion into politics or vice versa. We do not want our churches to become the chaplaincies of political parties or our political parties to be the strategic forces of our churches.
We may not be able to separate religion and politics, but we can—and should—distinguish them. Religious leaders have the task of clarifying the essential values and beliefs that ought to guide our lives and determine our goals, including those of public life, but they have no specific competence in the practical matters of how best to achieve public purposes. Achieving public purposes is the task of the state, which has no competence over matters of ultimate concern, as Paul Tillich helpfully described religious belief.
One question to ask when religious bodies seek to influence activities of the state is whether the issue at hand is an appropriate state concern. Should the authority of the government be brought to bear on the issue? Or is this a case of using legislative power to enforce religious matters beyond the purview of the state?
In the case of Venezuela, the reconciliation of political factions is clearly an appropriate concern of the state. Ensuring peace and social stability are essential functions of governmental authority.
A second question then arises: Is the religious engagement outside of the competence and appropriate sphere of religious authorities? As stipulated by the Second Vatican Council, the transformation of the world is the proper vocation of the laity, while the clergy’s vocation is to build the church community and to teach the moral principles that guide the work of the laity in the world.
Yet again, this differentiation of vocations is a distinction, not a strict separation. Laity also have responsibility for the welfare of the church, and at times the clergy must act for the good of the world. Given that the Vatican has diplomatic resources that were able to bring the sides together and strive for peace without claiming expertise about the best solution, the Venezuelan peace effort appears to fall within the parameters of appropriate clergy engagement with politics.
And yet, we might ask whether these peace talks served the unity of humanity as envisioned in Catholic social teaching—a peace with justice. Peace efforts can often support a dehumanizing status quo, strengthening an unjust government and established interests against the efforts for true justice that can be destabilizing and distinctly not peaceful.
It is not clear whether this Vatican peace effort reinforced the power of the Venezuelan government or served the cause of justice, but such questions must be considered as Christians work toward a society oriented by an option for the poor. Christians seek not peace alone, but a peace built on justice with special concern for the marginal and vulnerable.
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