People of Faith in Politics: Being a Light to the Nations

22 Jun 2022

By Contributor

By Professor Matthew Ogilvie

Pope Francis speaking
Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican, 18 May 2022. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.

In 2015, Pope Francis said that Catholics should get involved in politics, even if it may be dirty. He challenged his hearers, “Do I as a Catholic watch from my balcony? No, you can’t watch from the balcony. Get right in there!”[1]

Years earlier, St John Paul II encouraged Catholics involved in politics to bring their Christian conscience to the political realm.[2]

As someone involved personally in politics, I know that people of faith can make a great contribution to the common good. That can be on individual issues, such as protection of life, economic justice, education, and culture. However, a faith perspective can run deeper.

Former Australian Prime Minister speaks in during a presentation on Communism in 1954. Dr David Furse-Roberts points out in his book on Sir Robert Menzies, his faith perspective formed his approach to liberty, human rights and the very foundations of Australian culture. Image: Sourced.

As Dr David Furse-Roberts points out in his book on Sir Robert Menzies, his faith perspective formed his approach to liberty, human rights and the very foundations of Australian culture.[3]

A faith perspective also makes a difference to the way political leaders make decisions.

The point was made recently by Senator friend of mine who said that we need people with a higher perspective and a “reference point” to whom they are accountable.

Pope Benedict XVI delivers a blessing at the conclusion of a Mass at St Peter’s Basilica in 2013. Photo: CNS/Paul Haring.

Without that accountability, people run the risk of what Pope Benedict XVI called being “self-authorised”[4] and prone to making decisions that benefit an ideology or a select few to the detriment of the common good.

However, many people today say that people of faith should disqualify themselves from public discourse.

That challenge was put to me by someone who said that, in the name of religious freedom, religious people should stay out of politics. Bravely, I pointed out the perils of non-religious people getting into politics. I also pointed out that freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.

There is a deeper answer though. As Pope Francis says, people of faith have a role to play in secular politics. How do we justify that involvement in a pluralist democracy? In the first place, religious people and leaders are just as much a part of a liberal democracy as any other people. We have a right to be heard, whether as individuals or a community.

In the second place, there is a very important part of religious tradition that should be brought to the table. The great religions of this world vary in many aspects. But if we look carefully enough at those religions we find that, in addition to what they have to say about God, they also a lot to say about humanity. The great religions are humane religions, and they have something to say about human nature, our rights and responsibilities, our joys and hopes, our misery and despair.

Pope Paul VI is pictured in this undated photo. In his 1967 Encyclical Populorum Progressio. He wrote that the Church “… has long experience in human affairs.”Photo: CNS/Vatican Media.

Pope Paul VI put the point very well in his 1967 Encyclical Populorum Progressio.[5] He wrote that the Church “… has long experience in human affairs.” In an address to the United Nations in 1965, the Pope explained that the Church is an “expert in humanity.”[6] The same point goes for any of the great humane faiths of the world. What gives religious people the right and the responsibility to be involved in secular affairs is our concern for humanity, our expertise and long experience of humanity that pre-dates all of today’s political parties.

This expertise in humanity and concern for humanity characterises Judaism and Christianity and many of the world’s great faiths. As Philipe Nemo points out,[7] Western culture emerged from a Jewish-Christian rejection of the inevitability of evil and a conviction that, with God’s help, we can make our world better.

If we dig deep enough into our religious values, we discover not just faith in God, but also commitment to human values. The same goes for politics. If we go beyond partisan policies, personalities etc., and if we carefully look at politics, we discover those same human values. This is where religion and politics should come together – in those deep human values of people who are dignified and endowed with certain rights and responsibilities, and with needs that are social, cultural, economic and spiritual.

To put the point another way, if we search deeply enough, good religion and good politics will come together in affirming, protecting and promoting our common human values. It’s when religion goes wrong, or politics goes wrong, that people cannot come together and religion and politics find themselves opposed.

Catholics and other people of faith have much to offer through politics. Even though it can mean experiencing the “dirt” of the world, as Pope Francis says, it is our responsibility to be a light to the nations and, as Sir Robert Menzies would say, it is our God-given right.

Matthew Ogilvie is a Professor of Theology at University of Notre Dame Australia. He is also a venomous snake catcher and a self-defence instructor. He blogs at  .

[1] Carol Glatz. 2015 “Catholics must be active in politics, no matter how ‘dirty,’ pope says.” NCR Online. (May 1, 2015).

[2] E. J. Dionne Jr. 1984. “Pope Speaks out on Political Role.” New York Times. (Sept 22, 1984).

[3] David Furse-Roberts. 2021. God & Menzies, The Faith that Shaped a Prime Minister and his Nation. Jeparit Press.–David-Furse-Roberts-HARDBACK-WITH-DUST-JACKET_p_458.html

[4] Joseph Ratzinger (Cardinal) 2005. “On Europe’s Crisis of Culture.” Catholic Education Resource Center. (1 April 2005.)

[5] Paul VI (Pope). 1967. Populorum Progressio. (Encyclical On the Development of Peoples.)

[6] John Allen Jr. 2018. “Celebrating one of history’s most refined, and recognizably human, popes” Crux. (October 12, 2018).

[7] Philippe Nemo. 2002. What is the West? Duquesne University Press.