CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Christian perspective on relationship between Church and state

HONG KONG (SE): “I am urging all the people of Hong Kong to join in,” the former bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, told a forum held at the Baptist University of Hong Kong on April 18 and 19 on the Occupy Central campaign.

The campaign is the brainchild of law academic, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. 

Both maintain that the underlying principle of their campaign is self-sacrifice, not causing a public nuisance, with the express purpose of stressing the importance of truly universal suffrage in choosing a chief executive for the special administrative region of Hong Kong.

Tai says that those who join must promise to refrain totally from violence, submit willingly to arrest and be prepared to face the consequences.  He calls it an exercise to conscientise public opinion.

Whether it succeeds or not is not the point, according to Cardinal Zen.

“Sometimes we have to do things that are useless,” the South China Morning Post quoted him as saying on April 20. “Miracles can happen if you try.”

The forum at the Baptist University was asking a basic question about the relationship of Church and state for Christian citizens.

Biblically, the discussion can be traced back to the Old Testament. The prophet Samuel documents how the chosen people of God asked to have a king, a worldly leader to put them on the political map.

The discussion ranges over who was their king in the first place. “The Lord is your king,” Samuel tells the people.

However, the Lord grants the request of the people, but with the warning that if they rebel against the Lord, the Lord will be against them and their king.

However, biblical history is not a political, but theological discussion. It is written from the perspective of God saying that when the people and the king observe the covenant of the Lord, things will go well.

Samuel was a prophet. His job was to tell the king to be faithful to this covenant, not by forecasting the future, but interpreting the present in the context of the word of God.

However, all Christians are prophets by virtue of the sacrament of baptism.

Father Frank Pavone, from the diocese of Amarillo, Texas, in the United States of America, points out that historically the Church has said both yes and no to the state.

In his work, Church and State in Early Christianity, Hugo Rahner writes, “The Church has never confronted that state with a no of inflexible refusal dictated by otherworldly mysticism, or with a yes of unqualified acceptance based on political interference.”

Fundamentally, the Church believes that all authority comes from God, so in a sense, obeying the state is obeying God. This is the basis of good citizenship and, even in times of persecution by the state, Christians are expected to be good citizens.

During the Babylonian Exile God did not call upon his people to revolt or overthrow the kingdom.

In New Testament times, St. Peter exhorts Christians to maintain good relationships with the Gentiles, if for no other reason that they may see their good deeds and understand their fruit.

Father Pavone says that being citizens of heaven does not give the right to ignore the duties of citizenship. In fact, he argues that preparing for the world to come makes Christians more concerned about this one.

Well-known for his advocacy against abortion, Father Pavone points out that at times, the Church has said a clear no to the state and this is grounded in the nature of the kingdoms in this world.

He interprets Jesus’ famous comment, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” as meaning what bears the image of God belongs to God—in other words, all human beings, Caesar included.

“So Christ establishes the framework. Caesar himself belongs to God. The state belongs to God,” Father Pavone argues.

Nevertheless, he says that the state cannot embrace the full ambit of human hope. “The state exists for the person… In this lies the basis of the Church’s no to the state,” he says.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it in this way. Our citizenship is in heaven and only there is our ultimate loyalty. So if the state proposes a conflict with loyalty to heaven, loyalty to God must prevail (2234 to 2243).

The Catechism speaks explicitly about civil disobedience. It reminds us that we have to obey authority, so long as that authority is legitimate and this is to be measured against how it contributes to the common good of society.

In number 1902, The Catechism says that a human law possesses the character of law to the extent that it is derived from the eternal law, otherwise it can be said to be unjust and, as such, a type of violence.

It adds in number 1903 that when this is breached, laws are not binding on conscience and authority is at risk of total breakdown, which invariably results in shameful abuse.

In this case The Catechism is quite clear. A citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities.

But in any given circumstance how to make a judgement as to whether a law is just or unjust can be a thorny question, as few things are clearly black and white, but include smudged areas of grey.

The American civil rights advocate of the 1960s, Martin Luther King, cites St. Thomas Aquinas as giving one clear guideline. “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

Father Pavone submits a guideline for civil disobedience and how it may be carried out.

“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” he says, contending that an individual who breaks a law that his conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty in order to arouse the conscience of the community over an injustice, is expressing the highest respect for law.

The Jewish philosopher, Martin Büber, adds that when the I-thou relationship in law is substituted with the I-it, people are relegated to the status of things. In this case he urged people to disobey such ordinances.

The forum at the Baptist University charged itself with answering these questions in the context of the restrictive nature of the proposed elections in Hong Kong.

It forms part of an ongoing discussion and, if it established anything, it is that the conversation is legitimate.

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