Politics as life-long engagement


I remember the scene clearly: it was just after midnight and the house lights were switched on in the auditorium of the Teatro Argentina in Rome. Moving from stage lighting to the lighting of the whole house was meant to affirm the role of the audience in the dawning of a democratic process in Eumenides, the third play in Aeschylus’ The Oresteia cycle, as a vote is cast on Orestes’ charge. Is he guilty or innocent? Athena, then, declares the theatre to be a court crowded with people. Sadly, while the lights revealed the glories of the theatre’s internal box features, it also revealed how the seats had emptied during the performance. As the show ran so late, many of the spectators had to leave early to catch public transport.


This acted as a reminder, if needed, that even in artistic productions that aim to promote the idea of political engagement through an historical lens, wider structural limits impact upon the communication of that access in the present day. An audience is not guaranteed, as participation is dependent on a web of other factors. Could a discussion about the necessity of photo ID be appropriate here?

Recent local council elections offered an opportunity to share with primary school children the great freedom and responsibility that an open democracy requires and inspires. At the end of the visit, I shared with the pupils how at 7.30 that morning I had done something incredibly important. Most of them presumed I had prayed or ‘done something Godly’, which is admirable. Sharing with them that I had voted, their look was one of bemusement and, for most, deflation. “It’s so important to vote”, I continued to which a hand shot up in response. “Father, we know all about democracy and we vote here in our school council”. There I was ready to present a lesson on the something that would await them as they turn 16 or 18 and, yet, they were already exercising forms of democracy and political practice.

In a top-down model, there is a crisis of credibility regarding the intermediary bodies of government and governance. If leadership is corrupt, or if there is indifference towards political leaders, then citizenship stalls or is frustrated.

These two examples, of a theatre where democracy was extended but without sufficient structural provision (transport!) and of an assumption that political participation was something to be anticipated, offer insights into the Church’s relationship to the political life of the community. In what ways?

The Council Fathers’ pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes (1965) is far from a Mediaeval fortress model of the church whereby the church is, removed from and simultaneously, benefiting from the temporal realm. Instead, the Church understands herself as a social subject but not only a social subject. The specificity of the Church as a social subject is that she has an explicitly “religious mission” inspiring a “social finality” (para. 42), while retaining ‘autonomy’ and ‘independence’ from the political community (and the political community from the Church). The document does not stop there, though, for it sees both “under different titles” as “devoted to the personal and social vocation of the same men” (para. 76).

The Church through her social mission can, then, legitimately help widen the understanding of political participation without pinning her masts. For instance, even though it is admirable that local churches promote the need to be informed in the exercise of a democratic vote, it could also promote a fuller concept of active citizenship beyond the rhetoric of a Big Help Out (to cite one example) to see civic duty, as with religious devotion, involving more than free time. There is ever more room for the recognition of a civic journey in the life of citizens as they not only learn rights, duties, and obligations through different political systems, but they critically engage with mechanisms of power.

In a top-down model, there is a crisis of credibility regarding the intermediary bodies of government and governance. If leadership is corrupt, or if there is indifference towards political leaders, then citizenship stalls or is frustrated. In a bottom-up model there are various claims for representation, which can fuel the hyper-representation manifest in new populisms. Hyper-representation is driven by a dynamic where a leader claims to speak for the whole, while representing only a part. Within and without these claims of power, demands upon the citizen remain.

Acknowledging a shift in pastoral practice within the Catholic Church, including the synodal process as it is widened and globalised, could be articulated as a moving from the traditional model of a small concentration of power, often examined in terms of input and output to an active citizenship and belonging. Here, even as unhelpful comparisons are made between democracies and ecclesial voting structures that create unmanageable expectations and pressures, there is a subtle parallel between a civic journey and an ecclesial one. The auditorium lights are on if we are ready to engage. There are so many ways in which we can engage beyond voting. Are we called to be actively involved in political parties, or trades unions or business organisations? Can we more actively participate in the political processes? To the extent that we do that, we can make our contribution to enriching and civilising political life and strengthen our democracies.


Photo by Markus Spiske: https://www.pexels.com/photo/climate-sign-outside-blur-2990644/

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Author: Ryan Service

Published: 18th May 2023

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© Catholic Social Thought 2020