- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

The Vatican yesterday urged Catholics worldwide to be active in politics, arguing that democracies must recognize God-given human nature and that denial of Christian activism was "a form of intolerant secularism."

In its release of "doctrinal notes" on participation in politics, the Vatican portrayed the growth of democracy as bedeviled by moral relativism and secularism.

"A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defense of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of natural moral law," said the document, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's doctrinal overseer.

The document, approved by Pope John Paul II, cheered the spread of democracy, but argued that "natural law" should be followed not only by Catholics, but by anyone using reason and thinking about the common good.

Natural-law theory argues that God or nature has designed mankind in a fashion that mandates human rights, respectful relationships and such institutions as marriage.

The Vatican said the world of politics and the state are separate from the church, but that democracy must be "based on a correct understanding of the human person" and that Christians have the duty of "infusing the temporal order" with those values.

The notes emphasized that Catholics may choose the appropriate political party to achieve general ends, such as order, peace, respect for life, equality and justice, but argued that many legislators are following demands for irresponsible freedoms.

"Lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principle of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends," said the notes, addressed to bishops, Catholic lawmakers and lay voters.

Some see the notes as timed for the June completion of a founding document for the European Union, early drafts of which have been quite secular in outlook. The Vatican has urged that it mention God or Europe's Christian heritage.

In the United States, debates on abortion, war, the death penalty, policy toward the poor, and homosexual "families" are likely to heat up.

The 108th Congress has 151 Catholics 24 in the Senate and 127 in the House. They make up 28 percent of Congress, matching the Catholic population.

Albert Menendez of Americans for Religious Liberty said the Catholic notion of natural law, which is recognized by some Christian groups but few secularists, is problematic in politics.

"No one knows what natural law is, where it comes from or how it applies in every situation," Mr. Menendez said. "In any secular country, how do you make such a concept superior to its constitution?"

The U.S. Constitution does not mention God, but the Declaration of Independence speaks of the "self-evident truth" about the Creator as the source of inalienable rights, which some call a natural-law argument.

American voter turnout was 51 percent in 2000 and 36 percent in 2002, and "Catholics were not much different," said John White, a political scientist at Catholic University.

He said the natural-law issue for Catholics was debated publicly in the 1980s, when Democratic candidates such as Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro said Catholic teachings on abortion were personal, not mandated for the general public.

"I don't think there is such a thing as a Catholic vote," Mr. White said. While a natural-law argument is unlikely to guarantee certain policy votes, he said, Catholics and others who attend church most often side with the pro-life stance.

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