Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Mission of Catholic Laity…in the World of Politics and in the International Community

Published in Lecture to Congress of Catholic Laity on November 28, 2000


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:

[I’d like to thank the chairman for advertising my book and encourage all of you to do your Christmas shopping early (laughter). There is, of course, an ironic quality to an American being asked to address this Congress on “politics” after the past three weeks...(laughter). But my old and dear friend Cardinal Stafford assures me that he’s not going to take all of you to Florida after the Congress to count ballots (laughter and applause).]

Five years ago, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, Pope John Paul II described the quest for freedom as “one of the great dynamics of human history.” That quest, the Holy Father insisted, is “not limited to any one part of the world,” nor is it “the expression of any single culture.” Rather, the Pope reminded the General Assembly, “men and women throughout the world, even when threatened by violence, have taken the risk of freedom, asking to be given a place in social, political, and economic life which is commensurate with their dignity as free human beings.” Deepening the analysis further, the Holy Father argued that the global character of this quest for freedom is a “key” to understanding its significance, for the worldwide reach of this movement confirms “that there are indeed universal human rights, rooted in the nature of the person, rights which reflect the objective and inviolable demands of a universal moral law.”[1]

How stands the cause of freedom, five years after the Holy Father identified and lifted up freedom’s moral core before the leaders of the world of politics? And what does the current situation suggest about the discipleship and mission of the baptized in the world of domestic politics and in the international community?

The twentieth century proved beyond dispute that ideas have consequences, for good and for ill. My suggestion this morning is that the idea of freedom in a society and in the international community has everything to do with whether freedom is lived in such a way that the result is genuine human flourishing. If the idea of freedom in a society or in the international community is defective, dehumanizing politics will inevitably follow. If the idea of freedom is sound, we may yet, as the Holy Father proposed in 1995, see a century of tears give birth to a “new springtime of the human spirit.”[2]

Therefore, the primary mission of the laity in the world of politics and in the international community is to promote the notion of freedom for excellence — freedom tethered to truth and ordered to goodness — and to resist the concept of freedom as a neutral faculty of choice that can attach itself legitimately to any object.

Put another way, the lay task in the political arena is to insist that freedom means doing things the right way, rather than doing things my way.

Put yet another way, the laity will advance the new evangelization in the world of politics and in the international community by bringing to those worlds the teaching of Centesimus Annus, read “through” the teaching of Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae. That is, the teaching of Centesimus Annus on the priority of culture in the formation of democratic politics and the free economy must be read “through” the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on the public meaning of exceptionless moral norms, and through Evangelium Vitae’s analysis of the linkage between the life issues and the basic social and political conditions for living freedom justly and nobly.

Democracy and the free economy are not machines that will run by themselves. The free society will only remain free if the virtues necessary for freedom are alive and well, in and among political communities. It takes a certain kind of people to make political freedom serve the ends of justice; it takes a certain kind of people to discipline and direct the remarkable energies set loose by the free economy. Absent the habits of mind and heart that link freedom to truth and goodness, the free economy will produce what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the “permissive cornucopia,” and democracy will decay into new forms of manipulation and oppression. That is why the primary mission of the laity in the world of politics and in the international community is to teach, witness to, and embody the truth that freedom is not a matter of doing what we like, but rather of having the right to do what we ought.

Ten years ago, in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, it seemed as if the cause of freedom, often identified with the democratic project, was irresistible. As I look out into the first quarter of the twenty-first century, it seems to me that the democratic project itself is under internal assault, politically, philosophically, and technologically. A brief outline of each of these threats may help us identify more precisely some of the most pressing issues to be addressed by the distinctive lay mission of the baptized in the world of politics and in the international community.

The political threat to the democratic future involves the increasing role of unelected judges in settling basic issues of public policy. This practice diminishes and demeans democracy, and weakens a people’s democratic instincts. The judicial usurpation of politics on the life issues of abortion and euthanasia, and in the definition of marriage, is taking place on both the national and international planes, often in response to activist non-governmental organizations who cannot achieve their goals through legislation. Through this process, wrongs are being proclaimed as “rights,” and the tools of law are being deployed to do evil, to justify evil, and to compel cooperation with evil. Here is the clearest example to date of what John Paul II warned against in Centesimus Annus: democracies deteriorating into “thinly-disguised” totalitarian systems in which the external forms of democratic government are maintained even as those forms are turned into instrumens of coercion.[3]

This political threat is closely linked to the philosophical threat to the democratic project, which is the prevalence in the public life of western societies of a soft utilitarianism married to a concept of freedom as radical personal autonomy. Here is the “freedom of indifference” of which I spoke earlier in its most dangerous form. For freedom-as-personal-willfulness, coupled with radical skepticism about the possibility of our knowing the moral truth of things, is ultimately incompatible with democratic self-government. If there is only “my truth” and “your truth,” and neither of us recognizes a transcendent horizon of truth by which we agree to settle our differences when our “truths” are in conflict, then one of two things will happen: either I will impose my will on you, or you will impose your will on me. Press that method of settling differences far enough, and we find ourselves, rather abruptly, at the end of democracy. A careful survey of public life in the developed democracies suggests that we are already dangerously far down this path to democratic self-destruction.

The political threat to the democratic future and the philosophical threat often intersect in the many urgent questions posed for politics and the international community by the new biotechnologies. Within a very few years, the completion of the Human Genome Project will hold out the prospect of extending and enriching lives by early-detection techniques and precisely-designed vaccines, and ultimately correcting the genetic defects that lead to sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s Disease, and various cancers. These are entirely welcome prospects. Yet the new genetic knowledge and the power of the new biotechnologies also carry within them the temptation to re-manufacture the human condition by re-manufacturing human beings. Unless that temptation is resisted — unless the lay mission in the world succeeds in teaching the world the truth about our freedom — the world will suffer the kind of dehumanization that was once imagined only by novelists. Crossing the threshold of the 21st century, it begins to appear that Aldous Huxley was right and George Orwell wrong. The most profoundly threatening dystopia of the future is not the brutal totalitarianism sketched in Orwell’s novel 1984, but the mindless, soulless authoritarianism depicted in Huxley’s Brave New World: a world of stunted humanity; a world of souls without longing, without passion, without striving, without suffering, without surprises or desire — in a word, a world without love.

In confronting the challenge that this brave new world poses for human freedom, the laity have a powerful model in St. Thomas More, recently proclaimed the patron of statesmen and politicians — and, by extension, the patron of all those engaged in public life. Contrary to the image created by the play and film, “A Man for All Seasons,” Thomas More was not a martyr for the primacy of conscience, if by conscience is meant freedom as radical personal autonomy. Thomas More was a martyr for Christian truth, the truth that “man cannot be sundered from God, [or] politics from morality.”[4] Not all Christians are called to be “martyrs” in the strict sense of being called to suffer death for Christ and the Gospel. But all Christians are called by their baptism to be “martyrs” in the original Greek sense of µ , “witness.” Thus Catholic politicians, statesmen, and citizens engaged in the public debates that are the lifeblood of democracy are called to be witnesses to the truth about the human person.

For Catholics, that truth has been definitively revealed in humanity’s encounter with Jesus Christ. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it, “Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”[5] To enter more fully into our baptismal mission in the world is to take upon ourselves more completely the three-fold mission of the Christ into whom we were baptized: the Christ who is priest, prophet, and king. Thus we are to worship in truth, speak the truth, and serve in the truth.

Like every other aspect of the creation, freedom is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” as freedom awaits the fullness of its redemption (cf. Romans 8.22). In this particular moment of the “in-between” time that is the Church’s life between Easter and the Lord’s coming in glory, the baptismal mission of the laity in the world of politics is to witness to the truth of the human person, human community, human origins, and human destiny revealed in the incarnate Son of God, who shows us both the face of the Father and the dignity of our human condition. In witnessing to that truth, in charity, we may hope to rebuild the moral foundations of the house of freedom — to persuade the political world of the 21st century that the future of freedom requires reclaiming and renewing the idea of freedom as a matter of having the right to do what we ought.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.


[1] Pope John Paul II, Address to the Fiftieth General Assembly of the United Nations Organization, 5 October 1995, 2-3 (emphases in original).

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Centesimus Annus, 46.

[4] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians [L’Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, 8 November 2000, p. 3].

[5] Gaudium et Spes, 22.

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