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Shutting up when the nation sits in

Coalition calls for more free and fair elections, dislikes current proposals

  • Deacon Sherman Kuek, Johor Bahru
  • Malaysia
  • April 23, 2012
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The Coalition for Free and Fair Elections in Malaysia (known as Bersih, which means “clean” in the Malay language) has again called upon citizens to a third round of public demonstrations on April 28, 2012, after having held one in 2007 and another last year.

But unlike previous demonstrations, this one is set to take the form of a sit-in at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur and in other towns across the country, as well as in some cities throughout the world where Malaysians reside.

This upcoming “Bersih 3.0” event has been provoked by the dissatisfaction of the coalition towards the parliamentary select committee’s 22 recommendations to improve the electoral system in Malaysia.

Are Malaysian Catholics to seriously consider this call to participate in the event? While it would certainly be wrong to require all Catholics to demonstrate regardless of the state of their conscience, it is inevitably the responsibility of every Catholic, in being a mindful citizen of the nation, to consider his contribution towards a fair and free electoral system in Malaysia.

Because few member Catholics are well versed in the teachings of the Church on political involvement, it is an opportune time to examine the Church’s stand on this issue.

Contrary to the notion among certain segments of society that the Church should “go back to the sacristy,” Christians are becoming increasingly aware that they are very much a Church in the world. In an address in July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the need for “evangelising the world of work, the economy, politics, which requires a new generation of committed Christian laypeople capable of seeking with competency and moral rigour solutions of sustainable development.”

When we speak of the involvement of the Church in politics, we refer first and foremost to the laity, that portion of the Church which constitutes more than 99 percent of its membership.  It is through the laity that the Church finds its most direct involvement in the political sphere.

For those who have chosen the secular life, by virtue of their being laity, it is their specific and proper role to “become actively engaged in their responsibilities in the professional, social, cultural and political world” (Christifideles Laici, 1988, point 2).

The laity are primarily called to be agents of change in the world; this is a responsibility proper to their role in the light of their baptismal vows. They are to bring Christ and His Church to places and circumstances where only they can go, and make fruitful vineyards where only they can labour: in their families, workplaces and communities, and in political affairs (Ad Gentes Divinitus, 1965, point 21; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 1965, point 14).

While most remain ordinary citizens endowed with certain rights common to all members of society, some laity eventually move on to enter the realm of politics as politicians. Laity should, if it is their discerned vocation (within their already established vocation as laity), concede to take on leadership positions in society so that the temporal affairs may be directed towards the will of God.

As politicians, they would naturally have to be aligned to specific political parties, according to how they think the common good can be best upheld. But most importantly, they should be people of integrity who seek to contribute to the achievement of good governance. They are to act in accordance with the mind of the Church, for it is the common faith of the Church that should guide and shape their conscience as officeholders.

As members of society, laity are to practise their rights as citizens by upholding freedom and the common good of all, which should be the political goal of all Catholics. Since they profess the Catholic faith, their political choices should be assessed in the light of the faith.

The moral teachings of the Church are the standards by which the values and conscience of both officeholder and voter should abide. This includes the principles of compassion, justice and charity that would serve as guidelines on issues such as taxes, education, foreign policy and immigration reform, among others.

The laity have a rightful duty to strive to be heard in the public square. It is their duty to ensure that the moral teachings of the Church are publicly advocated in such a way that they can have a conscience, inform law and public policy, and not be artificially confined to the private domain of personal belief.

The laity should work along with ecclesiastical hierarchy and turn to the clergy for “guidance and spiritual strength” (Gaudium et Spes, 1965, point 43). They should not, however, expect ready answers from the hierarchy for every social and political problems, for finding such solutions is the practical responsibility of the laity guided by the wisdom of the Church.

In certain instances where public authority becomes oppressive, Catholics are bound to obey the laws of the state insofar as they do not contradict divine law. But no parliament, legislature or court has the authority to defy divine commandments or to command obedience to laws and regulations that are contrary to the natural moral law. Whenever such an abuse of authority occurs in the political system of a nation, its Catholics must take all legal and political steps necessary to defend themselves and their fellow citizens.

Furthermore, they may be obligated to exhibit conscientious objection, civil disobedience, non-cooperation and other forms of non-violent resistance in accordance with the natural moral law and the Gospel (Gaudium et Spes, 1965, point 74). Should such steps become necessary, the unity of Christians and non-Christian believers in God and their willingness to suffer will ultimately overcome the abuse of state governmental authority.

Francis Cardinal George, OMI, Archbishop of Chicago, ends his letter Catholic Participation in Political Life (October 10, 2004) as follows: “May the Lord be good to us and give us the courage to participate in political life with consciences truly formed by the faith that comes to us from the apostles.”

For the sake of justice, peace and the Kingdom of God, the faithful of the Church cannot shut up when the nation sits in.

Sherman Kuek is a Malaysian theologian and permanent deacon. He currently serves as director of the Diocesan Pastoral Institute of Melaka-Johor diocese
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