Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Church and Constitutional Fidelity

Nearly a month ago, the Wall Street Journal carried an interesting story on the role of the Catholic Church in the Honduran constitutional crisis. The Church, as it turns out, supported the coup (a highly contested word in this context, I know) for which they received a fair amount of criticism from Zelayistas. In the WSJ interview, Honduran Cardinal had this to say:

“In our communiqué immediately following the event,” he explains, “we were
saying this was a constitutional removal of the president, and that we have to
learn from the mistakes, and we were calling for the reconciliation of the
country. That’s all that we did, but that very same day we were blamed as
golpistas, golpistas.”

Of course the role of the Church in Latin American politics has always been an intriguing question. The church is often charged with favoring the right (as opposed to “godless communism”) during the many of the cold war battles, but at other times (especially in Central America and especially the jesuits) it has supported the progressive causes of the left in the battle against inequality and poverty.

In the Honduran case, the Church seems to have taken a position on legal philosophy, suggesting that the constitutional text and its edicts should be supreme. Indeed, the Cardinal even lauded the military for protecting the document: “Now the army is respected, because they have dedicated themselves to the constitutional role of defending the law and the borders.” If we assume that the Cardinal’s position towards the constitution is not simply politics disguised as legal interpretation, then it raises some interesting questions.

Specifically, for me it recalled Sandy Levinson’s vivid distinction between a Protestant view of constitutional interpretation and the Catholic one in his book, Constitutional Faith. In broad terms, the Protestant view of interpretation is one that stays close to the text but allows nearly anyone to interpret it. In the Catholic view, the text is subordinated to official interpretation (doctrine), which is produced by a specific and hierarchical set of officials. It is interesting, then, — if only for kicks — to wonder how whether the Catholic clergy tend to adopt the same sort of interpretive philosophy in the political realm as they do in the religious one.

In the Honduran case, one would be tempted to see the Cardinal’s view as highly textualist since he supports the defense of the term limit imposed by the founders. However, it is also possible that the Cardinal is even more swayed by the Honduran Supreme Court’s affirmation of the term-limit provision (or even the army’s action!), in which case the Cardinal would be acting in a very “Catholic” way by deferring to doctrine. Perhaps another case, in which the text and doctrine are at odds, would provide us with a better answer as to the relationship between processes of political and religious interpretation in the church.


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