Catholics must play an active role in public life

Catholics must play an active role in public life

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput OFM Cap

The following is an edited version of the address given by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput OFM Cap of Denver at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, on 20 May 2005, in Washington, DC, in the presence of President George W. Bush.

All of us, no matter how little we are, have a voice in our nation's public life and a major part to play.

Additionally, Catholics see politics as part of the history of salvation. For us, no one is a minor actor in that drama. Each person is important. And one of the most important duties we have is to use our gifts in every way possible for the glory of God and for the common good.

That is why Catholics and other Christians have always taken an active role in public life. What we believe about God shapes how we think about men and women. It also shapes what we do about promoting human dignity.

Today's national discussion about religion and politics is sometimes so very strange. If God is the centre of our lives, then of course that fact will influence our behaviour, including our political decisions. That is natural and healthy. What is unnatural and unhealthy is the kind of public square where religious faith is seen as unwelcome and dangerous. But that seems to be exactly what some people want: a public square stripped of God and stripped of religious faith.

Our duty, if we are serious about being Catholics, is to not let that happen. But our work as citizens does not end there. Our bigger task is to help renew public life by committing ourselves ever more deeply to our Catholic faith - and acting as if we really mean it.

Since the 1960s, many Catholics have been acting as if they are lucky just to be tolerated in the public square. In other words, we had better not be too Catholic or somebody will be offended. That is a mistake. It is a recipe for losing our faith and throwing away any hope for a national political discourse based on conviction.

It is also important to notice that most of today's anti-Catholic prejudice in the public square is different from the past. It does not come from other religious believers. It comes from people who reject any religious influence in public debates.

That is not pluralism. It is not democracy. Democracy and pluralism depend on people of conviction fighting for what they believe through public debate - peacefully, legally, charitably and justly; but also vigorously and without excuses. Divorcing our personal convictions from our public choices and actions is not "good manners."

This applies to elected officials. It applies to voters. To cut God out of the public square is to cut the head and heart from our public life.

When public officials claim to be "Catholic" but then say they cannot offer their beliefs about the sanctity of the human person as the basis of law, it always means one of two things. They are either very confused, or they are very evasive.

All law is the imposition of somebody's beliefs on somebody else. That is exactly the reason we have debates, and elections, and Congress.

Courage of our convictions

"God" need not be on our lips every minute of every day. But He should be in our hearts from the moment we wake, to the moment we sleep. Only Jesus is Lord. The Church belongs to Him; not to us, but to Him. And there is no way - no way - that we should ever allow ourselves to be driven from the public square by those who want someone else, or something else, to be Lord.

St Augustine, who had such a deep influence on the mind of our new Holy Father, once wrote that, "Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are."

Are we angry enough about what is wrong with the world - the killing of millions of unborn children through abortion; the neglect of the poor and the elderly; the mistreatment of immigrants in our midst; the abuse of science in embryonic stem cell research? Do we really have the courage of our convictions to change those things?

The opposite of hope is cynicism, and cynicism also has two daughters. Their names are indifference and cowardice. In renewing ourselves in our faith, what Catholics need to change most urgently is the habit and rhetoric of cowardice we find in our own personal lives, in our national political life, and sometimes even within the Church herself.

Every year during the week between Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, I reflect on what the Church means when she talks about the season of "ordinary time." There is a spot just west of Denver as you descend out of the Rocky Mountains where the mountains suddenly stop, and the horizon opens up, and you gaze out on the beginning of the Great Plains - a thousand miles of flatland between Denver and the Mississippi River.

It reminds me of where we spend most of our lives. Not in the mountains, but on the plains - raising families, doing our jobs, making the daily choices that shape the world around us. Ordinary time is the space God gives to each of us to make a difference - between the past and the future, between Pentecost and Jesus' Second Coming.

What we do with that ordinary time - in our personal choices and in our public actions - matters eternally. Solzhenitsyn once said that "the line separating good and evil runs not through states, nor between classes, nor even between political parties, but right through the centre of each human heart, and every human heart."

Renewing our hearts - that is where we begin. Renewing the world - that is our goal. Reclaiming the fire and courage of Pentecost - that is how we will get there. Say it, and mean it, and live it: Only God is God, and only Jesus is Lord. When our actions finally follow our words, then so will our nation, and so will the world.

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