The vocation of Christians in public life

The vocation of Christians in public life

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

The following is the shortened text of the address by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, Colorado, at the Houston Baptist University on 1 March 2010. The full text is available at

I love my country. I revere the genius of its founding documents and its public institutions. But no nation, not even the one I love, has a right to my allegiance, or my silence, in matters that belong to God or that undermine the dignity of the human persons He created.

Catholics and Protestants have different memories of American history. The historian Paul Johnson once wrote that America was 'born Protestant'. That's clearly true. Whatever America is today or may become tomorrow, its origin was deeply shaped by a Protestant Christian spirit, and the fruit of that spirit has been, on balance, a great blessing for humanity.

But it's also true that, while Catholics have always thrived in the United States, they lived through two centuries of discrimination, religious bigotry and occasional violence. Protestants of course will remember things quite differently. They will remember Catholic persecution of dissenters in Europe, the entanglements of the Roman Church and state power, and papal suspicion of democracy and religious liberty.

We can't erase those memories. And we cannot - nor should we try to - paper over the issues that still divide us as believers in terms of doctrine, authority and our understandings of the Church. Ecumenism based on good manners instead of truth is empty. It's also a form of lying.

If we share a love of Jesus Christ and a familial bond in baptism and God's Word, then on a fundamental level, we're brothers and sisters. Members of a family owe each other more than surface courtesies. We owe each other the kind of fraternal respect that 'speak[s] the truth in love' (Eph 4:15).

We also urgently owe each other solidarity and support in dealing with a culture that increasingly derides religious faith in general, and the Christian faith in particular.

Our theme is the vocation of Christians in American public life. That's a pretty broad canvas. Broad enough that I wrote a book about it. Here I want to focus in a special way on the role of Christians in our country's civic and political life. The key to this discussion will be that word 'vocation.' It comes from the Latin word vocare, which means, 'to call.' Christians believe that God calls each of us individually, and all of us as a believing community, to know, love and serve Him in our daily lives.

But there's more. He also asks us to make disciples of all nations. That means we have a duty to preach Jesus Christ. We have a mandate to share his Gospel of truth, mercy, justice and love. These are mission words; action words. They're not optional. And they have practical consequences for the way we think, speak, make choices and live our lives, not just at home but in the public square.

Real Christian faith is always personal, but it is never private.

John F. Kennedy

Fifty years ago, in September 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president, spoke to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. He had one purpose. He needed to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation's chief executive.

Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected. And his speech left a lasting mark on American politics. It was sincere, compelling, articulate - and wrong. Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation's life.

And he wasn't merely 'wrong.' His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place, not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America's public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage.

For his audience of Protestant ministers, Kennedy's stress on personal conscience may have sounded familiar and reassuring. But what Kennedy actually did, according to Jesuit scholar Mark Massa, was something quite alien and new. He 'secularise[d] the American presidency in order to win it.'

And the irony - according to Massa - is that some of the same people who worried publicly about Kennedy's Catholic faith got a result very different from the one they expected. In effect, 'the raising of the [Catholic] issue itself went a considerable way toward 'secularising' the American public square by privatising personal belief. The very effort to 'safeguard' the [essentially Protestant] religious aura of the presidency ... contributed in significant ways to its secularisation.'

Fifty years after Kennedy's Houston speech, we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before. But I wonder if we've ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try.

And at least one of the reasons for it is this: Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience. Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy - the kind that they'll never allow to become a public nuisance. And too many just don't really believe.

John Kennedy didn't create the trends in American life that I've described. But at least for Catholics, his Houston speech clearly fed them. Which brings me to the second point of my talk: What would a proper Christian approach to politics look like?

John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit scholar who spoke so forcefully about the dignity of American democracy and religious freedom, once wrote: 'The Holy Spirit does not descend into the City of Man in the form of a dove. He comes only in the endlessly energetic spirit of justice and love that dwells in the man of the City, the layman'.

Here's what that means. Christianity is not mainly - or even significantly - about politics. It's about living and sharing the love of God. And Christian political engagement, when it happens, is never mainly the task of the clergy. That work belongs to lay believers who live most intensely in the world.

Christian faith is not a set of ethics or doctrines. It's not a group of theories about social and economic justice. All these things have their place. All of them can be important. But a Christian life begins in a relationship with Jesus Christ; and it bears fruit in the justice, mercy and love we show to others because of that relationship.

Jesus said, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets' (Mt 22:37-40).

That's the test of our faith, and without a passion for Jesus Christ in our hearts that reshapes our lives, Christianity is just a word game and a legend. Relationships have consequences. A married man will commit himself to certain actions and behaviours, no matter what the cost, out of the love he bears for his wife.

Political order

Our relationship with God is the same. We need to live and prove our love by our actions, not just in our personal and family lives, but also in the public square. Therefore Christians individually and the Church as a believing community engage the political order as an obligation of the Word of God.

Human law teaches and forms as well as regulates; and human politics is the exercise of power - which means both have moral implications that the Christian cannot ignore and still remain faithful to his vocation as a light to the world (Mt 5:14-16).

Robert Dodaro, the Augustinian priest and scholar, wrote a wonderful book a few years ago called Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine. In his book and elsewhere, Dodaro makes four key points about Augustine's view of Christianity and politics.

First, Augustine never really offers a political theory, and there's a reason. He doesn't believe human beings can know or create perfect justice in this world. Our judgment is always flawed by our sinfulness. Therefore, the right starting point for any Christian politics is humility, modesty and a very sober realism.

Second, no political order, no matter how seemingly good, can ever constitute a just society. Errors in moral judgment can't be avoided. These errors also grow exponentially in their complexity as they move from lower to higher levels of society and governance. Therefore the Christian needs to be loyal to the nation and obedient to its legitimate rulers. But he also needs to cultivate a critical vigilance about both.

Third, despite these concerns, Christians still have a duty to take part in public life according to their God-given abilities, even when their faith brings them into conflict with public authority. We can't simply ignore or withdraw from civic affairs.

The reason is simple. The classic civic virtues named by Cicero - prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance - can be renewed and elevated, to the benefit of all citizens, by the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. Therefore, political engagement is a worthy Christian task, and public office is an honourable Christian vocation.

Fourth, in governing as best they can, while conforming their lives and their judgment to the content of the Gospel, Christian leaders in public life can accomplish real good, and they can make a difference. Their success will always be limited and mixed. It will never be ideal. But with the help of God they can improve the moral quality of society, which makes the effort invaluable.

What Augustine believes about Christian leaders, we can reasonably extend to the vocation of all Christian citizens. The skills of the Christian citizen are finally very simple: a zeal for Jesus Christ and his Church; a conscience formed in humility and rooted in Scripture and the believing community; the prudence to see which issues in public life are vital and foundational to human dignity, and which ones are not; and the courage to work for what's right.

What then are the realities we face today, the urgent issues that demand our attention as believers. One could cite abortion; immigration; our obligations to the poor, the elderly and the disabled; questions of war and peace; our national confusion about sexual identity and human nature, and the attacks on marriage and family life that flow from this confusion; the growing disconnection of our science and technology from real moral reflection; the erosion of freedom of conscience in our national health-care debates; the content and quality of the schools that form our children.

The list is long. I believe abortion is the foundational human rights issue of our lifetime. We need to do everything we can to support women in their pregnancies and to end the legal killing of unborn children. We may want to remember that the Romans had a visceral hatred for Carthage not because Carthage was a commercial rival, or because its people had a different language and customs.

The Romans hated Carthage above all because its people sacrificed their infants to Ba'al. For the Romans, who themselves were a hard people, that was a unique kind of wickedness and barbarism. As a nation, we might profitably ask ourselves whom and what we've really been worshipping in our 40 million 'legal' abortions since 1973.

Living the Gospel

All of these issues that I've listed above divide our country and our Churches in a way Augustine would have found quite understandable. The City of God and the City of Man overlap in this world. Only God knows who finally belongs to which. But in the meantime, in seeking to live the Gospel we claim to believe, we find friends and brothers in unforeseen places, unlikely places; and when that happens, even a foreign place can seem like one's home.

The vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific label. John 14:6 - 'I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me' - which is so key to the identity of Houston Baptist University, burns just as hot in this heart, and the heart of every Catholic who truly understands his faith.

We live in a country that was once - despite its sins and flaws - deeply shaped by Christian faith. It can be so again. But we will do that together, or we won't do it at all. We need to remember the words of St Hilary from so long ago: Unum sunt, qui invicem sunt, they are one, who are wholly for each other.

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