Written by Keith Strohm
Much is made, particularly during election years, of the role of Faith in public discourse. Many secularists say that Faith has no place in the public square, that it should not influence public policy, governance, and other social and cultural issues. As if a man can simply separate his deepest held beliefs from his actions, decisions, and policies. I have always found such an expectation (the divorce of faith from the public square) to be fairly hypocritical--as it doesn't place a similar burden on the beliefs of secularists.
The argument, then, isn't simply that beliefs should be separated from public discourse, just certain kinds of beliefs--specifically religious ones. Yet, the responsibility of a Christian in the public sphere is quite burdensome. We are called, by Scripture and the living Tradition of the Church to labor to transform human structures and cultures and restore to creation all of its original dignity. How we, as laypeople, execute on that responsibility while living within a pluralistic society is definitely a challenge. The present circumstances of our divided culture, and the hooplah surroundinging our last Presidential Election has "forced" the Church to examine the role of lay men and women in society and reflect more deeply on how faith and politics should rightly intermix.
One of those reflections comes from Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix. Entitled, "Catholics in the Public Square," it provides some solid foundations for men and women who strive to live out their faith in the context of citizenship within the United States of America. Some of the sections might come as a surprise to folks who are critical of fundamentalist Christians interfering in politics. I've highlighted a snippet below, but I do encourage you to read the whole reflection:
Is it mandatory for Catholics to follow what the Pope or bishops say on political issues?
Because they are the leaders of the Church, it is always important to respect statements from the Church's hierarchy. It is the role of the Pope and the bishops to teach clearly on matters of faith and morals, including those touching on political issues.
There are some matters, however, on which Catholics may disagree with the Church's hierarchy. In some cases, for example, a Catholic may agree with the teaching of the Church, but come to a different prudential judgment about its application.
Examples of these issues might include an instance where someone agrees with the Church's teaching on “just war” or “capital punishment,” but reaches a different conclusion as to whether the facts of the situation constitute a “just war” or the “rare” circumstances where capital punishment may be used under Church teaching.
It should be emphasized, however, that despite these examples, there are other issues, such as abortion or euthanasia, that are always wrong and do not allow for the correct use of prudential judgment to justify them. It would never be proper for Catholics to be on the opposite side of these issues.
Are all political and social issues equal when it comes to choosing a political candidate?
Absolutely not! The Catholic Church is actively engaged in a wide variety of important public policy issues including immigration, education, affordable housing, health and welfare, to name just a few. On each of these issues we should do our best to be informed and to support those proposed solutions that seem most likely to be effective. However, when it comes to direct attacks on innocent human life, being right on all the other issues can never justify a wrong choice on this most serious matter.
As Pope John Paul II has written, " Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights - for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture - is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with the maximum determination ." (Christifideles Laici , 38)
The Christian stands as a Citizen of two Kingdoms and is called to exercise that citizenship in its fullest sense. While some in the secular arena see it as a threat, the Christian labors to make the earthly kingdom reflect the Heavenly one. Not out of a Machiavellian desire to create a Theocracy, but rather out of a dogmatic belief (in the best sense of the words) that what God desires for humanity is their deepest and most truest Good. As good citizens, then, we should work alongside men and women of goodwill, regardless of denomination, religion, or philosophical system, to labor for the good of the human race as a whole.