Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
Column, October 18, 2000
Exactly 40 years ago this fall, candidate John Kennedy promised a group of
Protestant ministers that he wouldn’t let his Catholic faith interfere with his
service as president, if he got elected. And he was elected . . . and he kept
Looking back, this was one of the watersheds of public life in our country.
Without ever intending it, Kennedy created a model of accommodation which then
helped to shape a whole generation of Catholic officeholders . . . all of whom
found a way to live comfortably with the canyon that opened up between their
private religious convictions and their public service. Of course the cost is
high. Pragmatism in public life usually has a louder voice than conscience --
and private conscience can very easily can become not much more than private
Four decades after John Kennedy, too many American Catholics no longer
connect their political choices with their religious faith in any consistent
way. The "Catholic vote," as a meaningful bloc, probably doesn’t exist anymore.
And a prolife Democrat like the late Governor Bob Casey – who was Irish and
Catholic, just like John Kennedy – finds himself barred from speaking at his own
party’s convention in 1992, and ignored by his party’s leadership until his
That’s the legacy of accommodating our Catholic faith to politics, instead of
forming and informing our politics through our faith. Forty years later --
despite the excitement and pride so many of us felt after John Kennedy’s
election -- it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a person who is publicly
loyal to the Catholic faith on "sanctity-of-life" issues to hold any major
national leadership position in John Kennedy’s own party.
My point is not that one political party is "bad," and another is "good."
From a Catholic point of view, both major parties have strengths and weaknesses.
My point is that St. Paul’s words, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel,"
apply to all of us, every single day, in all our choices. St. Paul wasn’t afraid
of an angry God who would punish him for not preaching Jesus Christ. That’s not
the kind of "woe" he was worried about. Paul was afraid of losing the
treasure he had. Paul understood that if we don’t act on our faith and
share it, we lose it. We have to give it to others to nourish it in our own
hearts. The joy of Jesus Christ is in living Him and sharing Him.
That’s why the Christian faith is always personal but never
private. It always has social consequences – and that means cultural and
political consequences. Democracy thrives on those consequences. God is good
for democracy. Catholic faith creates and sustains good citizenship. So whenever
you hear that tired old argument that Catholics shouldn’t "impose their views"
on society, it’s time to hit the bamboozle alarm -- because that argument is
almost always advanced by people who have every intention of imposing their
own views on society.
Of course, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. In a sense, all laws and all
public policies involve the "imposition" of one set of moral convictions on the
culture at large. The purpose of the democratic process is to winnow out the
good ideas from the bad ones; in other words, to allow -- in fact, to encourage
-- people of strong moral convictions to disagree with one another vigorously .
. . and to pursue their convictions into law by every peaceful, ethical means at
Therefore, when Catholic candidates and officials use "pluralism" as an
excuse for their inaction on abortion, for example, they misread what real
pluralism is. In fact, that sort of Catholic self-censorship, especially
in public leaders but in individual voters as well, undermines real democracy
and very easily becomes a kind of opportunism or even cowardice.
All of us who are baptized are meant to be missionaries -- in ways
appropriate to our vocations, but with no exceptions. Vatican II reminded us
that the Church "is the universal sacrament of salvation;" that we each share
"the obligation of spreading the faith;" and that "the whole Church is
missionary and the work of evangelization [is] the fundamental task of the
people of God."
We either preach Jesus Christ in our words and actions, or we lose Him.
Throughout the weeks ahead, all of us need to remember that we’re living in a
Jubilee Year – a time to re-anchor our hearts in God and to renew our vocation
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II reminds us that all
Christians are involved in "a struggle for the soul of the contemporary world."
In every compartment of our lives -- from our families, to our jobs, and even to
the solitude of the voting booth -- God asks us to be His witnesses, His
Let’s remember that as we consider our political choices.
The archbishop will continue his reflections on the Catholic faith,
responsible citizenship and Election 2000 next week. He will also lead a
public discussion of "voting Catholic in the Jubilee Year" on Monday
evening, October 23, at 7:15 p.m. in Bonfils Hall at the John Paul II
Center. Admission is free. All are welcome. Refreshments will be served.