How to tell a duck from a fox
with the Church as we look toward November
Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
Denver Catholic Register
April 14, 2004
"If it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's
probably a duck. A fox can claim to be a duck all day long. But he's still a
We've all heard that saying, or some version of it, a thousand times. The
reason is simple: It's true. Our actions prove who we are. If a gulf exists
between what we say, how we look and what we do, we're not living in a spirit of
truth. A fox, even if he quacks, is still a fox. Sooner or later, it becomes
I remembered this last week as I read yet another news report about
candidates who claim to be Catholic and then prominently ignore their own faith
on matters of public policy. We've come a long way from John F. Kennedy, who
merely locked his faith in the closet. Now we have Catholic senators who take
pride in arguing for legislation that threatens and destroys life — and who then
also take Communion.
The kindest explanation for this sort of behavior is that a lot of Catholic
candidates don't know their own faith. And that's why, in a spirit of charity,
the Holy See offered its guidance and encouragement in a little document last
year On Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life.
Nothing in this Roman document is new. But it offers a vision of public
service filled with common sense.
First, quoting John Paul II, it reminds us that, "man cannot be separated
from God, nor politics from morality." In other words, unless our personal faith
shapes our public choices and actions, it's just a pious delusion. Private
faith, if it's genuine, always becomes public witness — including political
Second, while Christians "must recognize the legitimacy of differing points
of view about the organization of worldly affairs," they are also "called to
reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects
moral relativism." Appeals to a phony definition of pluralism and tolerance can
never excuse inaction in the face of grave evil — including attacks on the
sanctity of life. Catholics can only ensure real pluralism by "living and acting
in conformity" with their religious convictions so that, "through political
life, society will become more just and more consistent with the dignity of the
Third, "(democracy) only succeeds to the extent that it is based on a correct
understanding of the human person." Catholic lawmakers who do not vigorously
seek to protect human dignity and the sanctity of human life from conception to
natural death are not serving democracy. They are betraying it.
Fourth, "those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a `grave
and clear obligation to oppose' any law that attacks human life. For them, as
for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them."
Politics is the exercise of power. Power always has moral implications. And God
will hold each of us accountable — from the average voter to senators and
presidents — for how well we have used our political power to serve the common
good and the human person.
"Pro-choice" candidates who claim to be Catholic bring all of us to a
crossroads in this election year. Many Catholics, including some Church leaders,
argue that "(we) should not limit (our) concern to one issue, no matter how
fundamental that issue is." That's true — but it can also be misleading.
Catholics have a duty to work tirelessly for human dignity at every stage of
life, and to demand the same of their lawmakers. But some issues are jugular.
Some issues take priority. Abortion, immigration law, international trade
policy, the death penalty and housing for the poor are all vitally important
issues. But no amount of calculating can make them equal in gravity.
The right to life comes first. It precedes and undergirds every other social
issue or group of issues. This is why Blessed John XXIII listed it as the first
human right in his great encyclical on world peace, Pacem in Terris. And
as the U.S. bishops stressed in their 1998 pastoral letter Living the Gospel of
Life, the right to life is the foundation of every other right.
The humorist James Thurber once wrote that "you can fool too many of the
people too much of the time." Our job as Catholics this election year — if we're
serious about our faith — is to not get fooled.
Candidates who claim to be "Catholic" but who publicly ignore Catholic
teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public
witness. They may try to look Catholic and sound Catholic, but unless they act
Catholic in their public service and political choices, they're really a very
different kind of creature.
And real Catholics should vote accordingly.